By Paul Johnson
The Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the political tenure of Rev. Jesse Jackson may never have happened had it not been for Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck Jr.
Established in 1971 by Jackson as a merger of between Operation People United to Save Humanity (PUSH; the S was later changed to Serve) and the Rainbow Coalition, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition has been dedicated to improving the living conditions for black communities across the country. Though the Rainbow PUSH Coalition existed for the last 15 years of his life, Veeck likely died in 1986 without realizing that his actions in 1959 led to the organization’s existence and altered the course of race relations in the United States and international negotiations with foreign governments.
The White Sox were not the only Illinois team that factored into this chapter of racial history, the University of Illinois football program and its head coach Ray Eliot were also involved. Unlike Veeck, however, Eliot was completely aware of Jackson’s allegations of racism by his former Illini coach and not only denied the claims, but produced solid evidence that Jackson’s version of history was, at best, a calculated revision of history to bolster the reverend’s creation of a political career and, at worst, a blatant lie that left all participants sullied.
Many parts of Jackson’s connection to both Illinois organizations are fuzzy and have little proof, but there is no question whether the White Sox played a major role in his personal history. They did. But several aspects of the truth appear to have been embellished to exaggerate Jackson’s treatment by both the White Sox and Illini. You will be shown both sides of the story and can decide for yourself the degree to which the truth has been stretched.
Throughout his career, Rev. Jesse Jackson claimed that the racist treatment he received in the aftermath of his 1959 tryout for the Chicago White Sox and other teams was a benchmark moment in his decision to fight for racial equality. The 6-foot-3 high school star in football and baseball claimed he was offered just $6,000 for a signing bonus while the white players were offered $90,000 or more. Insulted by what he felt was blatant racism, Jackson rejected the offer and instead accepted a football scholarship to the University of Illinois.
His time in Champaign, Illinois, didn’t last long, however. A star quarterback in high school, Jackson claims he was told that the Big Ten Conference would not allow a black quarterback. With his hope of being the first black quarterback in the storied history of the University of Illinois football program destroyed, Jackson transferred to North Carolina A&T, a predominantly black college, where he played football and became a student body leader.
The double-whammy of racism Jackson received in his professional baseball and college football experiences directly led to political aspirations the future presidential hopeful began practicing at North Carolina A&T.
Decades later, Jackson became one of the most internationally famous fans of the Chicago White Sox, an olive branch offering from the ill-treated pitcher who became the founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, whose Southside offices are located just blocks from home plate at the White Sox’s ballpark.
How much of the story is myth and how much is real?
Jackson’s staff rejected multiple attempts to interview him about these stories. However, by piecing together decades of newspaper accounts and records we can reconstruct a good idea of how much of the story is embellished.
White Sox tryout
Jackson’s acumen as a high school athlete is in no doubt. After all, he earned a football scholarship to the University of Illinois, the school that altered football history thanks to former players like George “Papa Bear” Halas, founder of the Chicago Bears, and Harold “Red” Grange, the Hall of Fame player known as “The Galloping Ghost.”
Though he had more long-term success in football, Jackson, like many young athletes, played many sports, but was good enough in baseball to join the major-league tryout for local players when the White Sox’s came to town.
“I was a pitcher and played first base, but my [major-league] tryout was as a pitcher,” Jackson told the Chicago Tribune years later during the White Sox’s 2005 World Series run. “Dizzy Trout and Red Ruffing were the scouts.” (1)
Jackson’s memory appears to be solid about that part of the tryout, according to published newspaper accounts. When Bill Veeck Jr. bought control of the White Sox in 1959, one of the first moves he made was to launch one of the largest barnstorming talent tours in the western hemisphere. Here’s an announcement detailing the program from the Indianapolis Star on June 14, 1959:
“One of the most extensive tryout programs ever undertaken by a major league club has been mapped by the White Sox. [The tryout], conceived by Bill Veeck, new president of the American League club, will cover many states, parts of Canada and several Latin American nations. Supervisors of the camp will be two former American League pitching stars Red Ruffing and Dizzy Trout. Ruffing won 273 games for the Red Sox, Yankees and White Sox while Trout, victorious in 170 tilts, Hurled for Detroit and Boston. The first camp will be at Comiskey Park Friday and the tryouts will continue in cities within a 200-mile radius of Chicago for two months.” (2)
Paul “Dizzy” Trout was one of Veeck’s most trusted friends. When Veeck needed a chauffeur because he kept blacking out due to health problems, he gave Trout the keys to his car. (Mayo Clinic doctors determined Veeck suffered from chronic concussions, which eventually led to his decision to sell the team and retire to Maryland.)
