Uni Watch on the Confederate flag

Originally Published: August 11, 2011
By Paul Lukas | Page 2

As America marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War this year, the Confederate battle flag continues to be a highly charged symbol. That was reaffirmed two weeks ago, when the flag was in the news yet again.

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But whether you consider the Confederate flag to be a racist affront, a symbol of cultural pride or just something to wave at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert, there's one place you probably haven't seen it before: on a baseball uniform.

That's Loren Babe, manager of the Columbus (Ga.) Yankees, a Double-A Yankees affiliate that played from 1964 to 1966. They were often referred to as the Columbus Confederate Yankees, or just the Confederate Yankees, and it's easy enough to see why.

The rebel flag on Babe's sleeve is a potent symbol, but it's nothing compared with the seismic jolt delivered by the sight of the flag being worn by a black ballplayer. That's Roy White, who was one of the Columbus Yankees' few black players in 1964 and '65. He and Babe weren't the only ones to wear the Confederate flag -- the whole team wore it.

I had never seen these photos until recently. They led me to start investigating other uses of the Confederate flag on minor league uniforms. I found only one other example: the 1953 Birmingham Barons (who apparently wore it to reaffirm the team's segregationist policy). But there's a big difference between 1953, when "separate but equal" was still the law of the land, and the mid-1960s, when the Columbus Yankees wore the flag. During the three years when the Yankees wore that patch, the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed, Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the "Mississippi Burning" murders took place, Malcolm X was assassinated, the "Bloody Sunday" march from Selma to Montgomery took place, the Watts race riots erupted, and more.

Viewed against that backdrop, it's hard not to see the Columbus Yankees' flag patch as a very deliberate statement of resistance to the social and cultural changes that were roiling the nation at that time. It registers as a blatant "Hell, no!" to the notion of an integrated America, as plain and obvious as George Wallace defiantly standing in the schoolhouse door.

Or at least that's what I initially thought. The truth, as is so often the case, is a bit more complicated.

Roy White has good reason to remember 1965. He was called up to the Bronx that September, his first cup of coffee in the majors. Over the next 14 seasons, he put together a solid if unspectacular big league career, all of it spent with the Yankees.

White is now 67 years old and runs a charitable foundation. As I prepared to call him, I imagined what it must have been like for a black man to be forced to wear the Confederate flag in the mid-1960s. I figured the episode would be seared into his memory. But when I asked him about it, he had no recollection of having worn the sleeve patch.

"Really?" he said. "Truthfully, I don't remember that. I was just a kid out of high school. At that age, you know, you're just happy to have a uniform."

White wasn't near a computer when we had that first conversation, so I emailed him some Columbus Yankees photographs, including the one of himself, and asked him to call me back once he'd taken a look at them.

"I've never seen those photos before," he told me a few hours later. "Now that I see it, I'm thinking, 'Geez, that's kinda messed up.' And the thing is, there was no recourse. What was I going to do, refuse to play? You weren't going to have players protesting or anything like that in those days. But at that age and that time, frankly, I don't think I placed a lot of significance on it."

As we talked, it became apparent that White had been confronted with a lot more than a potentially offensive sleeve patch during his days in the minors. "When I was in Greensboro, I faced some discrimination. Couldn't go in a restaurant, that kind of thing. It was a pretty low feeling. And you would hear stuff from the stands. 'We're gonna hang you after the game,' or 'You better not get a hit,' that type of thing. Not in every city, but some of them, like Macon, Ga. I had grown up in California, and I'd never experienced anything like that."

In other words, White probably didn't have time to worry about a symbol of racism on his jersey sleeve. He was busy dealing with actual racism.

Check. But what about his teammates? Did they have any memories of the patch? I tracked down several Columbus Yankees players. Here's what they had to say:

Stan Bahnsen (1968 American League Rookie of the Year, 16-year major leaguer, 146-149 lifetime record): "I was only with that club for five weeks, but I don't remember the rebel patch on the sleeve. Looking back now, I'm surprised it was there, but I'm from Iowa -- racial problems weren't prevalent there or even discussed in my family, so being black or white wasn't even on my radar at that age. The rebel flag to me probably meant more about people taking pride in being from the South. I didn't see it as a symbol of racism."

Fritz Peterson (1970 All-Star, 11-year major leaguer, 133-131 lifetime record): "I have no recollection of that patch on our uniform. I was a young player trying to make it to the big league club, as were all the other guys on the team, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, or color. … Although there was a lot of controversy happening in our country at that time, I was very focused on playing my best and less focused on the changing of the world around me."

Mike Hegan (1969 All-Star, 12-year major leaguer, current radio broadcaster for the Indians): "To tell you the truth, I don't remember that. And we were in the middle of all the turmoil that was happening in the South -- we played in Birmingham, Knoxville, Macon, all those places. I remember that. But in terms of the flag, it just doesn't register. I'll say this: I wouldn't wear it today. But back then? It just didn't stand out as an issue."

Dick Beradino (longtime minor league manager and coach, Red Sox coach from 1989 to '91, current Red Sox minor league player development consultant): "Honestly, I don't remember that. Roy White was one of my best friends on that team. Did it bother him? If it did, I'm sure I would have said something. But I guess it didn't really occur to me that there was anything wrong with it."

There are two primary takeaways from all this. First, 19-year-old ballplayers don't make for the most politically aware citizens (shocker). And second, maybe the Confederate flag wasn't such a hot-button issue in the 1960s.

That was confirmed by J.T. Johnson of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who was a field organizer for Martin Luther King during the 1960s. "There was too much work to be done in the '60s to be worried about a flag," he told me. "Things like that never crossed our mind. The flag issue came much later."

