In response to Georgia's new law restricting voting rights, Major League Baseball moved the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver. MLB made the decision in consultation with the players union and with support from corporate sponsors. In July, when the MLB All-Stars take their places at Coors Field, my thoughts will be on sports heroes of my youth who made a courageous stand for racial equality more than 50 years ago.
Like every kid growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1960s, I grew up an avid Buffalo Bills fan. In the early years of the American Football League (AFL), Chester Carlton "Cookie" Gilchrist was one of the team's best players and its largest larger-than-life character.
After six seasons in the Canadian Football League, Gilchrist burst into the AFL in 1962. He steamrolled defenses on his way to becoming the AFL's first thousand-yard rusher and earning player of the year honors.
As a 10-year-old, I was only vaguely aware that Gilchrist had a reputation as a "troublemaker." Today, he would be tagged as an "angry Black man."
As an adult, I would learn that in May 1954, the NFL's Cleveland Browns had offered Gilchrist, a Pennsylvania high school star, a contract to go pro. He signed for $5,500. The NFL decided to put a quick end to teams signing high school players and voided the contract.
Gilchrist never saw a dime of that $5,500, but because he had signed a professional contract, he was ineligible to play college football. Gilchrist felt cheated and was outspoken in his distrust of the pro football establishment for his entire life.
The year 1964 was special for Gilchrist and the Bills. They went 12-2, and Gilchrist again lead the AFL in rushing. That year, I got the best Christmas gift ever for a kid from Buffalo. My dad got playoff tickets, and on Dec. 26, 1964, we took our place in the stands at War Memorial Stadium to witness Gilchrist plowing his way to a game-high 122 yards as the Bills beat the San Diego Chargers 20-7 to win the AFL Championship.
That Bills team was awesome. Ten of its players — including Gilchrist and quarterback (and future GOP congressman and vice presidential candidate) Jack Kemp — were named to the East squad for the AFL All-Star Game, which was to be played in January 1965, in New Orleans.
Trouble started for the Black players upon their arrival. Despite the recently enacted 1964 Civil Rights Act, New Orleans cabdrivers refused to pick up Black people — unless they were in the company of a white person who paid the fare. Several Black players stood stranded on the curb, until skycaps clued them in. They had to wait for "colored" cabs.
Hotels in the city were just starting to integrate. White guests were startled to see Black men strolling through the lobby and riding the elevators. Black players were met with incredulous stares and racist slurs. Restaurants refused to serve them. On Bourbon Street, nightclub bouncers heckled them, and outside one club a bouncer showed the Black players just how unwelcome they were by brandishing his pistol.
The players gathered the next morning and discussed a boycott. Several white players, including Kemp and Ron Mix, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman from the Chargers, urged the Black players to stay and play. Another Bills All-Star, Butch Byrd, a rookie cornerback, would later recall to a reporter that Gilchrist was adamant about the boycott: "Like he did many times during games, he just took over, said what he had to say, and made it stick."
The Black players voted not to play. Mix and Kemp then pledged their support.
The Black players packed their bags, went back to the airport and left town. White players followed their lead.
Without stars to play its All-Star Game, the AFL was forced to move the event to Houston.
In 1965, when the AFL players stood up for justice, they stood alone. They did not even have a union. They had no support from corporate sponsors or from the league.
That is why I recall those sports heroes of my childhood with renewed respect for their courage.
David Aquilina lives in Richfield.