George Altman and the Art of Living

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Nineteen-sixty-one began well for George Lee Altman. The year also looked positive for Jack Randolph Stein — my brother, Jack — the ballplayer’s best nine-year-old fan. Jack studied the newspaper box scores and memorized Altman’s statistics. He defended Altman to any “unbelievers” who might have preferred some other big league star. No defense, however, was needed in 1961: by baseball’s All-Star break Altman led the league in hitting. The 6’4″ black outfielder blasted a home run in the game. Only a better Cubs team would have made the world of George and Jack perfect.

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Ah, but the baseball gods are capricious and the long ball Altman drove over the fence proved the highpoint of his Major League career. After another All-Star year in Chicago he was traded to St. Louis and then to the New York Mets at a time when a ballplayer might be considered a “well-paid slave,” to quote Curt Flood about his own baseball career. But this story ends well so don’t lose heart. George Altman never did.

I offer you two stories here: one, a brief recounting of the life of an extraordinary athlete and man, and the other of a little boy who admired him. A tale, too, of the unexpected turns you meet if you live long enough.

Altman was 27-years-old in 1961, Jack at the age boys acquire heroes. Baseball permitted the love of a man of a different race in a way not allowed by almost any other public activities of the day.

Jack modeled himself after Big George. He adopted a similar left-handed swing of the bat; played the outfield as his hero did. My brother even hoped to spend time with him, something impossible after a ballgame in an ad hoc autograph line.

Jack wrote to the athlete at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs. “Mom will cook you a meal of steak and beer,” he included as an enticement. No brewery inhabited our basement and no beer lived in our refrigerator, but the letter found its way out the door. Jack waited. The whole family waited and wondered.

My brother received a picture-postcard with Altman’s photo on one side and his autograph on the other. No mention of steak and beer. No comment at all.

A little history: George Altman played a part in advancing race relations in the United States. In 1947 Jackie Robinson, enabled by the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager (Branch Rickey), broke the informal collusion among Major League Baseball’s owners to keep the game white: the color line. From Robinson’s arrival it took until 1959 — the same year George Altman joined the Cubs — before every team had at least one black man. Big George was among the last to play ball in the Negro Major Leagues (a gifted dark-skinned player’s only alternative to the barred door of the Majors). They began to unravel when some of their best athletes found jobs in the newly integrated big leagues.

A rough road greeted “colored” men (as they were then called) even if they did leap the first barrier. Salary was modest, most took off-season jobs to survive, and racism among some of their white teammates presented itself. Managers were all white and informal limitations prevented “too many” dark-skinned men from taking the field as “starters.” Blacks had to room with blacks, whites with whites. Segregated hotels sometimes separated the races further. Little inter-racial socialization happened after the game ended and, even in the dugout, the dark and light often sat apart.

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Altman had another superb season in 1962, but his trade to St.Louis left both the ballplayer and brother Jack disappointed. Injuries undercut much of Altman’s remaining time in the big leagues, but he eventually became a huge star in Japan for eight seasons. Even then, however, he was a person on the outside. No longer an African-American in a white world, nor a college-educated-man in a group of men of more limited learning, he became an American in Asia.

George Altman grew up in North Carolina. His mother died of pneumonia when he was four. Willie Altman, his dad, made a living as a tenant farmer who became an auto mechanic. The senior Altman could be a hard man, a man of few words and hidden feelings; one who didn’t encourage his talented son’s growing athletic success or attend his games. But the junior Altman gave his all to succeed at everything he tried, including the back-breaking labor of picking cotton and tobacco during teen-aged summers. Altman graduated from Tennessee State thanks to a basketball scholarship. He later became “semi-conversant” in Japanese during his playing days overseas, and a commodities trader at Chicago’s Board of Trade representing himself from the seat he purchased with some of his relatively high Japanese earnings. Along the way he beat down colon cancer.

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Before he left Chicago, George Altman started a chess club for young people and helped build the Better Boys Foundation. The 83-year-old continues a focus on high school-aged kids and combating the evils of drug abuse, but Chicago claims a special place in his heart.

The tall childhood hero once again came to Jack’s mind with the recent World Series Championship of the Cubs. Perhaps, he hoped, a 55-year-old meal ticket could be punched as well. Jack tracked down his 1960s idol and made a date to visit him near Altman’s Missouri home.

