Note: Thanks to Maris 61 for this personal reminiscence of the early days of Houston baseball, and may we all hope that the kind of hatred and prejudice displayed by one fan in the crowd the day young Maris attended can never be tolerated here again.
The red printed letters on the wood sign above the window on the left at Dairy 59 said “White”. The sign above the window on the right said “Colored”.
White folks didn’t give it much thought at the time. That’s just the way things were in Livingston, Texas, almost 100 years after the 14th Amendment guaranteed the “privileges and immunities” of all U.S. citizens.
But in 1963 in Livingston, some citizens still didn’t have many privileges and weren’t immune from many indignities.
Black kids didn’t go to school with white kids yet. The Livingston Lions played in front of big Friday night crowds at Lions Stadium, while the Dunbar Leopards were relegated to Saturdays. When our bedroom windows were open on cool fall nights, our house was close enough to the stadium to hear the Saturday night cheers:
”Who you fo’? Who you fo’?
Dunbar, Dunbar, Dunbar”
My father didn’t much like the state of things, but he was limited in what he could do. He was a liberal (for those times) Methodist preacher in East Texas. With its pine forests, rolling hills, small lakes and slow pace of life, East Texas belonged more to the Deep South than to the arid Texas cowboy country to the west.
When we went to the Dairy 59, a three-block walk or bike ride from the parsonage, Dad told us it was fine to go to either window to placeour orders. When we used the shorter line at the Coloreds window, we’d get some sideways glances from the white people at their window. The ladies behind the counter seemed a little nervous serving us at the wrong window, but we got our ice cream cones or burgers just the same.
Dad was trying to teach us a lesson, subtly and without preaching much. Treating people differently because of their color was wrong.
That lesson hit home at a baseball game.
Starting in 1962, Houston got a Major League baseball team: the Colt .45s. Their logo, in the days before political correctness, was a garish pair of big, crossed Colt .45-caliber pistols. A puff of smoke from one pistol rose up to form the orange “C” in “Colts” on the team’s jerseys. I had a Colt .45 uniform I proudly wore to school occasionally. Don’t know what happened to it, but I’d love to have it framed on the wall now.
We couldn’t make the 75-mile trip south to Houston for Colts games very often. Dad didn’t have a whole lot of extra time, and money was always tight for a growing family on a preacher’s salary. But a couple of times a year, we’d travel to Houston for a game, marveling as we approached the big city and rural, two-lane U.S. Highway 59 turned into a four-lane freeway at Little York Road.
Colt Stadium had Major League baseball, but it didn’t have much else. It was a rickety, temporary steel-and-wood structure thrown up hastily on a big vacant lot in south Houston. No air conditioning, no padded seats, no club boxes, no fancy scoreboards.
It had plenty of mosquitoes, though. And heat. Lots of heat. Summer temperatures often topped 100 degrees for day games and were in the 90s for night games, with heavy coastal humidity to make things even more uncomfortable.
I didn’t care. It was big league baseball. The Colt .45s weren’t very good, but again I didn’t care. Going to a game was such a radical departure from the day-to-day routine of a sleepy small town that I might as well have been in fancy box seats in a great ballpark on a beautiful spring day.
Monday, August 5, 1963 was a bit cooler than usual for Houston in mid-summer. The high temperature only hit 93, though the humidity as always made it feel warmer than that. Mercifully, the Colts’ game against the San Francisco Giants was a night game. By game time, it was down into the 80s.
Our seats were about a third of the way down the first base line, halfway up the not-very-high stands. They were wooden, fold-up seats -- not very comfortable, but better than the benches in the outfield bleachers.
The game figured to be entertaining, though not especially promising for the sad-sack Colts, who were facing the San Francisco Giants. The Giants had won the National League pennant the year before, taking the New York Yankees all the way to Game 7 of the World Series before Ralph Terry’s complete game, 1-0 shutout ended their season on a down note.
The Giants were still good in 1963, featuring a powerful lineup headed by Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda and Willie Mays. Juan Marichal was their pitching ace, and he was on the mound that August night against the Colts.
Although the game was far from a sellout, our part of the stadium was densely packed. As we took our seats, there were a few empty spots in the row behind us, but the whole row we were on was occupied by other fans, including four middle-aged, hefty white men who sat to our right.
One man in particular made a strong impression. He wore a thin cotton short-sleeve, black and red checked shirt. A sweat-stained straw fedora hat covered his thinning black hair. He also had an attitude. An expert on everything, he offered loud opinions and advice constantly to players, managers and anyone in the general vicinity who cared to listen. All of it came in a grating, gravelly voice with a thick Southern accent, fueled by Falstaff beer in large paper cups purchased from roving stadium vendors.
The beer was another big city novelty. Livingston was dry, but even if it hadn’t been, beer was something not found in our house or seen at social occasions. I can’t recall having even smelled it before that night. It smelled exotic, not half-bad. Fedora Man drank a lot of it during the game, and the more he drank, the more he yelled.
Houston’s slow-running catcher, John Bateman, stroked a ball down the line, past Giants’ right fielder Felipe Alou. Bateman ended up on third base with a rare triple.
”Well, boy, you oughta be ashamed,” Fedora Man admonished Alou, a fine Dominican outfielder. “Bateman’s slower than molasses and you give him a triple. You got to cut them balls off. Guess they don’t teach you that in Mexico.”
Bob Aspromonte, the Colts third baseman, singled off Marichal and promptly stole second base.
”That’ll show ya,” said Fedora Man. ”You keep kickin’ that leg up high with a man on base and he’ll steal on ya ever time. If you’d pitch like reg’lar people he’d still be on first.”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by “regular people,” but I had a notion.
