In Major League Baseball there is one eligible number not permitted to appear on the uniforms of any team, and that is ‘42’. In 1997, MLB retired this number to honour Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers and, in fact, adopted a new tradition in 2004 by stipulating that every player in the American and National Leagues wears Number 42 on their uniforms on every April 15th.
That date marks the anniversary of the occasion when Jackie Robinson became the first black player to break through the colour-barrier that had infected the major leagues since the 1880s. This breakthrough challenged the traditional bases of segregation which then marked many other aspects of American life. Robinson’s talent and character influenced the culture of the times, and contributed significantly to the burgeoning Civil Rights’ movement.
Before Jackie Robinson shattered that barrier, firstly with the Montreal Royals of the International League and with the Dodgers of the National League in 1947, African-American baseball players were confined to the so-called Negro Leagues. These were poorly run and administered, players were paid pittances, stadiums were ramshackle, long-distance transportation was by bus, accommodation on road-trips could not be guaranteed … black baseball players were second-class citizens.
It was not an easy transition for Robinson: other players, including most of his fellow Brooklyn Dodgers, regularly insulted him on and off the diamond; other teams’ players inflicted physical injury as well as racial slurs; there was the genuine threat of an all-out strike if he were not removed from the roster.
Despite that, Jackie Robinson was a success: he was hailed as ‘Rookie of the Year’ at the end of his first season, was a member of the All-Star team for six successive seasons, and was adjudged the National League’s MVP in 1949 … and surpassed all that by becoming a member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962.
After his retirement as a player, Robinson continued with his success: he became the first black television analyst, and the first black vice-president of a major American corporation; in the 1960s, he helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned financial institution based in Harlem, New York. After his death in 1972, in recognition of his achievements on and off the field, Robinson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom.Listen to JOHN BARNES with A Celtic State of Mind here:
Gil Heron, who could be considered Celtic’s first black player, was hardly a Jackie Robinson.
He had been ‘discovered’ during Celtic’s tour of the United States and Canada in the summer of 1951. At the time he was playing for Detroit Corinthians in the semi-professional American Soccer League, and at the age of twenty-nine was not a youngster.
He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and was considered an outstanding athlete in his youth. He emigrated to North America, fluctuating between Canada and the States, and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II. When Celtic offered him a contract, he jumped at the chance and arrived in Glasgow in a blaze of publicity. Before playing in a single match (apart from a pre-season Public Trial in which he scored twice), he had been dubbed ‘The Black Flash’ and ‘The Black Arrow’, and the publicity seemed to work as an above-average crowd turned up for his debut on a rainy day. It was a League Cup tie at Celtic Park against Morton on August 18th 1951.
I can remember an amusing incident from that game: Celtic had taken the field and were ‘shooting-in’ prior to the kick-off … about a dozen little boys broke out of the Jungle, desperate to touch the exotic newcomer (or to get his autograph) … unfortunately, they made straight for Jimmy Mallan whose swarthy complexion was several shades darker than the newcomer’s.
He made a good impression in Celtic’s 2-0 win, and scored the first goal early on with a snap-shot from the edge of the penalty area, a crisply-hit shot that Jimmy Cowan in Morton’s goal could not keep out.
A later mid-week cup-tie against Airdrie, a game played in balmy weather, produced another decent performance … and his second goal. He received the ball just inside Airdrie’s half, controlled it instantly, and galloped for another thirty yards before lashing it past Airdrie’s keeper from just outside the penalty area.
However, Celtic slumped in two away League Cup ties: against Third Lanark at Cathkin on another wet, miserable afternoon, and against Morton at Cappielow (0-2) but they scraped into the knock-out stages of the competition on goal-average. Another goal for Morton at Greenock would have eliminated Celtic. In those two matches the newcomer was largely invisible, and doubts were being expressed about his physicality. He was tall and slim, possessed a good turn of speed, and had a strong shot … but he did not appear to relish tough tackling.
There was another problem. Sean Fallon had replaced John McPhail for the summer St Mungo Cup, but he was viewed rightly as a short-term solution; it was hoped that Gil Heron would do better, but already it appeared he was struggling. John McPhail, Celtic’s centre-forward and captain, had been the hero of the 1951 Scottish Cup campaign but he was suffering from a long-standing injury and had returned from the North American tour over-weight and unable to train.
A Glasgow Cup tie against Third Lanark at Cathkin was significant; McPhail was restored as centre-forward, and the other forwards responded. Celtic won by 5-2, in contrast to the lackluster 0-0 draw between the same sides on the same ground earlier.
Off-field, Celtic were not a cohesive, unified club. The manager was weak, the chairman dictatorial … and cliques were abundant. It seems clear that some players saw that a healthy Heron posed a threat to an injury-prone McPhail, and acted accordingly; they would try harder with McPhail in the side, and would not give the newcomer the support to which he was entitled. It was an unprofessional attitude but unfortunately it was all too typical of those seasons. At least, it appeared that racism was not a factor. Simply, John McPhail remained the club’s captain, a natural leader, and had been the undoubted hero of the Scottish Cup triumph in 1951.
The inevitable happened. Gil Heron, after two goals in four appearances in the League Cup, dropped down to the Reserve Team (where apparently he scored fifteen goals in fifteen appearances). However, he made only one other appearance in the first eleven (against Partick Thistle at Celtic Park on December 1st 1951 in a 2-1 win). At the end of the season he was freed, enabling him to join Third Lanark (and afterwards Kidderminster Harriers).
The experiment was over.
Heron was an interesting personality: a natty (and different) dresser, a keen photographer, an accomplished cricketer … and an indifferent poet (as can be suggested by his effort entitled ‘The Great Ones’). Another claim to fame is that his son Gil Scott Heron, born in 1949, became a highly acclaimed musician. In his gigs throughout Scotland he was constantly amused by the number in the audience who turned up wearing Celtic tops.
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