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Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy birthday to ya

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The baseball season that started late
January 21, 2013 12:02 am
By Richard "Pete" Peterson


Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, just four days before the opening of the Major League Baseball season.

Baseball commissioner William Eckert, a retired Air Force general, had such a reputation for indecisiveness during his military career that critics dubbed him "the unknown soldier." His reaction, as commissioner, to King's death was to let major league teams decide, on their own, if they would play on opening day.

A few teams canceled their home openers, but when the Houston Astros decided to go ahead with their April 8 opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Pirates, led by Roberto Clemente, refused to play. They also refused to take part in their next game against the Astros because it was scheduled for April 9, the day of King's funeral.

Clemente, who knew and admired King, was deeply disturbed by the assassination and furious at baseball's initial reaction. He said, "When Martin Luther King died, they come and ask the Negro players if we should play. I say, 'If you have to ask Negro players, then we do not have a great country.' "

The Pirates, who had 11 black players on their roster, more than any team in Major League Baseball, issued a formal statement that they were acting out of respect for "what Dr. King has done for mankind." When other black players, including the Cardinals' Bob Gibson, refused to play until after King's funeral, baseball finally announced the postponement of the opening of the 1968 baseball season until April 10, the day after King's funeral.

Four years later, Clemente spoke about his admiration for King in an interview just before the start of the 1972 season. The previous season, Clemente's Pirates, after making baseball history on Sept. 1 by fielding baseball's first all-black starting lineup, went on to win the World Series.

Clemente, who was MVP of the 1971 series, told the interviewer that what he admired most was King's courage in giving a voice to those who were too oppressed to speak for themselves, people of all colors who "didn't have anything." Clemente believed that when King spoke, he inspired the powerless: "They started saying things and they started picketing, and that's the reason I say he changed the whole world."

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