Trout was also the father of former White Sox pitcher Steve Trout, who Veeck insisted the organization draft in the first round with the eighth overall pick of the 1976 draft. In his autobiography Veeck as in Wreck, Veeck admitted that the White Sox scouts were against drafting the pitcher and knew that Veeck pushed for the southpaw because of his longtime friendship with the player’s father. “I was afraid Dizzy would curse me if I didn’t take care of his kid,” said Veeck, who prevailed. (During his 12-year career, Trout posted an 88-92 record with the White Sox, Cubs, Mariners, and Yankees. His five-year tenure with the White Sox proved to be the best span of his career, posting 43-38 record with a 3.95 ERA.)
But, back to the tryout in 1959. When the White Sox rolled into town, the scouts may have heard about Jackson, there are no records of that, but the big draw of the day was Jackson’s crosstown rival: Dick Dietz. A hard-hitting catcher and infielder, Dietz was the star athlete at Greenville (S.C.) High School, an all-white school. Though Jackson and Dietz battled for the headlines in the Greenville News, Greenville and Sterling never played against each other because of segregation.
“I always wanted to play against Dickie, but I knew I never could,” Jackson told biographer Marshall Frady for the 552-page Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson. “It was one more way the system acted to contradict your qualifications.” (3)
Veeck’s barnstorming tryout tour changed all of that: for the first time the two were allowed to face each other on the ballfield.
“[The scouts] asked me to pitch,” Jackson explained to biographer Robert C. Jakoubek for Jesse Jackson: Civil Rights Leader and Politician. “Guess who was doing the hitting? Dick Dietz!” (4)
Jackson claimed he struck out Dietz three times and the slugger’s only contact with the ball was a foul tip, according to Jakoubek and Blakely. Several other biographies and newspaper reports shared the same claim that Jackson struck out Dietz.
After the tryouts, more than a dozen published accounts of the signing bonus offers are all in the same neighborhood: Jackson’s was approximately $6,000 and Dietz’s was between $90,000 to $100,000. (Only Jackson can verify what he was offered and there is no verifiable record of Dietz’s contract.)
Dietz had an eight-year career with the Giants as a catcher and first baseman, was an All-Star in 1970, and a vital part of the 1971 roster that lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series, 3-1. If Jackson did strikeout Dietz in their 1959 tryouts, a $6,000 offer would appear to be a very low offer and would smell of racism.
“The same white boys I was striking out were offered big bonuses, but all they offered me was a uniform,” Jackson told Ebony magazine in 1967. “It was my first real experience with the economic ways of white folks.” (5)
However, Dietz had a very different account of that day.
In 1987, when Jackson was running for his second presidential nomination (he also ran in 1984), reporters tracked down Dietz and asked him about his 1959 tryout. According to Frady in Jesse: “Dietz would later insist to reporters he only remembered some black pitcher who, far from striking him out three times, merely hit him once in the back with the ball.”
Concerned about Dietz’s different version of the tryout, Jackson contacted Dan Foster, the former reporter and editor of the Greenville News who covered Greenville sports and action for 52 before he died in 2009. With Foster’s help, Jackson and Dietz spoke for about thirty minutes on Christmas Day 1987. Afterward, Jackson called Foster to thank him for putting the two together. Foster, the lifelong journalist, said Jackson revealed to him that “Dick called me and we’ve had the greatest Christmas we ever had. We talked for half an hour. I’m going to make him director of the Small Business Administration.” (6)
George H. W. Bush won the 1988 Presidential Election, of course, not Jackson, so the former ballplayer’s apparent occupational bribe to his hometown rival, Dietz, never happened. The former Giants catcher never became director of the SBA. That’s probably a good thing as the job nomination that would have left many people scratching their heads, wondering what, if any, qualifications a former baseball player would have to be given such an important position.
