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McGRATH: Baseball was better when more African Americans were in it

VadPinswas .303 hitter averaged 21 home runs 88 RBI his first seven seasons. | Getty Images

Vada Pinson was a .303 hitter and averaged 21 home runs and 88 RBI in his first seven seasons. | Getty Images

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Updated: August 15, 2013 7:02AM

In the fifth inning of the Double Duty Classic on Tuesday at U.S. Cellular Field, Corderias Dorsey of the West team glided over into right-center field to glove a high drive off the bat of Adam Kelly.

Dorsey, a long and limber 17-year-old from Decatur, Ga., then fired a perfect left-handed strike home to cut down the East team’s Tino Torres as he tried to score the go-ahead run after tying the score with an RBI triple.

This old dude was probably the only person in the ballpark who thought of Vada Pinson as Dorsey’s effortlessly smooth play unfolded.

A symposium about the Negro Leagues’ impact on baseball history is part of the Double Duty program, through which the White Sox promote efforts to make the game more accessible to minority youngsters and honor Negro Leagues legend Ted ‘‘Double Duty’’ Radcliffe, a U.S. Cellular Field fixture until his death in 2005. The high school-age players wear replica Negro League uniforms, and the chance to play in a big-league setting infuses the game with joyful enthusiasm. Message boards carry snippets of Negro Leagues history interspersed with quotes from philosopher/pitcher Satchel Paige, whose folksy wisdom made him the Yogi Berra of black baseball.

Pinson came along after Jackie Robinson broke the major-league ‘‘color line’’ and never played in the Negro Leagues, so his name probably wasn’t mentioned during Double Duty festivities. Pinson had three seasons with 200 hits, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases among his first seven with the Cincinnati Reds and rivaled Willie Mays as the baron of center field. And while his Cooperstown-caliber early career leveled off into a very good one with the passage of time, the ever-stylish Pinson symbolized the power-and-speed dynamic that made mid-1960s National League baseball so enticing to a young fan.

Recognizing Robinson’s impact, NL teams were more aggressive in signing and developing African-American and Latin players after his arrival changed the face of the game. With Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Richie Allen, Lou Brock, Willie Stargell and Tommy Davis competing on the same fields, you can make a case for mid-1960s NL baseball as the best ever played.

Pinson wasn’t the best of that bunch, but he was definitely the coolest. The name suggested a James Bond movie villain, but Pinson was way too handsome for that. Some of his minor-league coaches thought he was Cuban, but Pinson was born in Memphis, Tenn., moved to Oakland, Calif., as a youngster and grew up on the same playgrounds that produced Bill Russell, Frank Robinson, Curt Flood and Joe Morgan.

Looking oh-so-smooth in his No. 28 sleeveless uniform, Pinson played with a left-handed grace that suggested baseball was easy for him. It never was for me — short, stumpy, right-handed and incurably pasty-white Irish — but on the vacant lot behind McHale’s house, on the Ridge-Morgan Park Little League fields or in the classic Wiffle-ball stadium in the back yard on Maplewood Avenue, I tried to be Vada Pinson.

He averaged .303 with 21 homers, 88 RBI, 66 extra-base hits and 23 steals on good Reds teams from 1959-65 but made only two All-Star teams because the NL outfield was so loaded — loaded with black talent. In 1965, there were six African-American players in the NL starting lineup: Stargell (left), Mays (center) and Aaron (right) in the outfield, joined by Banks at first base, Allen at third base and Maury Wills at shortstop.

There will be one black starter in each lineup for the All-Star Game on Tuesday: the Reds’ Brandon Phillips at second base for the Nationals and the Orioles’ Adam Jones in center field for the Americans. The Tigers’ Prince Fielder and Torii Hunter made the team as AL reserves, as did the Phillies’ Domonic Brown and the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen for the NL.

Six players out of 66 chosen — or 9 percent. That mirrors the African-American population in major-league baseball, down from 27 percent in the late 1970s. The Cubs’ Marlon Byrd was the only African-American player on either Chicago team’s Opening Day roster last season, a sad development for a city with a rich history of black talent.

I was told to chill out, in so many words, when I made that observation last year. So what? Look how African-Americans have come to dominate basketball and football.

True. Point guard at Kentucky and running back at LSU were not options for black athletes in Pinson’s day, so more of them gravitated toward baseball.

It was a better game because they did.

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