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Tying it all together

Leon’s son Charles was the first of two Culbersons drafted by the Giants.  An outfielder, he played in the minor leagues for five years, three in the Giants organization and two in Royals organization.  But he didn’t make it past Class AA and his last season was in 1988.  Two important things happened in the Culberson family in 1989.  Charles’ son, Charlie, was born on April 10.  Leon only had a short time to enjoy his grandson.  He died on September 17 at age 71.

Some might have found this to be an interesting story: the grandson of a major league player associated with a Series losing moment, getting some family redemption by hitting a pennant-clinching walk-off home run.  But what does this have to do with Vin Scully other than its connection with Vin’s last game broadcast at Dodger Stadium?

Vin Scully delivers the 2000 Fordham University commencement address

From a personal perspective, it might be said that Leon’s career ended in the Bronx about a year before Vin’s academic career ended in the same borough.  By the following year, Vin’s professional sports broadcasting career would start in the city and stadium where Leon spent most of his major league career patrolling the outfield.  And less than two years after Leon’s last major league game, while he was still playing in the minor leagues, Vin began his 67 year career as broadcaster for the Dodgers.

But from a historical perspective, there is so much more.  Simply from a baseball point of view, 1946 represented a changing of the guard in baseball.  It was the year that many players came back from World War II.  Some were able to pick up where they left off.  Some were better players than when they left.  But some found that in the years they were away, even if they were playing baseball frequently while in the military (and most were), their skills eroded during that time.  And of course there were a few who didn’t come back at all or who came back too severely injured to play the game again.

Meanwhile, there were young players waiting in the wings who had gotten an early taste of the major leagues, even as diluted as they had become during the war.  So there was a sifting process.  Some made it even with the stiffer competition and others did not.  And there were also players coming back from the war who had either not yet made the majors or barely had a taste of it before they were drafted or they enlisted.  Many of them played against established major league players and acquitted themselves well.  They were looking for their big chance.  So there was a sifting process.  There were still only 16 teams and only about 400 spots on the roster (plus a few extra on the injured list).  Some would make it and many would soon be disappointed.

Branch Rickey

And to add to the apparent oversupply, Branch Rickey and then Bill Veeck were bringing in even more players from a previously untapped source: the Negro Leagues.  Over the next 10-15 years, that would change the face of baseball and the face of America.

While the major leagues were not integrated in 1946, a few of the minor leagues had become integrated.  All the black players were on Dodger farm teams. There are few people who don’t know that Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Dodgers late in 1945 and starred for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers AAA team in the International League, in 1946. What is less known is that Rickey signed pitcher Roy Partlow to come along side Jackie. When Partlow didn’t pitch well, he signed pitcher John Wright.  While both were experienced Negro League pitchers, neither of them could handle the pressure and didn’t last the season. At the end of the year, Robinson was the only black player on the Montreal roster.

Rickey had also signed Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe to play in the Dodger organization.  Campy was ready for the majors and certainly would have starred with Montreal.  Newk was still rough around the edges and needed a little more time to develop.  Rickey wanted to integrate the Brooklyn Dodgers gradually, but he didn’t intend to start these two future stars at such a low level.  However, the highest level team in the Dodger organization that would take them was the brand-new Nashua team in the Class B New England League.  Ironically, blacks would play home games in 1946 for a team about 50 miles away from Boston, the home of the foot-dragging Red Sox owned by Tom Yawkey.

In addition, consider the fact that in 1946, the Cardinals had won their fourth pennant and third World Championship since Pearl Harbor was attacked.  They had to survive a best-of-three playoff with the Dodgers to win the NL pennant and the World Series.  For the first time in the modern era, two teams were tied at the end of the regular season.  They were two teams whose rosters in part were the result of Branch Rickey’s leadership.  And before the war started, they looked like they were on the verge of a lasting rivalry.  In 1941, the Dodgers were in first and the Cardinals second.  In 1942 when only a few players had gone into the military, the order reversed with both teams winning over 100 games.  Now it looked like the rivalry was resuming.  Instead, 1946 signaled the beginning of a change in the balance of power in the National League.  And it signaled the beginning of the end of a regrettable practice in major league baseball.

