Bridgman, MI—In June 1958, I had just completed first grade after my parents moved to Holly, MI, about 45 miles northwest of Detroit.
One day that June, my father told me we were going to Detroit to see the Detroit Tigers play. John Fetzer, a former student at Emanuel Missionary College (the forerunner of Andrews University) and founder of Berrien County's first radio station (WEMC), had just organized a group that purchased the Tigers Major League Baseball team from the Briggs family (in 1960 Fetzer would become sole owner). This would be my first time attending a professional baseball game, my first trip to Detroit, and I was excited. My father said we would be seeing the Tigers’ first person of color play in his Detroit debut.
As a first grader, I was totally oblivious to most bad things in the world, including racism.
At Church on Sabbaths in my children's all-white Sabbath School class, I learned the words in a popular song: "Red and Yellow, Black and White, all are precious in His sight." I remember wondering what it was like to see people of color.
I was about to find out.
Ozzie Virgil Sr. (from the Dominican Republic) had just been signed by the Tigers and was the first player of color to play with Detroit. Even though most MLB teams had broken the color barrier years before, the longtime family owners of the Tigers, Walter Owen Briggs Sr. (1935-1952) and "Spike" Briggs Jr. (1952-1957) had refused to hire any player of color. This practice had extended throughout the organization including office and service/vendor personnel.
According to Harvey Briggs, grandson of Walter Briggs Sr., his grandfather "was a racist." So strong was the philosophy not to hire minorities, that a slogan used in the clubhouse was "No Jiggs with Briggs." One of the policies of the Briggsownership had even been to prohibit the sale of box seats to blacks.
As I followed my parents briskly up the cement ramps at Briggs Stadium, I was excited but didn't know what to expect. During the first couple of ramps, we were surrounded by concrete and dark green steel girders, creating an atmosphere that was quite dark.
Then, as we turned the corner and started up another ramp, suddenly, this bright green, perfectly manicured carpet of the most beautiful grass I had ever seen appeared on the horizon. Suddenly, darkness turned to light. Suddenly, the stadium lights shining on the field created this aura of what I thought heaven looked like.
On this June evening, a kaleidoscope of Detroiters that had previously not attended games because of the type of racism that the Tigers practiced, filled the seats at Briggs Stadium.
We sat in the lower deck grandstand seats down the third baseline. Each time Ozzie took his position at third base, he received applause. Every time he came up to the batter’s box, the fans cheered with excited anticipation. And each of Virgil's five times at bat, he got a base hit.
Five for five. With each base hit the entire stadium leaped to its feet and you could feel the unified cheers shaking the stadium.
In the years that followed, the Tigers finally began to integrate. In the 60s, the Tigers’ left fielder Willie Horton and several other African-Americans, became integral components of the team's increasing success. Wille'splay on the field, along with his kind, gentle personality made him one of the Tiger stars I looked up to.
In addition to becoming more competitive, an integrated team also helped keep the devastating effects of the 1967 Detroit race riot from becoming even worse.
In July 1967, America's worst race riot took place in Detroit for five days, bringing to the surface decades of racial discrimination, blatant racial profiling and brutality by the Detroit police.
The day the riot started, Willie Horton (who grew up in Detroit), after hitting a home run against the Yankees, got in his car and drove to the site of neighborhoods where gunfire was active. As police and - African American residents clashed, Hortonparked his car and, wearing his white Tiger uniform on with the English D, walked up and down the 12th street neighborhood unsuccessfully urging calm and peace.
During this difficult time, black and white Tiger players came together as one. Their excellence on the field and togetherness in the clubhouse had a calming effect on the entire city.
A few weeks after this July tragedy in 1967, I was getting to know my first friend of color, Ronnie Hopson from Flint, who was on my football team at Adelphian Academy. He was a bright student and a talented athlete. Our team won first place that year due to the talent and team spirit of Ronnie and everyone on the team.
As I got to know Ronnie better, I began to see what it was like to be a minority and not always treated with respect, equality and fairness. The attributes I saw in Ronnie were very similar to the attributes I saw in Willie Horton - a kind soul in the body of a strong and gifted athlete.
Although Ronnie had experienced countless instances of racism, I never once heard him utter a disparaging word toward anyone.
I never saw Ronnie again after my Adelphian days. However, through the development of experiences in my life, the example of Ronnie Hopson always stayed with me. For every one of us, a day will come when the lights go out,
For me, when that happens and I awake with darkness turning to light,I know I'll see the most beautiful carpet of green grass ever.
And then I'll spot Ronnie, who'll be there among a sea of faces, red and yellow, black and white.
Theodore Lewis is the former CEO of Guam Memorial Hospital and has a healthcare consulting business in Bridgman, MI. He is collecting stories about lessons learned in life and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.