Friday, May 6, 2011

Breaking Barriers in Florida: Game 11 in Daytona

Historic Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona reflects the patriotic and embracing character of the Daytona Beach community. 

In 1946, during a spring training tour of Florida cities, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to take the field in a professional baseball game featuring a Major League team or one of its affiliates.  In previous days the Dodgers and Montreal, its AAA team at that time, had been scheduled to play in other Florida cities on their exhibition game circuit.  Yet complications had developed in those communities, such as a localized power failure that prevented the stadium lights from illuminating the field. 
Daytona, which then already enjoyed a history of affirming civil rights protections, became the first place that Robinson actually took the field in game competition.  While the number of African American fans attending that game far exceeded the capacity in the special section that had been set aside for them, there were no racial incidents at the ballpark.  And the local newspaper report the following day noted the positive reception that Robinson had received.
Later, he recalled his own excitement: “When I got home, I felt as though I had won some kind of victory.  I had a new opinion of the people in the town [Daytona Beach].  I knew, of course, that everyone wasn’t pulling for me to make good, but I was sure that the whole world wasn’t lined up against me.  When I went to sleep the applause was still ringing in my ears.”

A youngster beats out a bunt on Robinson's base-path.

Now the ballpark houses a modest but interactive museum about the achievement and athleticism of Robinson.  A basketball goal entices youngsters to jump to the height at which he could touch the rim.  A home-to-first base-path invites children to try their best to beat out an imaginary bunt.

And, of course, there are displays about his baseball prowess.  In addition, other "barrier breakers" in sports like Roberto Clemente and Althea Gibson are feted.

While the ballpark is historic because of the significant games that have been played there, it also exudes an old timey feel with its wooden stands behind home plate, obstructed views from some reserved seats, and hand operated scoreboard. 

Wooden floors in the bygond grandstand behind home.

An obstructed view from a reserved section.
Another distinction along the left-field fence is the sign, daily updated, that states simply: “Front Row Joe’s 1069 Game Streak.”  And I thought that my project of 109 ballparks was impressive! 
At Daytona, my introduction included a brief description of my tour as well as mention of the fact that Wrigley Field is among the Major League ballparks where I have sung the anthem.  The affable beer vendor who hawked his brews throughout the ballpark was effusive in his praise, greeting me before I could move into the stands, saying that my performance was the best he’d heard, and loudly inviting me back to sing the following night or any and every other night this summer. 
In Daytona for the first time in my series of anthem performances, I saw fans singing along with me—at least a dozen or more seated in the wooden planked sections behind home plate.  I love it when folks sing along with me.

Joe and Cubs Mascot, ready to join in singing.
Greg Sapp helped to frame my Florida State League experience, attending this final game with me as he had the first at Brevard County.  When he and I sat in the picnic area to eat grilled chicken sandwiches in the third inning, a woman recently in chemotherapy approached us.  “I’m so glad you didn’t sing it like a dirge,” she began.  She identified herself as Karen, a Navy vet who had come to the game to support breast cancer awareness night.  The Daytona Cubs donned their jerseys with pink ribbon accents that would be auctioned off to generate funds to give to Search for the Cure.  Currently in radiation treatments following her chemotherapy and a second radical mastectomy, Karen said that she finds hope and joy in baseball, in humor, and in patriotic displays.  She displayed great ease with her unintentional crew cut and joked about being flat-chested.  She was simply glad to be alive and delighted to be at the ballpark.
Daytona marked my final stop in the Florida State League, where I had enjoyed the opportunity to sing in all the ballparks except the one at Charlotte.  There a schedule conflict had forestalled my anticipated performance. 

One of the recurrent pleasures  in the Florida ballparks was making contact with retirees who shared stories about their former favorite teams up North and with snow birds who expressed a desire to see me sing again at one of the games in their home towns, whether Trenton or Rochester or Columbus.  Daytona proved no exception to this phenomenon.  Before the game, I was drawn to Bill and Carol Porter because Bill was wearing a University of Kentucky baseball cap.  I mentioned to him that I had heard the report that three of Kentucky’s players from their Final Four team this year are declaring their eligibility for the NBA draft, although none expects to hire an agent.  Waiting for the gates to open, we shared our passion for basketball in the Bluegrass. 
Inquiring about my travels, Bill indicated that he’ll attend the Lexington Legends’ game in late May when I sing there, and Carol expressed interest in the possibility of my singing for the Tennessee Smokies in Knoxville where her daughter lives.  Regrettably, I informed her, I got smoked—or ignored—by the Knoxville team, which was one of the few minor league teams that never responded to any of my queries and proposals.
Following the game in Daytona, I returned to DeLand for a comfortable evening with my good friends and hosts Don and Ruth Musser.  As I left for Georgia the next day, Don ribbed me a bit about my progress: "It's like you've just finished the first inning.... and there's no relief pitcher in sight!"  So true.

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