I once asked a prominent baseball writer and book author the rhetorical question as to whether he found writing to be a learning adventure each and every time he went through the process. The answer was an unequivocal, “Yes, of course”, the inflection of which is lost here in the flatness of the written word, but had the twinge of, “Duh. What do you think?”
And, that case of a revelation after coming out of the backside of a published bit of research came upon me last night after writing an article on the breaking of the color barrier in the NHL (50 Years Ago Today: O’Ree Breaks the NHL Color Barrier).
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Willie O’Ree taking the ice with the Boston Bruins in Montreal against the Canadiens. In the years since, O’Ree has been referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of hockey.” But, in all honesty, is that really true? O’Ree is barely a blip on the radar in terms of how he is viewed in historical terms compared to Jackie Robinson. Most reading here have probably never heard of him, something that seems to be a shame.
It makes one ask, why is that? The question is not one which looks to callously lower Robinson’s place in history, but rather asks how O’Ree has been virtually overlooked? At the end of the article, I write in part:
There may be reasons why Willie O’Ree is not as notable in collective conscious of history as that Brooklyn Dodger, Jackie Robinson became. It may be that Robinson’s accomplishment had occurred more than a decade before O’Ree’s. It may be that the National Hockey League did not yet resonate in America at the time, where the Civil Rights movement was then making international news. It may be that his NHL career, by Robinson’s standards, was far shorter. It may be that history has recorded the incredible levels of racism that Robinson endured, where O’Ree’s recollections of his time in Fredericton are mostly devoid of it, and not until he played NHL games in the US, or has since become involved in the NHL’s diversity efforts, did racial slurs and taunts come to the forefront. None of it should minimize the accomplishment.
After thinking further on this, I realized that there is most certainly more to add.
In a sport which now sees a “Civil Rights Game”, MLB battled tooth and nail to retain the Jim Crow laws that kept men of color out of baseball. Baseball is a game that saw far more interest from African Americans than hockey would ever have seen. The fact that Negro Leagues flourished to such astonishing levels is in part why MLB relented on the issue of color.
There is, of course, Branch Rickey and his character, which history has painted as something straight out of Hollywood. A pious and devout Christian, the story of Rickey looking to Robinson, and not a player such as Satchel Paige, who was considered a major star by comparison, due to his ability to weather any racial slurs and abuse with silence for one year, is something that O’Ree’s arrival into the National Hockey League never was confronted with. There is no “social calling” underpinnings to O’Ree’s story by Milt Schmidt, the Bruins head coach at the time, nor Bruins management. He was simply a player that could hustle and play. Color was not an issue.
And that extended to the players. Where Robinson had to win over the Dodger players with his incredible level of play, which seems to be encapsulated in “Pee Wee” Reese putting his arm around Robinson for pictures on the day Robinson would debut with the Dodgers, history has painted the relationship between O’Ree and his Bruins teammates as nothing of the sort.
As I said, this shouldn’t minimize the accomplishments of O’Ree, who is active with the NHL to this day. It is rather a sad commentary on how a game that touts its in-roads into Civil Rights while dealing with a shameful history in race relations, is somehow more compelling than a story in which the color of one’s skin was not highlighted as a barrier into a major professional sport. Is hockey played mostly by whites? Yes. Is it that way due to barriers that were placed in front of players of color, like baseball has had? No.
Those that follow baseball should take note of the anniversary milestone that hockey is celebrating today. It seems that O’Ree’s accomplishment is no less compelling, if only for the fact that those of color may not have seen that hockey as a sport option open to them, rather than a game where some artificial barrier based on race would keep them out. Maybe, just maybe, it is the NHL who should consider a Civil Rights game.