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Martin Luther King Jr.

When baseball organized an early ‘All-Star’ game to remember Martin Luther King Jr.

King often invoked the power of accomplished athletes, and many players wanted to honor him

Games were postponed across much of major league baseball when city after city erupted into anguished violence after the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As neighborhoods burned, many black baseball players grew determined to find a constructive way to recognize the slain civil rights leader.

“We had to do something to honor Dr. King,” recalled Grant Jackson, 75, then a pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies. “He had done so much for the country. It was a tragedy the way they took him out. He had done so much for the good of black people, and white people too.”

A succession of baseball stars, princes of the sports world before the rise of the NFL and NBA, went to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that King co-founded, asking what they could do to memorialize the murdered icon. Within a few months, the SCLC had a formal answer: The top players should hold an exhibition game in King’s honor, with the proceeds going to both the SCLC and development of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

The idea immediately took hold. “The response was overwhelming! Many of the top stars black and white, agreed to participate,” read a November 1968 letter from SCLC sports project director Joseph D. Peters to the Executive Council of Major League Baseball.

“We had to do something to honor Dr. King. He had done so much for the country.”

A request by the SCLC to postpone the original 1969 game date to allow time to iron out broadcast and other scheduling issues resulted in a long delay. But the game was finally set for Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles before the start of the 1970 season.

Still, enthusiasm among baseball’s elite was high. Two stars from each of the then-24 major league teams participated. The San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays flew in from Japan to play. Pete Rose was there. Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Tom Seaver, Al Kaline and Bob Gibson were among 15 future Hall of Famers on the roster. The teams were divided by geography, with players from Eastern teams going against those from the West. Dodgers great Roy Campanella managed the Western team, and Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio was in charge of the team from the East.

“I was proud to be selected. This was the best of the best,” recalled Jackson, who pitched for six teams over his 19-year major league career. “I was only a tagalong.”

Playing a baseball game to honor King was fitting, although he was neither an avid sports fan nor a stellar athlete. The 5-foot-7 King liked swimming and basketball, according to Clayborne Carson, director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. His best sport was shooting pool, a skill King honed on the basement tables at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. Still, he had a keen understanding of the power of sports to advance social change and the ability of athletic achievement to lift the sights of an entire people.

“He had great respect for athletes who had emerged as sports personalities. He was aware of the powerful magnetism that sports celebrities had,” said Clarence Jones, who worked as a lawyer, speechwriter and adviser to King for seven years. “Absolutely, without question, he also saw the triumph of black athletes as achievement for all black people.”

As King crisscrossed the country giving speeches, he often invoked the accomplishments of black athletes, comparing them to black achievers in other fields.

“There was a star in the sky of female leadership, and Mary McLeod Bethune grabbed it and used it. There was a star in the diplomatic sky; Ralph Bunche caught it and allowed it to shine in his life, in spite of the fact that he was the grandson of a slave preacher,” King told the 1959 Southern Christian Ministers Conference of Mississippi, repeating a line he used frequently. “There was a star in the athletic sky; then came Joe Louis with his educated fist, Jesse Owens with his fleet and dashing feet, and Jackie Robinson with his calm spirit and powerful bat.”

Jones said the achievements of athletes such as Louis, Owens and Robinson fit the message of self-worth that King sought to deliver to black people. “He was deeply committed to the pursuit of personal excellence,” Jones said. “He tried to get black people to stand up straight. If you stood up straight, who could be on your back? Who represented that better than the black athlete?”

King clearly admired the big-time athletes of his day, but mostly from afar. He had complicated relationships with two of the biggest sports figures of his time: Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

“Absolutely, without question, he … saw the triumph of black athletes as achievement for all black people.”

King, an integrationist, clashed at times with Ali, a member of the separatist Nation of Islam. But, over time, the two grew to admire and respect one another.

“The integrationist versus black nationalist narrative is somewhat overblown. They basically had the same goal, although the rhetoric was different,” said Michael Ezra, a professor at Sonoma State University in California and an Ali biographer. “They shared a lot of common ground.”

When King was questioned by reporters about venturing beyond the domestic issue of civil rights to oppose the Vietnam War, King replied: “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.”

And when King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, in November 1967, Ali sent a short telegram of support from Chicago. “Hope that you are comfortable not suffering any physical pain,” it read.

King also had a complex but respectful relationship with Robinson. He cheered Robinson not just for breaking baseball’s color barrier but also for becoming one of the game’s transcendent stars during his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He also respected Robinson’s successful transition into the business world as the first black vice president for Chock Full O’Nuts, a coffee and restaurant firm.

“He was a sit-inner before sit-ins,” King said of Robinson. “A freedom rider before freedom rides.”

But the two sometimes butted heads. Robinson was a board member of the NAACP, an organization that sometimes was uncomfortable with the SCLC and King’s philosophy of broadening the fight for civil rights from the courts and halls of government to the streets through nonviolent protests. Years later, Robinson also was bewildered by King’s opposition to the war in Vietnam.

But when the chips were down, they stood together. Robinson wrote a letter to King in 1960 voicing concern after hearing talk from some in the SCLC that “the NAACP has outlived its usefulness.”

“Let’s not be a party to the old game of divide and conquer,” Robinson said. King replied a month later, saying in his letter that “before I become a symbol of division in the Negro community I would retire from the civil rights struggle.”

After Robinson became the first African-American inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962, he donated the proceeds of a dinner to the SCLC. Robinson was on the speaker’s platform during the 1963 March on Washington. He also raised money to help King and other activists who were jailed for their protests. And after white hooligans pummeled peaceful black protesters during the infamous 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama, Robinson wrote a telegram to President Lyndon Johnson imploring him to step in to end the violence.

“… One more day of savage treatment by legalized hatchet men could lead to open warfare among aroused Negroes. America cannot afford this in 1965,” Robinson told Johnson.

Robinson was among the 31,694 fans at Dodger Stadium when the East-West Major League Baseball Classic was played on March 28, 1970. An excerpt from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was played before the game, and Oakland Athletics pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant “sang a soulful version of the National Anthem,” according to an official account of the game by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. There were pregame remarks from SCLC officials — including King’s successor, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy — as well as from baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, greeted the players and threw out the first pitch.

“Coretta spoke before the game, basically wishing us good luck,” Jackson said. “She also told us we were doing this for a good cause.”

Jackson said the game was played with the mindset that players bring to most All-Star Games. “My attitude was that I am just going to throw that ball right down the middle and see how hard you can hit it,” he said. “It was a good time.”

In the end, the East squad won 5-1 behind home runs from Montreal Expos first baseman Ron Fairley and Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo. Jackson pitched two innings for the victorious East squad, giving up one run.

The game raised more than $30,000 and, in the minds of many involved, provided an example of racial brotherhood for a troubled nation.

“I am sure my husband would have been very proud of what has been accomplished today,” Coretta Scott King told reporters.

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.