Name calling is synonymous with sport. He said it. We all heard it. What happened after the slur was a lesson I never forgot.
Our Little League team was not a contender. In those days, neighborhoods sprouted unreliable talent. We had a couple of fair pitchers and a decent shortstop who could hit. That was about it. We were also lily white.
In the late 1960s, awareness of hurtful language was out there. Teenagers tossed it around like Frisbees. It bounced off most of us. We had little awareness of how it might hurt.
Until the summer afternoon when our shortstop fired a slur at an opposing batter who happened to be black. It was the nuclear word that now detonates careers and makes former friends deny they ever knew you.
It erupted above the infield chatter, loud enough so everyone caught it. Back then, depending on where you lived, it was a word white kids sometimes called one another. Among African American males at our junior high school, it was a postscript, simply a word added on to the end of a sentence; much like “man” ultimately became a coda, an expletive, a period that fit at the end of any sentence.
By eighth grade, we had read enough Richard Wright, Malcom X, and heard enough MLK to begin to understand that this one word could be dangerous. An unfortunate holdover from America’s Original Sin, it was a blasting cap, capable of igniting rage, inciting troublemakers, and questioning the durability of friendships.
Our shortstop said the word.
Our coach called time. The umpire spread his arms and the place went silent. The coach, walked onto the field. He got into the shortstop’s face in front of God and everyone.
“We never say that word. You know that. I want you to go apologize to the batter. I want you to find his parents in the stands and apologize to them. Do it loud so we all hear it. You have embarrassed your team. You have embarrassed me. And you have diminished yourself.”
The kid’s shoulders sagged. He almost lost his grip on his mitt. The coach pointed a lightning bolt finger toward home plate.
The shortstop called the batter by name. “I shouldn’t have said that word. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. It was a stupid thing to say. I apologize.”
“I get it a lot,” the batter said, shaking the player’s hand. “I’ve used that word with you, too. But thanks.”
The two had known one another since pre-kindergarten. They were friends before color defined you, when Kool-Ade tasted just as good when you drank it from a shared cup.
Today, the batter’s expression was a mixture of embarrassment and caution. He truly liked the kid. But he also knew half of his friends wanted him to beat my teammate into a pulp. Not just because he used the word.
Emerging racial awareness, meant to promote understanding, was having the opposite effect. This was the narrative: If you were white, you were racist. You just didn’t realize it yet. If you were black, having white friends made you an Oreo. Black on the outside, white on the inside.
Pick a side. The other side is the enemy.
We were entering a no-win zone, learning the new rules of human relations as we went along. Yet we stood guilty for whatever we might have said or done before our enlightenment. To the self-righteous, sins of ignorance; mistakes without intent, were still sins. No-win.
The shortstop easily identified the parents. “I’m sorry I called your son that name. It’s not right. We hear it often at school. It was wrong. I apologize.”
The batter’s father squeezed my teammate’s shoulder. “You’re a good man. You recognized your error and have done the right thing. We are still friends,” he said.
I watched all of this from the bench, until our coach told the shortstop to sit and pointed to me. “You’re in,” he said. “Don’t let us down.”
I had built a habit of doing just that. I was the ten-run man. When we were leading or losing by ten-runs, I got to play.
I don’t remember how the game ended.
The player was the coach’s son. But I suspect coach would have just as publicly berated any of us for same thing. After the game he called the team together to remind us how misused words can be weapons of destruction. This was wisdom many of us had yet to comprehend.
Not much has changed in the ensuing 55 years. Slurs still abound anywhere intimidation gives someone a perceived advantage. We don’t hear the nuclear words as much. Now they hide in code words that mean the same thing. Subtle is just as hurtful.
I’ve watched words incite a lot of regrettable behavior lately. Most institutions tolerate it until an incident threatens public images that put fandom and money at risk.
We let it be, until someone has the courage to stand up and say it’s wrong. And to keep saying it until enough people listen, no matter what the personal cost may be.
The two protagonists in my baseball story remained friends. Our shortstop grew up to be a decent parent, a reliable worker, and a good citizen, until a weak heart put him in a box before his time. They tell me the best eulogy at his funeral was delivered by the kid who endured the slur that day at home plate. He understood words better than most. He became an English teacher.
His most memorable quote:
“Who we are is much less important than who we choose to become.”