The men who broke baseball’s color line are thought of as having advanced the status of their race despite the initially punishing reception of white baseball. Surely this is correct, but not the whole story. They also served all Americans of the time, not only by displaying their particular genius for the game. Blacks were not just stereotyped, but invisible in mid-twentieth-century America: no black newscasters, no blacks in commercials, few blacks on TV or in the movies; and then, almost always in roles fueling the worst stereotypes of the time.

That changed with the vanguard of “Negro” baseball players. Even bigots now observed African-Americans in a new role, heard them speak in radio and TV interviews, and read human interest stories written about them. Unseen, anyone can be stereotyped. A man or woman in the flesh becomes a person, not so easily molded into an object of derision. The black athletes of Altman’s generation played baseball well, but they played a more important role in transforming America. The frozen, deformed national consciousness of people of color reformed because of their courage. We are better because of them, if still not perfect. We are better because of George Altman.

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Expectations nurtured over time become unspeakably high. The goal, once achieved, usually disappoints: too much pent-up anticipation. Not this. The still trim Altman met my brother at the appointed restaurant. The ballplayer didn’t remember the “steak and beer” invitation, nor did the pair dine on the menu items Jack had promised, but the 55-year-old wish was otherwise satisfied — and not only because of the former Chicagoan’s pleasure at the success of the World Champion players who wore the same uniform he did. Here is Jack’s voice:

After a while I brought up some of the tragedies he endured, from poverty to racial prejudice to his son’s death in a head-on collision with a drunk driver; the loss of his grandson, too. Despite all this, George is an absolutely positive guy who appreciates his life and how he handled his most difficult times.

Since George is not legendary ballplayer, he seemed surprised anyone would drive a long distance to spend a couple of hours with him over lunch.  He enjoyed my detailed interest in his career and the recollections we shared of some of his greatest games.  For me, as I have learned more about George from his autobiography and our meeting, the hero of a nine-year-old boy became his hero again at 64-years-of-age. It was a happy experience for both of us.

Responding to a note of gratitude from Jack, George Altman wrote this:

Jack,

I thank you for the honor of your visit this afternoon. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment. You reminded me of some great experiences I had in baseball. Thanks for the memories. I’m honored that you would drive almost 700 miles (round trip) to have lunch with me. I am amazed at your knowledge of my career.

God bless you and your family.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Geo.

Where do resilience and grace come from? In the dedication of his autobiography, Altman first thanks God and then his mother, “whom I never really knew. Everyone who knew her said that she was a beautiful, kind, and loving person. I have tried to use her legacy as a guideline for my life.” Then he names his wife, Etta; children, relatives, and friends, all acknowledged for “their love, comfort, and support.” Last, gratitude is expressed to five coaches, perhaps father figures, individually identified. As John Donne famously wrote, “No Man is an Island.” Whether he knows the line, George Altman knows the lesson.

The Stein family, ca. 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

The Stein family, circa 1960. Left to right in the front row, Jack, Gerry, and Eddie.

Back in the childhood I shared with my brothers we never thought about players writing books or their lives in retirement. We were too busy watching those still active. The “stars” were, quite literally, in our eyes.

Mid-twentieth-century America presented an easy opportunity to believe in heroes. I mean the celebrated athletes of the time, especially baseball players. As Homer said of Trojan War combatants, some were “godlike” men. The human imperfections of anyone in the public eye today, however, have become inescapable. Each man’s and woman’s Achilles heel is x-rayed, dissected, and shamelessly exposed. We live in an age of full-frontal-news. We know more, but are perhaps poorer because of it.

And then there are George Altman and other people like him, quietly living out their lives. There are never too many: intelligent, decent, and hardworking; gifted, grateful and resilient. How many of us can stand comfortably on a pedestal erected by a worshipful nine-year-old? The 64-year-old version of that little boy, my brother Jack, would tell you he met one last year: a man who made a difference, the rare example of a life well-lived.

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Most of the information on George Altman’s life comes from his autobiography, written with Lew Freedman, George Altman: My Baseball Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors and Beyond. The second image above is Norman Rockwell’s, The Dugout, which appeared in the September 14, 1948 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. The painting well-symbolizes the futility of most of the Cubs teams my generation watched when we were growing up. The following dugout image includes, from left to right, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, and George Altman. I do not know the names of the other players, but would be pleased to be informed by those who do.