In the third inning, an elderly black man and a younger man, probably his son, worked their way down the row above us and took their seats directly behind Fedora Man and his friends.
That didn’t go over well.
”This here neighborhood’s gone to the dawgs,” Fedora Man said to the man next to him as the late-arriving pair took their seats. ”Too bad we got to sit heah. The air’s gone bad.”
The black men said nothing, though they’d almost certainly heard the comments. Dad, sitting between Fedora Man and me, let it pass, too, but from his long silence that followed, I could tell he was uncomfortable.
It got worse.
Jose Pagan, the Giants’ slick-fielding Puerto Rican shortstop, roped a triple of his own off Houston starter Don Nottebart.
”That’s one fast Mexican,” was Fedora Man’s conclusion. ”Speedy Gonzalez!”
Giants’ first baseman Orlando Cepeda, another Puerto Rican, booted a ground ball for an error.
”Thought a Mexican would be used to handlin’ bouncing things with all them jumping beans they got down there,” Fedora Man opined, much to his companions’ amusement.
Special attention went to the Giants’ black players, McCovey and Mays.
McCovey ripped a single to right off Nottebart, prompting Fedora Man to exclaim: ”Thought you had power, boy. You ain’t nothin’ but a scratch singles hitter.”
Mays struck out, and Fedora Man was beside himself.
”That nigger never saw that ball,” Fedora chortled. ”Fooled him like a blind dog.”
I sensed Dad stiffen. His silence and those of the black men on the row behind us told me they were carefully trying to avoid a confrontation. They were being baited, and they knew it.
Around the sixth inning, both black men got up from their seats and made their way to the aisle at the end of their row. I wondered if they’d decided to move or leave, having heard enough from the row in front of them.
They hadn’t. What they’d decided to do, not surprisingly on a sweltering Houston night, was get a beer for the late innings.
As the inning ended, the two men slowly made their way to their seats in the row behind us. The older man was carrying two beers in cutouts of a thin cardboard box, with a bag of peanuts in the middle. The younger man had another box holding two hot dogs wrapped in silver paper.
As the older man reached back to fold down his stadium seat, the beers tipped slightly, spilling several drops on Fedora Man’s shoulder and the back of his seat.
The reaction was immediate and dramatic.
”Boy! Boy!” he yelled. ”Look what you done! You done spilled beer on me! What in hell’s yore problem?”
”Sorry, suh,” the older black mumbled, dropping his eyes and slightly bowing his head. ”I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry, suh. Sorry.”
We all knew that unwritten code of conduct in the South. Blacks, no matter their age, addressed white men as “sir” and avoided eye contact to the extent they could. It was a survival instinct learned in many situations over many years.
”I’m gonna git the usher and git you put outta here,” Fedora Man threatened. ”You poured beer on me, nigger. You shouldn’t even be heah in the first place.”
Dad had had enough. He pulled out his pocket handkerchief, which most men still carried in those days, and gently wiped off Fedora Man’s shoulder, then the seat back.
”No harm done,” Dad said. ”It was just a few drops. It was an accident.”
”You takin’ up for a nigger?” Fedora Man asked incredulously.
”I’m just trying to watch the game, “ Dad said. ”I brought my sons here to watch some baseball and that’s what we all should do.”
Fedora Man glared at my father, shaking his head slightly as if in disbelief of what things were coming to in this world. He pulled his own handkerchief out of his pocket and made a show of firmly wiping off his shoulder and chair back. He closely inspected his seat, stood still for a moment, then slowly sat back down with an audible grunt.
The older black man made a half-nod of thanks to my father and carefully took his seat.
The game went on -- a close contest, for two mismatched teams. The Colts took a 4-2 lead into the 8th inning, but McCovey homered and the Giants tied it.
With the score 4-4 in the top of the 9th, the bases empty, and two out, Mays came to the plate again. The two men behind us came to life. Whether they were Giants fans or not was hard to tell, but for sure they were Willie Mays fans.
”You can DO it, Willie,” said the older man softly. He had been silent since the beer spill. “You can DO it.”
It sounded almost like a prayer.
”Put it out of here. Put it out,” said the younger one.
Fedora Man turned slightly and glared at them.
”Strike that boy out, Hal.” he said, talking to Houston reliever Hal Woodeshick. Then, even louder: “That boy’s washed up! He cain’t hit no more.”
Everyone in the small ballpark clearly heard the sharp crack of the bat on the fourth pitch. Mays’ line drive landed in the left field bleachers and he trotted around the bases. 5-4 Giants.
The older black man stood up, a smile on his face and joy in his eyes.
”I knowed it, “ he said, this time loudly, head held high. ”I knowed it. I jus’ knowed it!”
Without so much as a backward glance, Fedora Man stood up, dropped his empty Falstaff cup at his feet, and turned to his buddies.
”Come on,” he told them. ”Let’s git outa heah. This team ain’t got any relief pitchers worth a damn.”
The four white men stood and made their way to the end of our row of seats, then headed up the aisle and out of the stadium.
They should have stayed. The Colt .45s rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth on Al Spangler’s third hit of the game. Final score: Colts 6, Giants 5.
I learned several things that night at Colt Stadium. Willie McCovey and Willie Mays could hit baseballs a long way. A bad team can sometimes beat a good team, even with the good team’s ace on the mound. The Colts needed a new stadium. (Which they’d get: the Astrodome, two years later.)
But I also learned some more important things. Ignorance, incivility and prejudice often run together. A little kindness goes a long way. And when you know something, you just know it.