Honor liberty — at a baseball game

Over the last two years, we have seen the fabric of our society getting pulled at both ends. We are teetering on the brink of a point of no return in these polarizing times. Do we even remember Charlottesville? It seems like an eternity ago, with all the other noise of divisiveness of late. The racial strife in Charlottesville, Va., a year ago led to one death and scores injured. It could have been worse. Thank God it wasn’t. The PBS News Hour last Friday reported that the city is going through a remarkable healing process. The city had to look inward and realize its own racial harmony was not deep enough to address the problems below the surface. It’s starting to happen.

Given the failures of our political leaders to really talk to each other and to all Americans, it’s really incumbent on us ordinary citizens to find ways to preserve and protect liberty and justice for all citizens. And for people in my beloved native Mahoning Valley, one proactive and simple way to start the conversation while honoring our ideals could be as easy as attending a baseball game.

On the afternoon of April 18, 1946, history was made. It wasn’t made in Washington, Berlin, London or Tokyo, but in Jersey City, N.J. On a pleasant spring day, a man hit his first home run in pro ball for the Montreal Royals, farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, against the Jersey City Giants. As he sauntered around the bases, in typical custom the next hitter came out to shake the battling batter’s hand at homeplate. And that’s where history was made. You see, the home run hitter was Jackie Robinson. And the congenial colleague? Youngstown native George “Shotgun” Shuba.

History might have recorded that moment with an asterisk somewhere if it weren’t for a photographer with a keen eye and sharp instinct. That historic Associated Press photo stopped time and hatred for one brief moment, and from then on, Shotgun’s life was elevated and intertwined with Robinson’s. They had many successful years together as Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

I never met Shuba, but my connection to him feels so real. His family came from Czechoslovakia, like mine and so many others in the Valley. His Catholic upbringing was a part of him. It was there where he recounted to reporters of the years that his faith taught him to treat all people fairly and equally. As a 21 year old who wanted to win ballgames, maybe that handshake was initially done only to say thanks for driving in some runs. But later on, Shuba recognized it was the simple goodness his family ingrained in him to make the gesture.

Now it’s time for the Mahoning Valley to reciprocate that gesture for him and his family, and ultimately our nation. Shuba passed away in Youngstown in 2014. Al Sharpton praised him on MSNBC after his passing for “taking on racial injustice into his own hands with that handshake.” After his ball playing days ended, he led a good Mahoning Valley life, living in Austintown and taking care of his family by working for the U.S. Postal Service. He was honored in 2007 when Borts Park on Youngstown’s West Side named the little ballfield there after him. It some ways, that seems wholly appropriate given his none-lavish ways. But in other ways, it feels his legacy is only being half-remembered.

I don’t recall seeing one plaque, one statue, one very public remembrance of this historic moment while living in the Valley. This must change. For me, the most significant way to showcase that greatness is by renaming the Scrappers’ home Shuba-Robinson Park at Eastwood Field. It would be easy proposing to rename the stadium only after Shuba. But it wouldn’t feel complete. The great thing about that photo is that it permanently locked in the connection these two men had, even if the physical connection of hands didn’t occur for another second later. It was a connection of respect and compassion. Even better. When people walk through the gate, seeing a massive plaque with that photo would set a tremendous tone for the evening’s game.

Of course, all parties concerned must respectfully receive the blessing of both the Shuba and Robinson families. And in case anyone is wondering, I suggest George Shuba’s name first simply because he is the native son that initiated the great deed of acknowledging an even greater performance. But I am certainly open to an open conversation on that matter.

Another option would be to erect a statue capturing the two legends at that precious moment. Make it life-size, and place it in a place of prominence, and peacefulness, so people can reflect and revere.

In no way am I implying that renaming a ballfield and erecting a plaque of the photo will solve the structural injustices burdened on so many Americans. But maybe it can softly give us pause to reflect on what we can do to help in our daily lives to alleviate those burdens.

I think the well-organized Scrappers front office should seriously consider this. I’d like to see local school children lead the effort to raise money for the plaque, or statue. I imagine little kids walking into the entrance of the stadium on Opening Day next year (hopefully against the Brooklyn Cyclones), seeing the life-size plaque of the famous photo, and a daughter asking pop “Daddy, who are they?”

That gives Dad the privilege of recounting a simple gesture that reminded us of who we are as citizens of the Mahoning Valley, and as Americans.

Planey is a Mahoning Valley native who now serves as director for a New York City financial corp. This column is based solely on his opinion and does not reflect the views of his employer.