I grew up in what today might be called an inner-city neighborhood in South Philadelphia that was made up of African Americans and Italian Americans almost in equal number. The adults were all working-class and, no matter their race, they were all conservative people.
Mine was the generation of the Baby Boomers, and our parents went through their childhood and teen years during the Depression and World War II. It was those years that formulated their conservative views, their belief in the power of the Christian church, in the necessity of school, the sanctity of marriage, the shame of teen pregnancy, the need for a man to earn enough to support a wife and children, the need for a woman to be a good mother and housewife and to keep an eye on the neighborhood during the day, the wonders of home ownership.
Several of the black women in the neighborhood cleaned the homes of some of the white women, and many black teens worked in the small shops owned by the Italians and the Jews. Many of the blacks in the neighborhood lived in housing projects; none of the whites did. There was an overt racial hierarchy, and we had our share of racial conflict. But surprisingly people got on with one another reasonably well.
Everyone in the neighborhood believed in unions and voted for Democratic Party every election because everyone could count on Democrat politicians like Rep. Bill Barrett to do favors for you, like getting your kid out of jail without paying bail if he had been arrested on a misdemeanor or getting your driver’s license back after it had been suspended for drunk driving, or helping your kid get out of the Army without being dishonorably discharged or helping your kid get into the police academy or something like that. Our politics was the ideology of patronage.
This working-class conservatism had severe shortcomings as it was partly built on intolerance, superstition, political corruption and prideful ignorance, but there was much about this community’s conservatism that made my childhood stable and warm and rich in the gifts of ordinary life, even if it was narrow in its exposure and unenlightened about the wider world. I am what this neighborhood made me.
A few years ago I took my daughter Rosalind on a walking tour of this neighborhood. She was surprised by how modest it was, despite a few touches of gentrification. She was even more surprised when we ran into people, black and white, who knew me, had grown up with me, and remembered me despite the fact that I had not lived there for over 35 years. She was surprised as well that I was held in such esteem by them.
“I was lucky. The people in this neighborhood always believed in my possibilities,” I said to her.
When we arrived at an old ball field, I told her a story of how I used to play baseball for my elementary school team, how bad I was as a player then, and how the kids and the gym teacher made me a catcher, a position nobody wanted to play. I was afraid of the ball, afraid of being hit by the bat when I was catching, afraid of striking out when I was batting, which I always did. The opposition called me the automatic out, the clown, hole in the glove, and the weakling.
One day I was really struggling, making errors and striking out, and I was getting razed by both the opposing team and my own teammates, who yelled at me, “Why the hell can’t you hit anything?” So, finally, I simply sat down on the bench, started to cry, and refused to play anymore. I was tired of being humiliated.
The gym teacher was furious with me and told me I wouldn’t amount to much of a man if I couldn’t take adversity, if I couldn’t take some hazing. Look at what Jackie Robinson had to take, he said. That odd appeal to racial pride might have worked but I was only 10 years old and was convinced in my child’s mind that Jackie Robinson could not have suffered nearly as much as I had.
The opposition really gave it to me and called me a sissy, a crybaby and the like. But my teammates did not raze me or even get mad; they came over and earnestly talked me back into playing. They told me not to let them down and we had to stick together as a team. As bad as I was, they still wanted me. My best friend, Benny, handed me the catcher’s mask and mitt and said, “God hates a coward.”
So I went back into the game. In the last inning of that game, we were ahead by one run. The opposition had a runner on first with two outs, and the batter hits a ball into the gap. The kid on first was tearing around the bases. Amazingly, we made absolutely perfect relays and I got the ball just as this husky kid came barreling toward the plate and he ran right over me, flattened me completely. I actually saw stars. That’s how hard he hit me.
Rosalind thought the story had a sad ending. She thought the opposition won.
Oh no, I told her. The kid was out. I tagged him and held on to the ball. It didn’t matter that he knocked me into the middle of next week. We won the game and I was a hero. I told her that I learned everything from that game.
First, I learned that while I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was. And that I didn’t need to be better than everyone else. I only needed to be the best at the crucial moment when it counted most.
Second, the only way to stop being embarrassed and humiliated was to get better. There is a certain kernel of cruelty in all learning.
Third, from time to time, you need someone who believes in your possibilities to tell you to trust your stuff, as they say in baseball, because God does indeed hate a coward.
Edited for length and reprinted with permission from his acceptance speech at the St. Louis Walk of Fame on April 11.