Through 1949, the Cardinals were contenders.  But other than Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial, their team had gotten old.  And they were not yet signing black players like the Dodgers were (and getting a head start over the rest of baseball in doing so).  From 1947 to 1963, the Dodgers finished first eight times and won three World Championships; they also finished tied for first twice and lost playoffs; they finished second three other times, one of which they were not eliminated until the final day of the season; they only had a losing record twice.  The Cardinals came up empty for that entire 17 year stretch.  Then for the next five years until divisional play started, the Cardinals won three pennants and two World Series, and the Dodgers won two pennants and one World Series.  By then we had already reached the expansion era and the free agent draft era.

Black players were also bringing a more aggressive game with them with more emphasis on speed.  Since the National League overall integrated faster, their game became more associated with stolen bases, taking the extra base and breaking up double plays.  And starting in 1950 and lasting for decades, the National League replaced the American League as the dominant team in the All-Star Game.

Roy Campanella

While Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and a couple more black players were on Dodger farm clubs in 1946, there was no iron-clad guarantee that they would make the major league roster in 1947 or any other year.  So many things could still go wrong, from poor performance to a violent outburst.

But as it turned out, the seventh game of the 1946 World Series was the last game played in segregated major leagues.  And only one more World Series (1950) was played without at least one black player included.  By the end of the 1950’s, every team was integrated, although a few like the Yankees, Phillies, Tigers and Red Sox dragged their feet getting there.  That’s the same Red Sox who were the Cardinals opponents in the 1946 Series.  They would be the last team to integrate their major league roster.

It is a matter of debate regarding how far some of the Cardinals (and a few players on other teams) were willing to go to strike in protest of Jackie Robinson being brought to the major by the Dodgers.  We do know that there were players on the Cardinals talking about it seriously.  After all, even a group of Dodgers were circulating a petition to keep Robinson off the team until Leo Durocher put an end to it.  We know that Slaughter, the person who scored the winning run of the 1946 World Series, was one of the ringleaders of the strike talk that came to light when the Cardinals arrived in Brooklyn for a three game series on May 6. And we know that at some point during the season, Slaughter spiked Robinson on the thigh when he hit a ground ball and was thrown out by a good margin.  We also know that Harry Walker who had the Series winning hit that drove in Slaughter, as well as his brother “Dixie” on the Dodgers were among the most vocal objectors to blacks in the major leagues.

White players had opportunities to play against black players from time to time in exhibition games, during barnstorming tours and in winter ball in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico.  In a few cases, they competed against each other on military teams.  So they knew how good the best black players were.  And yet many of them, such as Bob Feller, fed comments to the press that it was lack of ability that kept blacks out of the major league, not prejudice.  Feller also said that Robinson would not hit well in the majors and that he would have no problem getting out Jackie.  Bigoted baseball writers like Joe Williams seized upon these comments to decry blacks’ entry into the majors.

Jackie Robinson and Bob Feller being feted after the end of their playing days.

In delicious irony, Feller and Robinson would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame together.  Jackie would be the National League Rookie of the Year in 1947 with a .297 batting average.  In 1949, he was the National League Most Valuable Player and batting champion while finishing second in runs batted in.  He also led the league in stolen bases those two seasons.  1949 was the first of six straight seasons of hitting over .300 and he hit .311 for his career.  Although he never hit more than 19 home runs in a season, he was such a great clutch hitter that in his prime, he was usually the Dodgers cleanup hitter.

Although Jackie Robinson died at the relatively young age of 53 in 1972, his wife, Rachel, has been one of the heritage faces of the Dodgers organization ever since then, along with Vin Scully.  The close relationship between Scully and the Robinsons goes back to Scully’s earliest days with the Dodgers, including the challenge Jackie posed to Vin to race on ice skates when the three of them were sent to Bear Mountain to do a promotion on behalf of the Dodgers. Jackie had never skated before, and the race never happened, but Jackie was serious.

