The Republicans could’ve saved their aberrant convention speeches for another week, or another decade, and still wouldn’t have matched the pained eloquence of Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers basketball coach.
“It’s amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back,” he said.
The son of a policeman, Rivers meant all African-Americans when he said, “We.” He said it after a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, named Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a white policeman while Blake’s three young children looked on.
This is a fact revealed for everyone to see — except, apparently, the Republicans, who failed to even mention such unpleasantness at their national convention last week.
So now we have athletes flexing their muscles to mark the moment. Pro basketball stopped in mid-playoffs, and Major League Baseball teams, including the Orioles, ceased action for an evening. The Ravens reportedly gathered everyone for a heartfelt talk about race.
As the veteran sports writer Thomas Boswell noted in the Washington Post, “For decades, sports was a field of quiet crickets when it came to social consciousness. … When wealthy, famous pro athletes, a cautious group that makes about a dozen political statements per generation, fight to get to the microphones, attitudes are changing.”
Boswell’s line about generations took me back to the pro football Hall of Famers Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry, who figure in one of the saddest and most shameful moments in Baltimore Colts history. It was a moment that was never reported in a daily newspaper back then because ballplayers were expected to play games and keep their mouths shut.
And so more than half a century later, this story remains largely unknown to most people.
I heard it from Moore nearly 20 years ago when he helped me with a book I wrote called “Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore.” Berry repeated the story when he helped me with another book, “The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s.”
After their 1958 Sudden Death championship win over the New York Giants, the Colts went to Dallas for an exhibition game against the Giants. Dallas was about to enter the NFL, and the league wanted to drum up enthusiasm there.
But Dallas was still a city locked in racial segregation.
The Colts’ white players all stayed overnight at the Sheraton. But the half-dozen or so Black players — Moore, Jim Parker, Big Daddy Lipscomb, Milt Davis, Leonard Lyles, and Sherman Plunkett — were pulled aside by management and dropped off at a bleak little place called the Park Lane Motel.
“It was a room with a bed in it,” Moore recalled. “That’s it. Not a radio, not a TV, nothing. Just a room with a bed.”
Then came a knock on Moore’s door. A guy from the front desk. There was a phone call for Moore, he said. It was Mel Triplett, the Giants’ fullback. Giants management had done the same thing to their Black players — Triplett, Roosevelt Grier, Roosevelt Brown, and Emlen Tunnell, who were staying in a dump around the corner.
Triplett mentioned a place where they could all meet.
“So we get there,” Moore remembered, “and we say, ‘What are we gonna do?’ Say, ‘We ain’t playing.’ Giants say, ‘We ain’t playing either.’ Say, ‘Did you know beforehand?’ No. ‘Neither did we.’ All that stuff. Saying, ‘Nobody told us ahead of time, and we wouldn’t have come if they had.'”
In their anger and humiliation, they were all ready to boycott the game until Emlen Tunnell spoke up. In those days, NFL teams still had unofficial “quotas” on the number of Black players. Tunnell mentioned the Cleveland Browns retired running back, Marion Motley.
“Went through hell,” Tunnell said, “and did it alone” — and made it easier for those who followed. What about the guys behind us, Tunnell said, if we don’t take the field?
“None of those players could stay with the team in the early days,” he said.
Moore remembered, as Tunnell spoke, “I’m thinking about Jackie Robinson. He was the only one on the team. Jackie didn’t have anybody to bounce it off. Who’s he got? But the cat was out there every day.”
The ballplayers decided on one symbolic gesture of their anger. They’d show up late. They’d arrive as a group barely in time for dressing and brief pre-game warmups.
Moore remembered dead silence as he and the other African-American players belatedly entered the Colts locker room. In their awful discomfort, nobody on the team knew what to say.
Then, Moore saw one white player move. It was Raymond Berry, a native Texan, approaching Big Daddy Lipscomb, and then Jim Parker, and then Moore and the others.
“I don’t remember the exact words,” Moore said, “but he said he was sorry this happened, and he was with us.”
It meant the world to Moore. A few years after Lenny told me the story, I asked Berry about it one night when he was in Baltimore. He remembered the whole thing.
He said he told Moore and the others, “None of us knew this was going to happen.”
And nobody reported the incident for nearly half a century.
The world has changed. America is still working out the dynamics of race. The Republicans at their convention last week chose not to mention Jacob Blake, but at least we had athletes, in the most unfamiliar way, throw aside old cautions and speak out in the loudest manner they knew how.
And it didn’t take decades for the rest of us to hear the story.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).