The Sports of Empire

by Norman (Otis) Richmond

Sports has traveled the world on the fortunes of empire – and the misfortunes of the conquered. “’Thanks’ to imperialism, Africans in the Western Hemisphere were involved in baseball, cricket and football/soccer.” 

The Sports of Empire

by Norman (Otis) Richmond

Gil Scott-Heron reflected on moving from Jackson, Tennessee to New York City after his grandmother Lily Scott joined the ancestors. He was not comfortable about the move. He pointed out in his autobiography, Gil Scott-Heron: The Last Holiday A Memoir, “I finally gave myself a break and started looking at the advantages. The main one seemed to be that I was returning to New York at the same time as National League baseball. The new New York team was a collection of old New York players from old New York teams that made the new New York team’s games like an old timer’s day every day. I became a follower, not exactly a fanatic, of New York’s Metropolitans, who were slickly and quickly transformed, shortened, to the Mets, probably for back page headline convenience. There were thirteen letters in the long way to say Mets, and sometimes the whole back page headline was thirteen letters. Something like METS LOSE AGAIN fits perfectly, and often, the first year. They were firmly ensconced in last place by the time I got to the Bronx, with no dream of advancing; I gloried in headlines like METS WIN 1 IN A ROW.”  

The “World Series” is over and Gil Scott-Heron’s favorite team, the New York Mets, were bested by the Kansas City Royals. Scott-Heron pointed out, "My grandfather had been ‘Steel Arm Bob,’ a pitcher who bested Satchel Paige's barnstorming team 1-0 when they came through Jackson [Tennesse].”

Africans in the U.S. and Latin America, South America and in the ABC Islands in the Dutch Caribbean (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao), played baseball and those from the former British West Indies played cricket.

My father, Norman Lee Richmond, was a serious baseball man. For some reason he was fascinated with first base and wanted me to play that position. However, I told him I wanted to play center field like Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid.”

I had two problems. Number one was Bobby Tolan and number two was Willie Crawford. Both Tolan and Crawford attended the same junior and senior high schools as me, Thomas Edison Jr. High and John C. Fremont High School. Tolan and Crawford wanted to play the same position.

While I once defeated Crawford in a 50-yard dash on Edison’s schoolyard and ran on the same relay team with him in the Junior Olympics at the Los Angeles Coliseum, he and Tolan were far better hitters.

“I wanted to play center field like Willie Mays, the ‘Say Hey Kid.’”

As a result I started running the 120 low hurdles but gave them up when a beautiful sister heard me singing and I no longer had to worry about Crawford or Tolan.

Tolan is a former center and right fielder in Major League Baseball. Los Angeles-born Tolan played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1965-68), Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia

Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates. Tolan's cousin, Eddie Tolan, was a sprinter who won two Gold Medals in the 1932 Summer Olympics.

His son Robbie Tolan was on the way to playing in the major league until Jeffery Cotton shot him in 2008. A jury later acquitted Cotton. Tolan was unarmed.

Willie Crawford was born in Los Angeles in 1946 and died in 2004. He was a Major League Baseball outfielder who played with Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics.

Crawford was a great all-around athlete at Fremont High School in Los Angeles. He was all-city in both football (1963) and baseball. With 9.7 speed in 100 yards and was sought after by colleges to play football. But long-time Dodger Tommy Lasorda, then a scout, signed Crawford for the Dodgers for $100,000 two days after he graduated from high school in 1964.

I remember during one of my last interviews with Gil Scott-Heron I told him that heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis did not like hurting people. Scott-Heron brushed me off by saying that if that was the case he should stop boxing and play cricket.

Heron’s father ,Gil Heron, was known as the Black Arrow, the first black professional soccer player in Scotland.

He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1921. One of Heron’s surviving brothers, Roy Heron, is about 90 years old and is still alive and lives in Toronto.

Gil Heron moved to Canada as a boy, and is believed to have first shown evidence of football skills during a spell in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He moved to the USA after World War II and joined the Detroit Wolverines. Heron played in the United States and was invited to Scotland for a public trail at Celtic Park on Aug. 4, 1951, scoring twice in the game.

“Heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis did not like hurting people.”

Heron was a published poet. One of his books was entitled, “I Shall Wish for You.” He was featured in a 1947 Ebony magazine article which referred to him as the “Black Babe Ruth.” I spent many hours in the library at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) looking for that article, to no avail.

I also have links with major cricket players. Esmond Kentish, born Nov. 21, 1916, who joined the ancestors on June 10, 2011, was my father-in-law. Kentish was a Caribbean cricketer who played in two Tests from 1948 to 1954.

He was born in Cornwall Mountain, Westmoreland, Jamaica. At the time of his death he was the oldest living West Indian Test cricketer, and the fourth oldest Test cricketer from any country.

According to Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper, “In his professional life he was the first Black general manager of the Bank of Jamaica and was conferred with the Order of Distinction for services to the bank.”

Kentish played for Oxford University, winning a Blue at 39, and Jamaica, making his West Indies debut in the fourth test against Gubby Allen’s England side at his home ground Sabina Park in 1948. He was overlooked for the next six years before earning a recall for the first test against Len Hutton’s England side in 1954 at Sabina Park.

After retiring as a player, Kentish went on to become a director of the WICB and a life member of the Jamaica Cricket Association. He also managed the West Indies team in 1973 and 1975.

The first time I met Mr. Kentish was in 1986. I was married to his daughter Kathleen Yvonne Kentish. We listened to Jamaican radio and discussed African, African American and Caribbean history. Free I, who died with Wolde Semayat (Peter Tosh) was on the radio. Free I was calling for a national holiday for Marcus Garvey and Mr. Kentish did not agree.

His position was there were too many holidays in August. My position was that, unlike Jamaica’s other national sheroes / heroes (Nanny of the Maroons, Samuel Sharpe, George William Gordon, Paul Bogle, Norman Washington Manley and Sir Alexander Bustamante) Garvey was internationally known.

John Henrik Clarke pointed out, “The King of Swaziland later told Mrs. Marcus Garvey that he knew the names of only two Black men in the Western world: the boxer Jack Johnson and Marcus Garvey.”

Norman (Otis) Richmond, aka Jalali, was born in Arcadia, Louisiana, and grew up in Los Angeles. He left Los Angles after refusing to fight in Viet Nam because he felt that, like the Vietnamese, Africans in the United States were colonial subjects. Jalali is producer/host for the Diasporic Music show on every Sunday at 2pm ET. His column Diasporic Music appears monthly in The Burning Spear newspaper. He can be contacted [email protected]