On the morning after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, one-by-one, 11 African-American Major League Baseball players filed into Donn Clendenon’s Holiday Inn hotel room in Houston. Maury Wills and Roberto Clemente arrived first; then Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Dock Ellis and a half dozen other Pirates teammates convened.
The meeting was emotional, but short and decisive. The Pirates contingency unanimously voted to sit out a scheduled exhibition game on Sunday and the first two games of the season, Monday and Tuesday in Houston.
The next day, Clendenon, Wills and Clemente led a meeting to inform teammates and management of their intentions. In an interview with The Undefeated, Pirates pitcher Dave Wickersham recalls the clubhouse being “quiet and somber” adding, “Nobody had to be persuaded. It’s not that we didn’t want to play, it was more that we shouldn’t play … Some of the black players were pretty upset.”
“We were white and we felt the same way about Dr. King,” added Steve Blass. “We were all part of the whole experience. The vote was easy because there was equal representation [of black players], if not more so, with the emphasis on high-profile guys like Stargell and Clemente and Maury Wills. Maury was very emphatic … he was not afraid to speak out. I remember that being impressive, a black guy being very emphatic about not wanting to play in those games. But you didn’t have to be black or white to be aware of doing the right thing and respecting the whole situation.”
The entire Pirates 25-man roster nodded in agreement, even if it meant accepting a forfeit and fines from the organization. The Pirates released a statement in Clemente’s name (a native of Puerto Rico) stating:
“We are doing this because we white and black players respect what Dr. King has done for mankind. Dr. King was not only concerned with Negroes or whites, but with poor people. We owe this gesture to his memory and ideals.”
Commissioner William Eckert initially decided to let each club decide how to proceed, rather than use his leadership to make a statement to the league — and the country. In hindsight, the decision by the Pirates – led by then future Met Clendenon – led Eckert to walk back his indecision and announce that MLB teams would honor King by pushing the start of its season back until after the funeral.
The Sporting News applauded Eckert’s decision for putting “baseball on the side of social justice.” MLB owners were less supportive, criticizing Eckert for not penalizing players who had refused to participate in scheduled games.
Meanwhile, 1,500+ miles away in San Francisco the New York Mets were visiting the West Coast for a three-game exhibition schedule against the San Francisco Giants and a pair of games against the Philadelphia Phillies. With the team holed up in a Palm Springs, they watched as riots crippled major league cities across the country. They pondered the need – and the importance – of a baseball game in the midst of the lawlessness.
“A man tries to do some good, like Martin Luther King,” said Mets pitcher Al Jackson. “He does good for black people and for white people. Somebody doesn’t agree with him, and gets a gun. And you say to yourself, ‘My God, can a thing like this happen in this country?’”
King’s work also had a major impact on Mets third baseman Ed Charles who experienced racism and segregation as a young man. After he retired from baseball, Charles had a modest apartment in Elmhurst. Two large framed photos hung on the wall in his living room: One was Martin Luther King Jr. and the other was the 1969 New York Mets.
“One idiot trying to stir up other idiots,” he said.
But many Major League Baseball owners disagreed, feeling baseball would serve as an elixir to the country’s open wound. Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley wanted the team to play their opener after King’s funeral earlier in the day.
“I see nothing disrespectful about the Dodgers playing so many hours after the funeral,” National League president Warren Giles told the Los Angeles Times. “It is generally accepted practice for businesses to close during the services and reopen after they are over.”
For Clendenon, the loss was personal.
Both King and Clendenon had Atlanta roots. The two became acquainted while Clendenon was in star high school athlete. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Clendenon felt the pressure to please his mother, who wanted her son to pursue a medical career. Clendenon was uncertain, feeling some pull toward teaching, in tribute to his father who was a college professor.
Clendenon wanted to attend UCLA. His mother and stepfather urged him to apply to Morehouse, a private historically black men’s liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia. The school was close to home and served as “an epicenter of the civil rights movement and African-American academia and culture.”
Still undecided, Morehouse assigned Clendenon a “big brother.” The role was traditionally assigned to upperclassman, but in this case, Clendenon’s future and decision was entrusted to an alumni and family friend. His name was Martin Luther King Jr.
King eventually convinced Clendenon to attend Morehouse, a decision that served Clendenon well for years to come. In his biography published by the Society for American Baseball Research it was noted:
King fulfilled the big brother’s job—helping Clendenon adjust to the school over occasional dinners in the King home. Clendenon had an open invitation to drop by, and if Martin Jr. wasn’t there, he had the ear of Martin Sr. (Class of 1926); Martin Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King; or Martin’s influential sister Christine King.
Clendenon, a gifted athlete, would go on to win 12 varsity letters at Morehouse (four each in baseball, basketball and football). He ran the 100-yard-dash in 9.6 seconds. The Cleveland Browns and the Harlem Globetrotters offered him contracts. Clendenon declined. Following in the footsteps of his father, Clendenon accepted a position as a fourth grade teacher in the Atlanta.
In 1957, Clendenon signed a professional contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates where he played eight seasons (1961-1968). In October 1968, Clendenon was selected by the Montreal Expos in the major league expansion draft. After one-half season with the Expos, the New York Mets acquired Clendenon from Montreal for infielder Kevin Collins, pitcher Steve Renko and three minor league prospects. Clendenon hit a dozen home runs down the stretch to help the Mets win their first-ever division title.
But it was in the 1969 World Series that Clendenon paid dividends. The Mets first baseman batted .357 (5-for-14) with three home runs and four RBI. Clendenon was named Most Valuable Player of the series.