National tragedy brought baseball to a halt for two days in 1968
The horrific episode led the National Pastime to take the unprecedented step – not even seen during two world wars – of delaying the start of the big league season for two days of mourning.
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Gunned down by James Earl Ray outside a Memphis motel room on April 4, 1968, the civil rights leader was only 39 years old. Dr. King’s death set off rioting in dozens of cities across the country.
“I am concerned about repercussions. I can’t imagine people taking this kind of attitude,” said Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947, from his Stamford, Conn., home on the night of King’s death. “It is the most disturbing and distressing thing we’ve had to face in a long time.”
A day after Dr. King’s death, players with the Pittsburgh Pirates began a series of meetings that ultimately resulted in the team letting management know they didn’t feel they could play their two opening games of the season, April 8 and April 9, in Houston against the Astros.
Clendenon had known the slain civil rights leader for almost half his life – the first baseman having attended high school in Atlanta where Dr. King was born and served as a pastor.
“My father took me to meet Dr. King when I couldn’t make up my mind about college,” Clendenon recalled to the Pittsburgh Press a few days after the assassination. “I had athletic scholarships from UCLA and Michigan State but my dad, a Morehouse College graduate, wanted me to go to college at home in Atlanta.
“Dr. King was also a Morehouse alumnus and he convinced me to go to college there. I took an academic scholarship although I played all sports.”
In deference to the memory of the late Dr. King, Senators business manager Joseph Burke said: “We feel that such a gala occasion as a baseball opener would be in conflict with the shock all of us have experienced with the death of Dr. King.”
Commissioner William “Spike” Eckert and the league presidents, Joe Cronin in the AL and Warren Giles in the NL, left it up to individual teams whether to postpone games.
“The American League regrets most sincerely the events of recent days,” said Cronin, “and out of deference to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, concurs most fully in the postponement of the longstanding Presidential Opener scheduled for Monday in Washington.”
“They said they felt that as long as the game would not be played before Dr. King’s interment there was no sense in cancelling it,” Bavasi said. “Davis and Gilliam told me they would do their mourning in church Sunday and Monday.”
Belatedly, the Dodgers made it unanimous when on April 9 the franchise announced they, too, would postpone their season opener after a meeting between their president, Walter O’Malley, Quinn and Giles.
Civil disorder around the country, from Washington, D.C. to Detroit, Chicago to Cincinnati, led to a pair of Orioles, shortstop Mark Belanger and pitcher Pete Richert, as well as shortstop Eddie Brinkman of the Senators, to leave their teams and report for military duty with their National Guard units.
Despite the ongoing unrest in the streets in several big league cities, attendance for the 10 opening games on April 10 totaled 267,125 as compared with 271,059 in 1967.
Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum