Monday, April 07, 2008

Baseball, MLK, Clemente and throw-back swimming

A valued sports journalist, Dave Zirin, posts the following, fitting for this blog on the opening day for the Pittsburgh Pirates home season.
This piece was posted on’s home page this past weekend. As always, please consider posting comments at the below link.
In struggle and sports,
Dave Z

Common Bond for Uncommon Men: Roberto Clemente and Martin Luther King
By Dave Zirin

As we remember the 40th anniversary of that dark day of April 4th 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down in Memphis, it's worth recalling the reaction by Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star Roberto Clemente.

Clemente was devastated by the news of King's assassination but didn't suffer in silence. Instead, he led a charge to prevent the Pirates and Astros from opening their season on April 8th, the day before King's burial. He convinced his teammates on the Pirates, which included 11 African Americans, to stand with him. Opening Day was moved to April 10th, and Roberto Clemente had put sports in its proper perspective.

It might seem odd that Clemente, a proud Puerto Rican national, would have led such an extraordinary action. But Clemente, who had a passionate belief in social and economic justice, considered King a personal hero. He had even met face to face with Dr. King, spending a day together on Clemente's farm in Puerto Rico.

David Maraniss quotes Clemente's feelings about King in his 2005 biography of the Hall of Fame outfielder:

"When Martin Luther King started doing what he did, he changed the whole system of the American style. He put the people, the ghetto people, the people who didn't have nothing to say in those days, they started saying what they would have liked to say for many years that nobody listened to. Now with this man, these people come down to the place where they were supposed to be but people didn't want them, and sit down there as if they were white and call attention to the whole world. Now that wasn't only the black people but the minority people. The people who didn't have anything, and they had nothing to say in those days because they didn't have any power, they started saying things and they started picketing, and that's the reason I say he changed the whole world..."

Clemente's affinity for King and the civil rights movement was rooted in his own experience with racism in the United States. Clemente played from 1954 to 1972, years that saw profound change in both Major League Baseball and U.S. society. His career spanned the entirety of the black freedom struggle from the Montgomery Bus Boycotts to the urban ghetto rebellions; from Rosa Parks to the Black Panthers. Being raised in a proud Puerto Rican household did not prepare Clemente for the racism he encountered in the U.S. Even as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican, Clemente never knew of the existence of racism before coming to the U.S. mainland. He would tell reporters that he learned that dark skin "was bad over here."

The first half of his career, the Pirates held their spring training in the still-segregated south. The Pirates' spring games were in Ft. Myers, Florida, which even by the standards of 1950s Florida was deeply segregated. Years later, Clemente's only memories of his first spring training consisted of eating on the bus with other players of color while his white teammates dined inside at both fancy restaurants and greasy spoons.

For someone who had never heard of Jim Crow, these were painful times. Clemente's friend Vic Power, a highly skilled Puerto Rican player for the Kansas City Athletics, was dragged off his team's bus one spring by the local authorities for buying a Coke from a whites-only gas station. Speaking together later, Clemente seethed at the humiliation, feeling it as if it were his own. Power tried to calm Clemente down. His approach was humor. Power liked to tell the story of a waitress telling him, "We don't serve Negroes," and responding, "That's OK. I don't eat Negroes."

But Clemente just couldn't handle it that way. In Maraniss' biography, Clemente was quoted thusly: "They say, 'Roberto, you better keep your mouth shut because they will ship you back.' [But] this is something from the first day I said to myself: I am in the minority group. I am from the poor people. I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going to be treated like a human being. I don't want to be treated like a Puerto Rican, or a black, or nothing like that. I want to be treated like any person."

Clemente had a profound social conscience and drive for justice, colored by a belief that he would die before his time. This came to pass when he died on December 31, 1972 after he boarded a ramshackle plane, attempting to fly to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua with 4,000 extra pounds of relief materials. His wife Vera remembered, "He always said he would die young -- that this was his fate."