Rachel Robinson

Rachel, a strong positive partner for Jackie throughout his career, going back to his season in Montreal, eventually became one of the best ambassadors of baseball as well as a respected part of the conscience for the game.  Their daughter and granddaughter are picking up the mantle.  They have been and continue to be reminders of a grievous part of the history of baseball and the United States in general, the sacrifice it took for a handful of courageous people to begin to overcome bigoted attitudes, the heritage of those playing now who would have been barred at one time, and the progress (and in some cases the lack thereof) that has been made since then.

For his part, Scully’s storytelling, including stories about Jackie Robinson, has made a major contribution to the oral history of baseball.  In addition, his skill in describing the action to the fans and newly initiated, his ability to convey the mood of the game with vocal inflection and keep things interesting without rooting or losing control of his emotions, maintaining his objectivity without attacking any of the participants involved: all these things have helped develop multiple generations of baseball fans in North America and beyond.  And he has been a positive influence and role model for many other broadcasters during his career, including his Spanish-speaking counterpart on the Dodger broadcasts, Jaime Jarrin.  With his voice preserved in countless ways on the Internet, I hope he will be an inspiration to many future broadcasters as well.

Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler

The baseball world of Leon Culberson and the seventh game of the 1946 World Series was, with a few minor league exceptions, a white-only world.  When the baseball owners voted after the end of that season, they voted 15-1 against Jackie Robinson being allowed to play in the major leagues.  It took the moral persistence of Branch Rickey (the only yes vote), the ability of Jackie Robinson to play at a superior level with grace under pressure, and the courage of Major League Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler to defy that vote and integrate the major leagues for the first time since the 1880’s.

The baseball world of Charlie Culberson and Vin Scully in the final year of his career has made tremendous strides of inclusiveness based on talent.  Major league baseball has fielded players from every inhabited continent, including many star players from Latin America and the Orient.  There are currently 63 black players and managers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, 30 of whom had careers primarily in the former Negro Leagues.  There are currently 12 Latin American players in the Hall of Fame, many of them black (and therefore on more than one list).

Billy Bean

Although no major league player has come out as gay to the public during his career, two have come out after their careers.  Billy Bean was one of them.  Since 2014, he has served as MLB’s first Ambassador for Inclusion.

The racism of Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals and the Red Sox organization (and many others) eventually lost.  The walk off home run by Leon Culberson’s grandson Charlie that clinched the Dodgers 2016 pennant in the last home game announced by Scully connected the two ends of Vin’s career.  Hopefully it presages an even better future where people of every color, every nationality, every religion, every gender and every walk of life can feel welcome to participate in the glorious game of baseball without harassment, whether as player, administrator, owner, reporter or fan.

It seems to me that Vin, who developed a rooting interest in baseball for the underdog, is pleased to have seen and broadcast the growth in diversity in baseball over the past 67 years.  And if the most popular personality in Los Angeles Dodgers history is someone whose first rooting interest was the New York Giants (and still admits a soft spot in his heart for the Giants) can anyone doubt that miracles still happen?

The Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate their 2017 NLCS victory. Shortstop Charlie Culberson (#37), who went 3 for 5 in the game and batted .455 in the series in place of injured Corey Seager, joins the celebration on the left.

At a time when the reputation of so many celebrities, especially male celebrities, is crumbling before our very eyes, I still feel comfortable honoring Vin Scully.  I would love to meet Vin and Sandi Scully.  My mind floods with questions I could ask them, especially Vin.

Vin was correct that baseball continued without him for the most part in 2017, although there were still a few honors to send in his direction.  But he is wrong that he will soon be an afterthought in the minds of baseball fans, not only in Los Angeles but wherever talent and class are appreciated.

Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary. – Acts 28:10

God bless,