Story Stream
recent articles

On this date in 1935, in the Texas port city of Beaumont, Frank Robinson and Ruth Shaw welcomed their 10th child into the world. He was named after his father, but that man wouldn't be much of a presence in the boy's life. The couple soon divorced and Ruth took her youngest children to the West Coast, settling in another port city: Oakland, Calif.

This fatherless boy grew up shy, but naturally athletic. Frank Robinson seems to have been searching in quiet way for a male role model and his niche. He found both in the working-class neighborhood of West Oakland. The role model was named George Powles. The niche was sports.

* * *

In the aftermath of World War II, only one of Frank Robinson siblings, older brother Johnny, was still at home. But the economy in Oakland was humming and the family made do. "We were poor but didn't know it," Robinson wrote in his memoir. "I thought I had just about everything I needed or wanted. I always got attention from my mom and my brother, so I felt very fortunate."

"Robby," as his teammates called him, became a legend in the American Legion leagues, the best baseball played in California at the time, while also starring in basketball and track at McClymonds High School.

George Powles had been a local star himself who'd played one season on the San Francisco Seals before Joe DiMaggio arrived. By the 1930s, Powles decided he wanted to be a schoolteacher, but had trouble finding jobs during the Depression. He worked in a Bay Area oil refinery, coaching baseball on the side. Returning home after the war -- he fought with the U.S. Army in the Battle of the Bulge -- he was hired at Herbert Hoover Junior High and then McClymonds, where all he did was help shape the future of modern American sports.

Walking the halls at McClymonds High School in the spring of 1952 were four future major league baseball players. Frank Robinson and pitcher Charlie Beamon were named All-City. Underclassmen Curt Flood and Vada Pinson were next in the pipeline. And that doesn't count a certain basketball player also coached by George Powles named Bill Russell.

The feats of these young pioneers are too numerous to mention, but I'll mention a few. Russell led the University of San Francisco to two NCAA national championships, was an 11-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, winning the Most Valuable Player award five times and becoming the league's first black coach. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from a hoops-loving chief executive in 2011.

Frank Robinson, the only man to win the MVP award in both leagues and major league baseball's first African American manager, was also was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom by a former MLB executive.

Curt Flood never won such an award, but he should have. A brilliant centerfielder for 15 years, he challenge baseball's "reserve clause" and paid dearly for it. But every major league player who came afterward has benefitted.

All these men made their mark by dint of extreme talent, coupled with even more extreme work habits. They possessed something else, too: a keen understanding of race relations. Color-blind by inclination, they also became acutely aware of racial disparities in sports and the world at large and endeavored to obliterate them.

"[R]ace never came up in our household," Frank Robinson wrote in his 1988 memoir. "Nothing was ever said about the color of people's skin, about anyone being different, or anything like that. …We were all just people."

He was talking there about the streets and athletic arenas in Oakland. Robinson would experience racism for the first time in Utah, and then South Carolina, as he rocketed through the minor leagues to his first big league ball club in Cincinnati.

Another thing all these men had in common, as did a thousand other boys from Oakland, is that they benefited from the simple grace of a gifted educator. George Powles never swore and rarely raised his voice. He was white, as were his wife, Winifred, and their two children, while most of the kids he coached were black. But their home became the clubhouse.

"For many black children from working-class families, it was their first time inside a white person's home," noted Brad Snyder in his biography of Flood. "Powles made them feel at ease."

At the beginning of the school year, Powles would host an orientation for every student -- sometimes 25% of the boys in the school -- trying out for athletic teams. The first item on the agenda (and Powles would spend 15 minutes on it) was the proper way to shake hands.

When Bill Russell wasn't good enough to make the junior varsity basketball team as a sophomore, Powles gave him $2 out of his own pocket, bought him a year's membership in the local Boys Club and told him to spend the summer at the local rec center working on his game. He then made Russell the 16th player on a 15-player squad so he wouldn't get discouraged. "By that one gesture," the winningest basketball player in history -- and among and the most cerebral -- wrote later, "I believe that man saved me from becoming a juvenile delinquent."

Years before Curt Flood attended McClymonds High, he sought out Powles. "George would finish coaching basketball practice at night, then would stay and hit ground balls to me with a hard rubber ball on the wood floor in the McClymonds' gym," Flood later recalled. "I couldn't have been more than 10, and he took the time with me then."

In 1982, the first person Frank Robinson thanked when delivering his Hall of Fame induction speech was his old coach. "George Powles gave me the foundation I'm still building on," Robinson told the crowd in Cooperstown. "I want to say to George Powles, ‘Thank you for all the youth of Oakland,' because I know they appreciate it like I did and still do."

George Powles passed away five years later. He is still remembered fondly by the dwindling band of Californians who played for him. But next time somebody mentions "teachers unions" -- and I know their politics can be infuriating -- think instead about "teachers." Think of George Powles and millions like him, and the lives they touch every day.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments