Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 4, 2018

Book Review: Struggle And Triumph In America

This is a story with many layers. On the surface, it is a tale of the remarkable achievements of two sports teams from East High School in Columbus, Ohio. During the 1968-69 school year first the boys’ varsity basketball squad, then East’s baseball team made spirited runs through their regular season schedules and the ensuing state championship tournaments. Were that the sum of Wil Haygood’s “Tigerland,” the book would be easy to recommend as an engaging account of athletic glory achieved by two groups of determined young men.

But this was half a century ago, a time when America was riven by unrest from both growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and the ongoing efforts of the civil rights movement. Columbus is both the state capital and home to Ohio State University, so the school year ran its course against a backdrop of protests and mounting unrest. More important, although a decade and a half had passed since the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Columbus school board had willfully refused to take steps to integrate the city’s schools. The student population of East High was entirely African-American. Not surprisingly, the school itself was chronically short of resources, both for its classrooms and its sports teams. The East High baseball field, located several blocks from the school itself, had no dugouts, so the players carried chairs along with their gloves and bats to each practice and home game.

The black boys who brought twin glory to their school were all poor. Some had been brought to Ohio as young children from the Deep South, part of the Great Migration, the decades-long African-American diaspora from rural south to urban north. Most came from a home in which there was no father. Eight of the twelve mothers of basketball team members worked as maids. All the players on both teams were coming of age in the months following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had made several visits to Columbus to visit Reverend Phale Hale, a longtime friend of King’s and local minister who preached to the families of East High.

While Haygood recounts the stark segregation and racial tension that pervaded Columbus at that time, his book is also about the possibility of integration and reconciliation. Bob Hart and Paul Pennell, the head coaches of the basketball and baseball teams, were both white but became father figures to their young charges. Along with Jack Gibbs, the city’s first black high school principal, they worked tirelessly to promote their teams and build community pride in their school.

The subtitle of “Tigerland” is “1968-1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart, and a Magical Season of Healing.” It takes that lengthy mouthful to accurately describe the multiple stories that Haygood weaves together into a seamless whole, a complex account of difficult struggle and ultimate triumph on multiple fronts, with the central theme the exploits of the two teams.

Hart’s basketball squad had known success, having won the state championship the previous year. But with the constant turnover of yearly graduations, there was no guarantee that the 1968-69 season would be similarly grand. In fact, no school had ever won back-to-back state titles. But the addition of Dwight “Bo-Pete” Lamar, whose mother moved near East High after her son was cut from the North High team for refusing to trim his afro, gave the coach an unrivaled outside shooter. Lamar paired with Eddie “Rat” Ratleff, the team’s big man, and East High powered through the regular season schedule, winning most games by double-digits. At the state championship semifinals, East won a see-saw battle with Libbey High of Toledo, 64-63. One night later, the East starting five faced the young men of Canton McKinley, and this time pulled away late for a 71-56 victory, capping an undefeated season with a second straight state championship.

Short weeks later baseball season began, but unlike the basketball squad little was expected of East High’s starting nine. With no record of achievement and a poor excuse for a field some distance from the school, the team often played in front of just a handful of supporters. In the middle of their schedule Pennell’s team dropped five games in a row. But Pennell had Eddie “Rat,” who was a two-sport star with a smoking fastball, and a slugging catcher in Garnett Davis. The Tigers recovered from their losing streak, made it into the state tournament, and once there ran off eight straight wins to capture the title. East beat the all-white team from East Liverpool 2-1 in the championship game. Principal Gibbs had gone door to door through the local business district, raising money to rent buses so that students and parents could make it to the game, finally giving the baseball team a cheering section.

Bo-Pete Lamar and Eddie Ratleff would both go on to All-American college careers, Lamar at Southwestern Louisiana and Ratleff at Long Beach State. Garnett Davis was drafted by the New York Mets. That year East High’s debate club was also prize-winning, and the 1969 graduating class sent more seniors on to college than in any previous year. While they were pursuing their degrees a federal court ruling, eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, finally ended school segregation in Columbus.

As Dr. King said on more than one occasion, “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Five decades after that remarkable school year in central Ohio, the legacy of this country’s original sin of slavery still hangs over the daily lives of many Americans. That this remains true after so long is a reminder of the hard reality set forth in the first part of that famous quotation. But the community pride and sense of worth created by the success of the two East High teams, despite all the turmoil of the time, is validation of the eternal hope embodied in the second.

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Responses

  1. We’ve come a long way from 1968—69, but have we really? This is a well-written look back at those troubled times, Mike. These young men are fine examples for any generation that may be struggling. Thanks for kicking off the weekend with something worthy of more thought.
    Ω

    • Thanks very much Allan. It’s an outstanding book, though you of course ask the right question. How far have we really come?

      M-


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