Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A major-league friendship that crossed the colour line

Ian Dixon was a teenaged phenomenon from North Vancouver when signed by the New York Yankees. He spent four seasons in the minor leagues. Photograph courtesy the Len Corben Collection. BELOW: Roy White's 1977 Topps baseball card.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
August 25, 2010


The baseball scouts had an eye on Ian Dixon when he was a high school student.

Mr. Dixon was a pitching sensation on the North Shore, a monster on the mound who not only threw hard but also could hit hard. For three years, starting from age 15, scouts from major league teams watched every pitch.

At a time when no British Columbians were in the major leagues, he seemed a future star.

“One game, when I was 17, I was throwing harder than I thought I’d ever thrown,” he recalled. “I struck out 20 out of 21 guys. Nobody even touched the ball. One, two, three. It was a great feeling.”

Scouts called his school. One team hinted at a six-figure bonus.

In the end, the teenager, also a solid infielder, signed with the New York Yankees for about $45,000 US, a heady payout worth about nine times the average Canadian family income.

It was headline news at home, worthy of a mention in even so august a journal as the Christian Science Monitor.

The prospect rewarded himself by buying a snazzy car — a 1961 Chevrolet Impala convertible.

“White top. Whitewalls. Fire-engine red. A good-looking car.

“A bit flashy,” he acknowledges now.

He drove the car to Florida, where he was asked to play third base for the St. Petersburg Saints, a Class-D team at the bottom of baseball’s alphabet ladder.

There were scorpions in the dugout, snakes beyond the outfield fence, alligators rumoured to be lurking in swamps beyond the outfield fence.

The following season, he returned to Florida for spring training. While he handled duties at third base, known in baseball lore as the Hot Corner, a rookie from Los Angeles played second base. Roy White was 18, the product of a broken home, raised by his mother in a working-class neighbourhood.

The infielders spent all day on their field in the hot sun, taking a liquid break in midmorning followed by a soup and sandwich eaten under the shade of a tree at noon.

In the sultry Florida spring, a friendship developed between two teenagers far from home.

On the last day of camp, both went into a gymnasium to learn their assignments for the season.

The roster lists had good news: Both were to report to Greensboro, N.C., a promotion.

The Canadian asked the Californian how he was going to get there. Perhaps by bus, Mr. White replied.

Mr. Dixon offered his friend a ride in his car, an offer eagerly accepted.

They headed north, the radio playing chart-topping hit songs.

They crossed the state line into Georgia.

The sun began to set. It was time to eat. They had to address the social customs of a region in which interracial friendships were not encouraged.

“A white guy and a black guy in a red convertible? People would notice it,” Mr. Dixon said.

Martin Luther King, Jr., would not make his “I have a dream” speech for another 17 months. Freedom Summer was still two years away. The Civil Rights Act had not been passed. The Ku Klux Klan was not a joke, but a deadly force protected by the authorities, too many of whom were members.

Being a baseball player offered no protection.

Even established stars, some earning tens of thousands of dollars, endured the humiliations of Jim Crow in Florida.

“Money has not ended spring camp bias,” an Ebony magazine headline stated in 1962.

Minnie Minosa, a Cuban, was forbidden from enjoying the dock at the hotel at which his team stayed. The black players with the New York Mets were not to congregate in the lobby of their hotel. The black Philadelphia Phillies slept in the same motel as their teammates, but could not eat in the coffee shop.

The blackness of their skin trumped even the green in their wallet.

Mr. Dixon remembers separate washrooms and drinking fountains. The Florida ball parks had segregated seating. African-American fans were forbidden from sitting in the grandstand.

On the drive north, the two young athletes pulled off the highway to a deserted section of road.

“We planned it out,” Mr. Dixon said. “Small town. Outskirts. Off the highway. A roadside place.

“Roy got in the back. When we drove up to the restaurant, there was a blanket back there so he could hunker down, lay down on the seat, cover up if he needed to.

“I got in, took the order ...” — a hamburger and fried chicken — “.. and took off.”

They ate in the car as they drove.

“The more mobile we were,” he said, “the better.”

In Greensboro, they went separate ways. Mr. White boarded with a black family. Mr. Dixon joined three other white teammates in a house rented by the team. Unfortunately, it had not been stocked with food, blankets, or towels. One of his new roommates slept on a bare mattress with only a raincoat as a blanket. Mel Stottlemyre later became a celebrated pitcher and coach.

Mr. Dixon took batting practice with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, got hitting tips from the great Joe DiMaggio. His playing career lasted four seasons before he returned to Vancouver.

Meanwhile, Mr. White went on to become an all-star player with the Yankees. He lives in New Jersey, where he operates an eponymous foundation that aids young adults in furthering their education.

These days, Mr. Dixon, 67, is a financial advisor in Vancouver. The old teammates talk by telephone every few months. Mr. Dixon makes regular contributions to the Roy White Foundation.

In 1999, Mr. White took a job as batting coach with the Vancouver Canadians. He stayed at the Dixon home for the entire season.

His Canadian friend never did get to wear the famed Yankee pinstripes. As consolation, he ended up with what can be called a major-league friendship.

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