Safe at Home
By Richard Doster
Percy Jackson is a 17-year-old third-baseman who has a battling average that any major leaguer would envy. He has a great swing, can pitch and is an all around player. But, he has a major strike against him. He is black. Back in 1953, in the small town of Whitney where everyone knew everyone’s business, having a black man on the town’s baseball team was unheard of.
In 1953 prejudice is a disease as deadly as Aids. It spread through small, Southern towns, igniting fear and wreaking havoc. Which brings me to my review of Richard Doster’s debut novel. The story sheds light on an important issue: Does the color of your skin make you a better person, and in this case a baseball player? Why do we judge people by their outer shells, and not by what’s inside? How sad that many people felt that they could not mingle and become friends with those of other races. How sad that they missed out on many new friendships that they could have enjoyed for a lifetime.
Jack Hall watched Percy Jackson at practice one afternoon and wrote a sidebar in the Whitney Herald, the paper he worked for, sparking a chain reaction that would stir up this small town and create a wedge among friends, neighbors and even family members. But this is a mere taste of what’s in store when Percy Jackson comes to play for the Whitney Bobcats, a last ditch effort to save the financially struggling team.
Charley, the coach of the Bobcats; Jack Hall, the reporter; Rick Dolan, the owner of the team and many others think long and hard about a solution for saving the team. Raising ticket prices, charging for parking and raising the price of concession—none of this will cover the costs of keeping team alive. But a black player would draw new fans, and increased ticket sales are the team’s only salvation. The Bobcats sign Percy Jackson and hope for the best.
Town meetings, discussions and one-on-one conversations don’t sway or convince opponents, including Jack’s wife Rose Marie, who’s dead-set against it (you will have to read to find out why).
It is baseball and it is a great sport. I loved watching the Yankee’s play at the stadium in the Bronx. I rooted for the home team and was proud to say that I came from the South Bronx. I played punch ball and kickball—in the street and at the park—where no one ever cared whether you were black or white. If you wanted to play, you were included. My Dad coached the teams, and everyone played.
Whitney was not the South Bronx, and the people there had a lot to overcome. The end of the story may surprise you. Families and friends are ripped apart and friendships die. Violence erupts and a small town is changed forever—as is Jack Hall and his family.
Author Richard Doster takes us back to a time where people of different races did not mingle. They ate in their designated areas and sat in different parts of the bus. He tells the story of one small town, where one man—Jack Hall—and one young Negro, a 17-year-old boy, have to endure the criticism, racial slurs and indignations inflicted on them. As Percy Jackson comes to bat or is about to pitch a ball, he hears the jeers, cheers, and comments made by fans. Jackson is a rare young man, able to tune out the malevolent crowd. He does not outwardly show his feelings or let anyone know that he is hurt. But, that’s not all he has to endure.
Jack Hall is a man with a mission, and so are the manager of the team, Charley, and the mayor, and many others—realizing that without Percy and the new fans he brings, the Bobcats will face financial ruin. If big cities have major league Negro players, like Willie Mays, Jackie Robinsons and Hank Aaron, then the minor league teams must follow. But no everyone is that open minded, including Percy’s teammates.
Words are powerful. They can build a man up, or tear him down. Jack Hall had a job to do. He had to make the public understand that Percy Jackson was more than a great baseball player, but a special young man too. Would he be able to change the way people viewed Percy and other Negro players? Would he convince the city council to allow Negroes to play? Or would they ban them?
The riots that ensued, and the destruction of the homes of two families helped to bind them together. What does happen in Whitney? Do things ever change? Where do Rose Marie, Chris and Jack wind up and where does Percy finally find a home in baseball? You have to read the events for yourself to understand the gravity and lengths that ignore people that are single minded will go to hurt those who only want to enjoy life and become a part of America’s favorite past time baseball.
Walter Jackson, Percy’s father and a teacher at the local “colored” school took a right turn and bumped into Jack Hall. It was a chance meeting that would forever rock the small town of Whitney, and change the lives of so many people.
Richard Doster reminds us of how far we have come, and how far we still need to go. And how nice it would be to embrace our differences—of race, color and creed.
This book is a must read. Baseball season is about to begin, so to everyone out there who roots for their home team: Play ball. Remember Percy! So proud of you!
Fran Lewis: reviewer
Author of the Bertha Series of Books and Memories are Precious: Alzheimer’s Journey: Ruth’s Story.