2. Black and White

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March 3, 1918


Spring arrived early in Hester bringing with it hope that the harsh winter had come to an end. Union Steel Ballpark overflowed with energized fans. The smell of freshly roasted peanuts and hot dogs drifted along a breeze of burning coal and molten pig iron from the steel mill next door.

In the box seats behind the home dugout, Frank Bell clapped encouragement for his team. He wore a casual navy suit, matching waistcoat and trousers. At forty-five, hair peppered, he was the youngest general manager of the eight-team steel mill league. Squinting walnut brown eyes into the glare of the sun, he shouted, "Come on, Pioneers!"

On the field, Jake Westin, the Pioneers' ace, stepped into the batter's box and took a couple practice swings. Even from this distance, Frank could tell something was missing in those old blues, something that made Jake's eyes look cold and dark.

Frank had played baseball at Western University, and he hated to admit, in the previous century. On a full athletic scholarship, he hit .380 over four years while majoring in business. In his senior year, he was defending second base when a runner slid into him, metal spikes impaling his left ankle. Pain. Blood. Fear. Teammates carried Frank off the field, loaded him into a horse-drawn beer wagon, and rushed him to Mayview Hospital. Eventually he would regain his ability to walk. But his dream to play professional baseball had died.

"This game is an embarrassment." The baritone voice came from behind.

Frank managed a slight smile and turned to his father. "I didn't think you'd show up."

Richard Bell was short in every sense of the word—short face, short frame, and short-tempered—a complete opposite of Frank, who at six-foot-two, looked like he could still play ball. And while Richard was loathed by his steel mill employees, Frank was held in the highest regard by everyone in Hester.

"Of course you didn't," Richard said with a thin scowl encompassed by a neatly trimmed beard. He took a seat beside Frank, withdrew a Cuban cigar from inside his suit jacket, and waggled it between his fingers.

"I didn't think you cared much for baseball," Frank said.

Richard grumbled. "I don't care for petty games. But I do care about the company."

Frank knew his father meant Union Steel, the company he started from the ground up."Look at them," Richard said, gesturing to the colored section. "We gave them their freedom.

Now we have to let them on the field." He placed the cigar to his lips and lit it with a match. He took a few puffs until the end glowed orange. "It would be a shame if the company team loses to a bunch of monkeys in uniform."

"They're people," Frank said, his voice lacking force.

"What did you say?"

"They're people too," Frank said louder. "Just like anyone else in this town."

"Son, I built this town, thanks to Union Steel. I didn't build it for them."

Frank opened his mouth to make a point when the crowd erupted to their feet. He stood up amid the cries of elation.

Jake had just clubbed a deep fly ball over the third base line.

The white fans' cheers turned into disappointed sighs as the home plate umpire signaled foul left.

"Don't blow this one, Pioneers!" someone shouted from the center field stands, his voice filled with mock fear.

Cries of real fear were not uncommon at a ballpark. Just last April in Vernon, California, two gunmen exchanged fire at a ballgame between two semi-professional teams, one white and one black. Police later discovered the two men were fighting over a lousy bet. That sparked a nationwide debate: Should whites and blacks be allowed to play baseball together?

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