Dr. King shared this personal fatalism. On April 3, 1968 King gave a speech saying, "I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the promised land."

We aren't yet at any kind of promised land, but Clemente and King both helped chart a path in the right direction. It's critical to remember them not as superhuman icons, but as ordinary people who sacrificed to do extraordinary things. As the Black Panther Party newspaper Panther Speaks wrote in their obituary of Clemente, "It is ironic that the profession in which he achieved 'legendry' [status] knew him the least. Roberto Clemente did not, as the Commissioner of Baseball maintained, 'Have about him a touch of royalty.' Roberto Clemente was simply a man, a man who strove to achieve his dream of peace and justice for oppressed people throughout the world."

[Dave Zirin is the author of "Welcome to the Terrordome:" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by emailing Contact him at Comment on this article at]
Meanwhile, not too far from Forbes Field, in Oakland, but high on the hill, they are about to do a fix up of a past decision and rehab a swimming pool, Trees Hall at Pitt. In the last meet, held later this month, the swim distances are going to be 55-yards. This is what the Pitt coach posted in an email:

Trees Pool, April 26-27- The Dan Mazzei Spring Sprint Challenge

A Renovation Celebration Meet!

The LAST 55-YARD meet! Join us April 26-27 (Saturday and Sunday).

The Dan Mazzei Spring Sprint Meet will have a special “twist” this year.

We will be celebrating the renovation of Trees Pool at the meet and will be commemorating the last 55-yard meet ever run at Trees Pool!

All of the events will be run in the 55-yard “Commonwealth” distance. We will have the 55-yard free, the 220 Yard IM, and the 110 Freestyle, just to name a few.

Join us in the fun. We will ask coaches and teams to dress in the style of the 60s for the meet.

The 60s- The time of Flower Power, Long Hair and Bell Bottom Pants.

The time of Paisley Shirts and Platform Shoes.

The time of Afro Hair and Just a lot of Hair.

The time of Beach Jams and Jellies and Striped Racing Suits.

Trees Pool was one of the last 55-yard pools built in the USA. Completed in 1962, the 55-yard long-course distance pool at Trees was the “Commonwealth Distance” swum by the US, England and in the Commonwealth of Great Britain. 55-yards is about one foot longer than the now dominant 50-meter course used all over the world as the “long course” Olympic distance.

Trees Pool has been the site of at least one AAU National Championship. At that meet in 1964, a then new American Record-holder Donna deVarona (of NBC sports commentating fame) swam at Trees pool to defend her National title in the Individual Medley.

The renovation of Trees Pool will take about four months and is scheduled to be done by September 1, 2008. They will include a new pool surface, all new tiled decking, a new one-meter platform for 1-meter springboard diving, new deck heating, and a new stainless steel gutter system and pool circulation and filtration. The pool will also be shortened to 50-meters.

We are excited about celebrating the almost $2 million renovation at the Dan Mazzei Meet .

Sign your team up today for the fun! The meet entry is on the AMS Web site!


Chuck Knoles and the Team Pittsburgh Staff and Pitt Staff
I don't know the history of the building of the main swim pool at Trees Hall and the 55-yard length. I sorta expected that the builders did NOT have a metric ruler, so the 55-yard distance was used instead.

In other meets, a bulkhead is sunk into the water to shorten the pool. It holds the touchpads and starting blocks just fine. In the same line of thought, I sorta wonder if the meet is being held at 55-yards this year because the bulkheads, bulky, wooden, and dust-gathered, were tossed already. They would have been in the way. Lots of materials and prep work has already begun at the construction site.

What other 55-yard swim pools were built in the US and around the world?

In New Zealand, there are plenty of 33-meter swim pools. New Zealand has cut times for nation meets and records and conversion charts for 25-meter, 33-meter and 50-meter lengths.

I got to coach for a semester at Baylor University in a swim pool that was 33-and-a-third yards in length.

I hope that the upgrade at Pitt's pool goes well. Too bad they decision to upgrade Pitt Statdium didn't go as I had hoped.

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