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Tuesday, June 17, 2008 | A little-known page of San Diego sports history, spoiled by the shameful era of Jim Crow America, resurfaced recently when a guy named Perry Eury in North Carolina dug through a dusty box of old family photographs.
Frozen in time, like a clip taken from a Ken Burns baseball documentary, is a black-and-while photograph snapped by Eury’s father. It shows a broken-hearted pose struck by Johnny Ritchey, San Diego’s least appreciated athlete in our region’s pantheon of sports legends.
The year was 1940 — seven years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The team photo was taken in Albemarie, N.C., a town below the Mason-Dixon Line. The event was the American Legion baseball national championship between San Diego and Albemarie.
At the time, Ritchey was a 17-year-old kid that had led the San Diego’s American Legion Post No. 6 to the national championship series. He would take home a trophy as the tournament’s leading hitter, even though he was barred from playing in the finals, a best-of-five series.
Ritchey would go on to become an historic figure as the “The Jackie Robinson of the Pacific Coast League.” And that makes this a good week, with the Padres’ Salute to the Negro Leagues Saturday night at Petco Park, to tell a story about a man not enough San Diegans appreciate.
He broke the PCL color line in 1948 for the minor-league San Diego Padres at old Lane Field. It was a year after Ritchey, a catcher, was the Negro Leagues batting champion with a .381 average for the Chicago American Giants.
A loophole in Ritchey’s contract with the American Giants, and Robinson’s barrier-breaking season, allowed the Padres to sign a hometown hero.
Ritchey had played baseball at San Diego State before he earned five battle stars in World War II. He served as a staff sergeant with the Army Corps of Engineers at Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and Berlin.
But barriers still stood in 1940, even for a kid accustomed to playing on lineups with white, black and Hispanic teammates that were typical of legendary coach Mike Morrow’s rosters for American Legion ball and his San Diego High teams.
Upon dusting off the photo, Eury did some research, and he subsequently sent a copy to Bill Swank, a San Diego baseball historian.
At first glance, the photo appears to be a case of Eury’s father snapping the camera shutter when the players weren’t ready. Ritchey looks down, the bill of his cap pulled low to hide his face, with his chin buried in his left hand
Swank, who knew Ritchey and his personality, is convinced the pose is more than a case of an impatient athlete bored with the photographer’s pace. Swank believes Ritchey’s forlorn look was the deliberate pose. It was his way of protesting this shameful time in America.
It would be another generation before black track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos struck a defiant pose at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
In 1940, the exclusion of Ritchey from the championship series wasn’t an event that caught people off-guard. Before San Diego traveled below the Mason-Dixon Line, Morrow had gained assurances that there wouldn’t be a repeat of 1938 when Ritchey and teammate Nelson Manuel, another black player for San Diego, were barred from American Legion finals. That was the year San Diego beat Spartanburg, S.C., in Spartanburg.
But a decision by national Legion officials to bar Ritchey and Manuel from the finals came after they had already played in San Diego’s semifinal victory in Shelby, N.C.
In the final, San Diego won the first two games before Albemarie won the next two and the decisive fifth game, 9-8. Ritchey and Manuel, both regulars, watched from the dugout.
Eury’s research included an account of the series published on Sept. 7 in the Charlotte Observer that was written by sports editor Jake Wade.
“A crowd of something like 12,500 wrote history, with frenzied emotion such as has never been witnessed in a ball park in the Carolinas. The crowd did not always behave so nicely. Parts of the crowd, I should say. The boos for the San Diego colored boys, when Coach Mike Morrow of the Coasters ill-advisedly had them warming up, was brutal.”
Eury’s research also found this story written by Art Cohn, sports editor for the Oakland Tribune:
“A great club, that San Diego team. It waded through the local, State, sectional and National play-offs and loomed as a cinch for the title. Until it hit Albemarle. Then hell broke loose. Once below the Mason and Dixon, the most un-American of prejudices, racial discrimination, reared its ugly head, and, as a result, two regulars on the San Diego team were ruled ineligible. It seems that John Ritchey and Nelson Manuel, the two boys involved, had been found guilty…of being Negroes. Ritchey and Manuel were good enough to play with and against their white brothers in California, Arizona, and even in Shelby, North Carolina, but it was a different story in Albemarle.”
The man known as the Jackie Robinson of the Pacific Coast League should also be the kid that led San Diego’s American Legion Post No. 6 to two national titles in 1938 and 1940.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.