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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Six miles over Arizona

by Philip Martin | January 26, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

"It's very offensive. They call me 'nigger' and every other bad word you can come up with. You can't ignore them. They are here. But this is just the way things are for Black people in America. It's something you battle all of your life."

-- Hank Aaron

One night in June 1967, six and a half miles above Arizona on the way to Los Angeles, Atlanta Braves left-fielder Rico Carty called his teammate Hank Aaron a "Black bastard."

That was what Aaron remembered. The way catcher Joe Torre heard it, it was "Black slick." Felipe Alou couldn't quite make out exactly what Carty said--he was motor-mouthing mostly in Spanish with a few English words thrown in--but he knew Aaron interpreted it as a racial slur. And Aaron didn't like racial slurs.

So Hank Aaron (he preferred Henry), the epitome of restraint and dignity, went after high-spirited Carty in the back of a chartered airplane. Punches were thrown. Aaron dented the luggage compartment above Carty's head. It took four players and the team's traveling secretary Donald Davidson, who Felipe Alou described as being "four-foot-two," to pull them apart.

A couple of flight attendants were alarmed, and the pilot had to take measures to stabilize the plane after the turbulence in the aft.

Manager Bill Hitchcock later said it was just one of those things that happens with athletic young men thrown together on road trips. He was probably right, though one imagines that if it happened today the incident would merit more than a four-paragraph UPI story.

The racial overtones of the incident are complex; if you Google "Rico Carty" you will find photos that suggest Carty is and was very much a Black man in the eyes of those who draw such distinctions.

It is easy for people who have never felt disadvantaged to dismiss arbitrarily drawn racial and ethnic divisions as superstitious. I remember my father telling me how when Curt Flood was playing for the Savannah Redlegs in the Sally League in 1957, the team tried to pass the Texas native off as Cuban to pacify some of the more bellicose fans. To them and to Carty, there was presumably a difference between being Black and being from a Caribbean island nation.

In his book "Alou: My Baseball Journey,"

Felipe Alou remembered a spring training evening in the early '60s when he'd accompanied Carty, Ozzie Virgil Sr. and Sandy Alomar Sr. to a Cuban restaurant in Ybor City near Tampa. When the owner apologetically told them the restaurant was "not yet integrated" and offered to seat them in a segregated dining room off the kitchen, Carty exploded.

They were not "American Negroes," he protested. They weren't even Cuban or Puerto Rican. (Though Felipe Alomar actually was Puerto Rican.) They were Dominicans.

It didn't work, and the cab driver took the players to a dirt-floored barbecue joint, which Felipe Alou remembered had the best ribs he'd ever eaten.

Carty is pretty much forgotten in our country, but at 81 and still feisty, he is revered in the Dominican Republic. He wasn't the first Dominican to play in the majors--Ozzie Virgil Sr. and Felipe's brother Matty Alou got there earlier--but he was in that first generation, a precursor to Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols, Pedro Martinez, Adrian Beltre, George Bell and Sammy Sosa.

He runs a prominent charity in his hometown of San Pedro de Macorís, where he was once elected mayor (denied the office after a recount, he shrugged and said he never liked politics anyway).

Felipe Alou thought Carty would be immediately traded after that plane ride in 1967. But Carty played five more years with the Braves and won the National League batting title in 1970, which was even more impressive when you consider that Carty was slow by major league standards. He never beat out an infield single.

Aaron hardly spoke to him after that incident.

He attributed the airplane incident to jealousy; Carty had been his roommate on the road for the the previous couple of seasons, but a few weeks earlier the Braves had offered Aaron a private room and he'd accepted it. Carty was assigned a new roommate, and he thought Aaron had purposefully shunned him.

"Carty must have thought I was trying to get rid of him," Aaron told Jet magazine.

Maybe he was. Felipe Alou remembered that Aaron had always been made a little tense by Carty's constant chatter. The kid got on his nerves.

Carty had been a heralded prospect; as a teenager he'd signed contracts with every team that had offered them, a dozen in all. It took some doing to sort it all out and assign him to the Braves. He was as raw and naive as he was talented.

His English was not good--the writers noted he liked to refer to himself as the "beeg mon"--and he played with the sort of exuberance that's often characterized as obnoxiously flashy when exhibited by anyone other than Pete Rose. Carty was a hot dog, like Willie Montanez and Willie Mays.

He didn't run to the spot where the ball would land and wait for it, the way our coaches always told us to; he broke late and timed it, sometimes catching it at his belt or off his shoe tops.

Aaron didn't think that was the way to play the game, but Carty hadn't been playing the outfield that long. He was a converted catcher learning on the job. And Aaron bristled every time he saw the kid quoted phonetically in the newspaper.

So Aaron volunteered to be Carty's roommate. Though it was against his quiet nature, he spent long hours in conversation with him, instructing him on how to play the outfield and how to carry himself off the field in an era of American apartheid.

"He even talks to me about hitting," Carty marveled to a writer, though that was something Carty could always do. He hit over .300 in his first four seasons with the Braves.

But he was fighting through a separated shoulder in 1967 and had fallen more than 50 points off that pace. I can understand how he might have been hurt when Aaron moved out, how that might have broke his heart.

Aaron was a quiet man, whose excellence was accretive, averaging just under 33 home runs a year for 23 seasons. On average, Aaron hit a home run once every 16.38 times at bat, which ranks 40th on the all-time list behind names like Richie Sexson and Russell Branyan.

If it is possible to love someone you have never met, then I love Hank Aaron. He was an influencer, held up as a constant example, an ordinary-looking man who did his job the best he could no matter how difficult the circumstances. He had enormous talent, but it was banked in discipline and humility.

People of my generation booed him and sent him death threats. What a country.

--–––––v–––––--

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

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