Monday, April 4, 2011

Negro League baseball and Virginia's redistricting

As far as I can tell, WMRA's Tom Graham gets up at an indecently early hour (for anyone who doesn't have to milk cows) just to read newspapers. Then every morning  about 7:30, he sends out  links to Virginia news stories. I always look forward to getting Tom's morning e-mail, and regularly poke through as many stories as time permits. So, first let me start with a public thanks to Tom for the Graham  News Service.

A lot of this weekend's and mornings stories from the GNS concerned Virginia's struggles to redistrict itself. This morning's Staunton News Leader ran an AP story about redistricting reflecting the population growth in Northern Virginia. UVA's Larry Sabato is quoted as saying, "Southside, southwestern Virginia, the Valley, they're all going to lose seats, and that's the bottom line. After this, the rural legislators are the outsiders looking in."

Okay, that sounds reasonable, don't you think? Aren't we supposed to parcel out Virginia's political districts so as to best represent Virginia's people?

The GNS, however, also sent out a link to an article written by the Washington Post's Anita Kumar (Tom's frequent guest on Virginia Insight) that begins:
RICHMOND — A decade ago, the last time Virginia embarked on redrawing boundaries for its legislative districts, lawmakers created maps that protected incumbents and punished challengers, leading observers to complain that the process lacked outside input. 
George Barker
This year, despite the appointment of a bipartisan commission to advise legislators, the lines were largely drawn by two men: Sen. George L. Barker (D), a health-care planner from Prince William County, and Rep. S. Chris Jones (R), a pharmacist from Suffolk. 
Chris Jones
The pair was part of a small cadre of legislators who worked quietly to draw the maps with input primarily from the majority party in each house. Fewer than 10 of the state’s 140 legislators were privy to the lines before they were made public last week, according to lawmakers and aides. 
The General Assembly, which returns to the Capitol on Monday for a special session on redistricting, expects to approve the proposed maps with few alterations and within days. 
The Republican-led House of Delegates and the Democratic-controlled Senate have already agreed to vote for their own plans, and then each other’s, as part of a deal between the chamber’s leaders. 
The result? Lines that protect incumbents and punish challengers, observers say.
Is it just me, or does this imply that Virginia's politicians have made the redistricting process more about themselves than our well-being? Doesn't this represent yet another sad example of self-interest trumping what's right?

I was thinking about powerful people and self-interest and the blight it has visited on our country yesterday, as I stood in a church yard in Buena, Virginia, watching the new Pete Hill historical marker being unveiled.

If you've just asked who's Pete Hill, then you've just helped me make my point du jour. And for what it's worth, I helped make it as well. I didn't have a clue who Pete Hill was until I got an e-mail from Randy Jones of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources telling me about him. It was so interesting that I immediately asked to do a story on both him and his marker for Virginia Public Radio.

As to who Pete Hill was, he was arguably one of the greatest baseball players ever. You and I have never heard of him because he was also black and ignored. Pete Hill spent his long and staggeringly brilliant career playing in American Negro, Cuban, and Mexican leagues; his prowess unacknowledged by the white and the powerful. Those who decreed what was baseball and what wasn't simply chose not to notice the inconvenient reality that there were black players who could take on any group of white players in the land, and on any given day, beat the tar out of them.

Pete Hill was finally inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, 55 years after his death at the age of 69. Here is Pete Hill's Hall of Fame bio:

A standout center fielder with a rifle arm, Pete Hill was one of the greatest line-drive hitters of his era. From the turn of the century to the early 1920s, Hill was a giant among Giants, starring with legendary clubs such as the Cuban X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants. Playing alongside baseball greats Rube Foster, Pop Lloyd and Bruce Petway, Hill captained the legendary Leland Giants of 1910, credited with a record of 123 wins and just six losses. For eight seasons with the Chicago American Giants, Hill tormented opposing moundsmen with his knack of fouling off pitch after pitch. Hill wound down his stellar career as player-manager for the Detroit Stars during their early days in the newly formed Negro National League.
The historical marker unveiled yesterday corrects an historical mistake: Pete Hill's name and place of birth were wrong on his original Hall of Fame plague. The great outfielder was not Joseph Preston Hill, born in Pittsburg; he was John Preston Hill born in Buena, a tiny dot on the map in Culpeper County. This information was uncovered by a group of people, led by the redoubtable Zann Nelson. The Hall of Fame ceremonially hung a corrected plaque honoring Pete Hill last September.

Researcher Zann Nelson (front, center) poses with Pete Hill's family members in front of his new recast plaque at the Hall of Fame. (Milo Stewart Jr.)
Yesterday's ceremony in Buena was a homecoming.

I'll be reporting about Pete Hill and his homecoming in full in a later radio story, but today I just want to make the point (particularly to those incumbents in the Virginia General Assembly) that we play games with what's right and honest at our own cost. I've always loved baseball history, but today I wonder if all those white-only baseball stats from the Ruth and Gehrig era mean anything.

Yesterday in Buena, I met two retired Negro League players who are old now. They claim to be at peace with their race-related obscurity, and I hope they are. It would be a shame to be denied your rightful place in sports history and also be stuck toting buckets of anger around for a lifetime.

I also listened to white politicians and bureaucrats voice regret for past mistakes and then talk about how well we all get along these days, regardless of the color of our skins. Hmmmmmm, I thought.

Then this morning, I read about how Virginia politicians have taken it upon themselves to re-district our state, not based on fairness, but to protect their power. Why, I have to ask, do we let politicians get away with such shenanigans? But then, why did early generations let baseball historians get away with ignoring Pete Hill?

It took close to a century for us to partially undo the neglect of Pete Hill. How long will it take us to do the same for those challenging voices in state politics about to be effectively silenced by redistricting?

Any thoughts?

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