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Meeting McKnight was a Black history lesson and then some

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I’ve said it a gazillion times.

Sports has taught me many things in life that go beyond the sheltered existence in which I was raised. For the record, that’s code for growing up white and privileged in a sleepy little agricultural town just south of Indianapolis.

I had to rely on what a conservative, Republican-owned newspaper told me, or what news I could only gather at 6 p.m. on TV.

The Black history I was afforded was limited to a couple of chapters in my U.S. history book at Greenwood High School that contained a lot more information regarding George Washington than it did Booker T. Washington. That’s the way it was for yours truly, who never had the opportunity to interact and socialize with a person of color until I was 19 and attending IUPUI.

Recorder sports columnist Danny Bridges (r) sits with the late Negro Leagues star Ira McKnight. (Photo provided by Danny Bridges)

Despite how troubling that still is today to me, many of my childhood heroes were African American athletes who were distinguishing themselves in professional sports, and I was naive enough to think everyone was equal and subsequently treated accordingly.

Obviously, I had been existing in a bubble, but as I grew older and became more interested in the truth, the learning process evolved and I read everything I could about the history of sports in the United States.

Fast forward to 2011, where a chance encounter with a baseball legend would completely change how I viewed the game.

To call it a chance encounter is really putting it mildly as I simply walked into the Walmart on East 96th Street for a bag of dry dog food only to find a tribute to the Negro Leagues, which included a former great in attendance to sign autographs and talk baseball.

It was there that I met a mountain of a man named Ira McKnight, who offered me both a soft drink and a smile.

For 90 minutes I peppered him with questions about who he played for and what it was like barnstorming in the Negro Leagues.

McKnight was born in 1935 in Tennessee, but he grew up in South Bend, which is where the proverbial baseball bug bit him.

He’d parlay a stellar high school career into an opportunity with the Memphis Red Sox in 1952, which set the stage for a true caravan of travel that led him to the legendary Kansas City Monarchs from 1956 to 1960.

McKnight talked about how he once caught the iconic Satchel Paige in the first game of a double header and switched teams for the second game and connected for a home run off of Paige. They traveled on beat-up buses and were paid $250 a month. There were few hotels that would host them.

McKnight also recounted the story of going to spring training with the New York Yankees in 1960 as the third catcher behind legends Yogi Berra and Elston Howard. A broken hand curtailed the opportunity and, due to a lack of proper medical care, his hand was left impaired.

McKnight considered himself blessed and finished his distinguished career in the heralded Negro Leagues before retiring after a successful stint in the Canadian Leagues, where he was inducted into their Hall of Fame.

We exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch. I’d visit him in his apartment with a sack of cheeseburgers to discuss baseball but more importantly the world we were living in. I was saddened when he passed away in August 2018 because it took me back to our conversations about the inequalities he faced and how he never complained about it during our numerous talks.

It was eye opening to have spent time with him, and it taught me more about the trials and tribulations of being a Black citizen in America both back then and today. None of what Ira shared with me over the years was chronicled in my U.S. history textbook circa 1977, and clearly that was by design. Thankfully he showed me how to connect the dots that were far beyond the baseball diamonds, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I miss my friend, and I’ll always be thankful for the history lessons he gave me.

We should all know an Ira McKnight in our lifetime, and I’m glad I had the good fortune to finally learn the facts from a most qualified instructor, one with great pride and dignity, but no regrets or animosity.

Danny Bridges, who would give anything to break bread with Ira McKnight just one more time, can be reached at 317-370-8447 or at bridgeshd@aol.com.

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