A first, jarring glimpse of the nature of racism …

Altman85.jpg

   Ronnie Joyner, the wonderful artist who supplies pen-and-ink drawings of legendary ballplayers every week for us in the pages of SCD, turned in a drawing of George Altman (shown here – it ran in the Feb. 20 issue of SCD), a National League slugger in the late 1950s and early 1960s that I remember from when I was a kid.

   Now, George Altman was a pretty fair country ballplayer in those days, and one of the stars of the Cubs when he was an All-Star in 1961 and 1962, back when the Cubs were merely inept and not quite as beloved as they are now.

   Anyway, I was at some kind of a family function and I am going to say it was at the time of the first All-Star Game in 1961 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, since that was where Altman socked a home run. The men and the older boys, of which I was one, were gathered around the TV for the game. In truth, I am not sure it was that game; for purposes of this recollection, it hardly matters whether it was 1961 or 1962 or even which game it was (that was when MLB was stretching credulity with two per season).

   Altman stepped up to the plate, and one of the older men in the large group huddled around the black-and-white TV said matter of factly something to the effect of: “That’s the blackest nigger I’ve ever seen.”

   I was kind of startled, since my parents had pretty effectively instilled in me a sense of just how reprehensible such a remark was, but it was a moment of prepubescent cognitive dissonance, since there was no discernible reaction from any of the adults that he had said something wrong.

   Who the man was isn’t important; he wasn’t a family member, and he’s long since gone, but he was a highly respected and admired member of that group and in his community. It would be many, many years before I understood the significance of what I had heard, which was essentially that the evils of racism extend far beyond the obvious instances of numbskulls wearing bedsheets and prattling about vicious nonsense.

   Indeed, I suspect many blacks might tell us that one of the things that makes racism so insidious is that it held so many otherwise fine human beings within its tawdry embrace.

   As the election of 2008 illustrated, that embrace is growing weaker every day, but it’s a pretty good bet that it’s still there. The encouraging news is that such a remark would be so much rarer today than it was 50 years ago.

   It’s just too bad that that’s the way I remember George Altman. Or maybe not.

P.S. – In case anyone is inclined to scold me, I used the actual offensive term quite intentionally, rather than the widely utilized euphemism “N-word,” which I regard as a pretty silly alternative. While I understand the revulsion that the actual word arouses, I won’t typically join in the widespread usage of the toothless “N-word.” That man back in 1961 didn’t say “N-word,” he said something far more disturbing and hurtful than that and I am not disposed to infantilize the historical record.

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