But even if the flag wasn't a top priority for the civil rights pioneers in the 1960s, its power was certainly evident to segregationists at that time. Georgia had gone out of its way to incorporate the Confederate symbol into its own state flag in 1956, largely as a response to Brown v. Board of Education. The young players on the Columbus Yankees might not have known about that, but most of the people who came to see them play surely did.

A sleeve patch doesn't just magically appear on a jersey. Someone has to decide to put it there. In the case of the Columbus Yankees, that someone was likely either the team president and co-owner, Dick Steele, or the general manager, Charlie Senger. "Probably a pair of good ol' boys who were looking to keep the blacks in their place," you might be thinking. I confess that's what I was thinking myself as I set out to find them.

Dick Steele died in 2002. But his son Ricky, who now works in corporate development in Atlanta, remembers the Columbus Yankees well, and with good reason: He was the bat boy.

"A Confederate flag on the uniform?" He sounded incredulous at the very notion of it. "I don't remember that, and I have a hard time believing it. I was not brought up in a household like that. We did not have a Confederate flag flying at our house, or as a bumper sticker on our car. Heck, my father had a great deal to do with desegregation."

Steele then began ticking off some facts about his father: He owned a hotel in Columbus where blacks were always welcome; he insisted that his baseball team stay at integrated hotels on the road, instead of using separate accommodations for white and black players; he was derided in certain Columbus circles as being too sympathetic to blacks. Most of this seems to be confirmed in Dick Steele's obituary. (For the record, Roy White said he remembers staying in separate hotels during his Columbus Yankees days, although he had no specific recollections of Dick Steele.)

Then I forwarded Ricky Steele the Columbus Yankees photos, including the team portrait showing him as a bat boy, posing among all the flag-clad players. "I'll be darned," he said. "I would've bet you any amount of money that this wasn't true. I would never have believed it if you hadn't shown it to me. I guess it didn't mean anything to me at the time. I must have been the most na´ve 13-year-old in Columbus, if not the entire state of Georgia. But you know, we were all very different in those days. A lot of us weren't as smart -- or at least as educated -- as we became later."

I asked him if the photos made him rethink anything about his father. "I'd like to say I'm disappointed," he said. "Who else would have approved the uniforms, if not my dad? It just doesn't compute with me, knowing what I know about him."

That leaves us with Charlie Senger, who was the Columbus Yankees' GM. Senger is now 79 and retired in Florida. Turns out he doesn't fit the profile of a classic Southern stereotype any more than Dick Steele did: Senger was born in Brooklyn, raised in New Jersey and went to boarding school on Long Island.

Like everyone else I contacted regarding this story, Senger had no memory of the Confederate flag being part of the Columbus Yankees' uniform -- not even when I showed him a 1964 photo of himself proudly displaying the sleeve patch.

"I don't remember it, but I'm not surprised by it either," he said. "I've lived in the South now for a long time, and I've seen Confederate flags in a lot of places. It doesn't seem so unusual. It was just part of life."

Even if you accept that the Columbus Yankees' sleeve patch was neither intended nor received as a segregationist statement, one thing still doesn't add up: No other Southern teams wore the Confederate flag in the mid-1960s, so why did the Columbus team wear it?

A hint might be found in that 1964 photo of Charlie Senger. Look at the caption -- it implies that the sleeve patch was intended to "offset" the team's name. Obviously, a team called the Yankees would not have been warmly received in the South. So maybe the flag was simply management's way of saying, "Don't worry -- we're Yankees, but we're not those Yankees."

But if that was the case, why didn't they just go with a different team name to begin with? That question was recently addressed on SABR-L -- the Society for American Baseball Research listserv -- by historian Joseph Hylton:

"When the team moved to Columbus [from Augusta, where it had been before 1964], it had no choice but keep the name Yankees. In the Yankees farm system, only AAA Richmond was permitted to use its own distinctive nickname (the Richmond Virginians). All of the other teams, no matter where they were located, were called the Yankees. … Concern about the appeal of a team called the Yankees in south-central Georgia during the high point of the Civil War centennial and the African-American civil rights movement may well have motivated the decision to add the [Confederate battle flag] to the Yankees' uniforms. If the name Yankees had adversely affected the appeal of the team when it played in Augusta [where attendance had been poor], perhaps the explicit use of Confederate iconography might provide a counterbalance."

I ran this theory past Charlie Senger and Ricky Steele, both of whom agreed that it sounds plausible, although neither could remember any specifics. At present, it's the best explanation for the patch that I've heard.

Some of you may be thinking that the people quoted in this story are all suffering from a very convenient case of selective amnesia when it comes to their memories of the sleeve patch. Others may think they're flat-out lying about it.

But I don't think so. Having looked into this topic for a while now, I think the subject of race in America -- including the often messy intersection of race and baseball -- is almost always more complicated than it appears on the surface, and it makes a habit of upending our assumptions. I also think race in America is an organic, evolving thing, and that our impressions of its past are almost always distorted by how we experience it in the present -- and our hopes for it in the future.

In this case, I think it's actually a measure of how far we've come that we can look at a photo of Roy White wearing the Confederate flag and think, "Wow, there is so much wrong with that picture," even if he didn't think so himself at the time. I think it's a sign of progress that we now have the luxury, if you want to call it that, of decrying the symbols of discrimination, instead of having to deal with the actual discrimination that White faced during his time in the minors.

Of course, there is still discrimination in America, even if it doesn't take the form of segregated hotels and death threats from the grandstand. And that's why things like the Columbus Yankees photos are so important: They remind us of how far we've traveled -- and how far we still have to go.

Paul Lukas gives special thanks to Trevor Williams for his research assistance. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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