By the time the White Sox were on their way to the 2005 World Series, Jackson had rephrased his memory of the tryout. Instead of rejecting the White Sox’s $6,000 offer for racial reasons, he did so in an effort to pursue football, not baseball.
“At that time, the [baseball] bonuses that they were offering were $10,000 to $50,000, which was all the money in the world,” Jackson said to the Chicago Tribune as the White Sox’s were preparing for Game 3 of the Fall Classic. “But I could just not take that risk. There were a lot of kids who never got past Triple A. I thought with football I had more options and I felt more secure.” (7)
University of Illinois
A few weeks after turning down the White Sox’s offer, Jackson enrolled at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1959 on a football scholarship.
“What made it especially sweet was that I was at a Big Ten school, where people actually looked down on Furman and Clemson,” said Jackson, the South Carolina native speaking about two of South Carolina’s most prominent universities. “I thought that proved I was more qualified for those colleges in the South that wouldn’t let me in. … The mere thought of playing before thousands, ten times a year, that was important to me.” (8)
However, the star high school quarterback found life very different playing for the Illini. Though he managed to lead the freshman team to a victory against the varsity squad in intramural action, that would be the highlight of his time with the school. Coaches soon moved him to halfback, then began working to turn him into an offensive lineman.
By summertime, Jackson had determined that his time in Illinois was over.
Greenville’s star quarterback returned to his hometown, admitting that his goal of becoming the Big Ten’s first black quarterback would never happen.
“They told me blacks could not be quarterbacks,” Jackson told friends and family members back in Greenville. (9)
If the University of Illinois couldn’t see past his skin color, Jackson knew that North Carolina A&T would. The predominantly black school in Greensboro, North Carolina, was actually his mother’s first choice all along, he later claimed.
There were a couple of problems with Jackson’s claims about the Illini, however.
In 1959, Jackson’s freshman year on campus, the Illini went 5-3-1 behind quarterback Mel Meyers, who was also black. Meyers was the first black quarterback at the University of Illinois, so the best Jackson could be was the second black quarterback in the school’s history. In 1956, University of Wisconsin’s Sidney Williams became the first black quarterback in the Big Ten, meaning before he even graduated from Sterling High School, Jackson could not become the Big Ten’s barrier-breaking quarterback.
In 1987, the Los Angeles Times revealed that Jackson was placed on academic suspension by the school in the second semester of his only year at the school. Jackson’s decision to transfer to another school wasn’t really his choice, the prized student had experienced his first failures both on the field and off it. (10)
“After a year, he left the school, telling the folks in Greenville that the coaches wouldn’t play a black quarterback, though the truth was, on the field he had been something less than outstanding,” Jackson biographer Marshall Frady told PBS’ Frontline in 1996. (11)
Frady went even further in Jesse, revealing that there were difficult racist moments as black student on a mostly white campus. This was still 1959, after all, and even if the football coaches were working to integrate the team, local citizens, students, and the general public were far beyond their control.
“Nigger! Nigger, your ass is grass and we’re the lawn mower,” Jackson told Frady for Jesse. “It was the first time I’d ever really heard that expression. Never heard it down in Greenville, never heard it before until I was walking across that campus back in Illinois.” (12)
Racism was in the air, even if it wasn’t on the football roster. White students partied every weekend on campus and in town, but black students were expected to stay in their dorms. At times, the strategy was as much for the safety of the black students as it was for the comfort of the white ones, Frady revealed. Jackson said that one day all the black athletes received leaflets in their mailboxes warning them they were only at the school to play football and that when it came to the young white students they were “not to socialize” with them. Making it worse, Jackson and some of his teammates complained about the threats to the athletic director, who told the players “it’s not important” and should “not let the press know” because it would “bring a bad image to our school.” (13)
Michael Summers, a black teammate of Jackson’s on the 1959 team, also added that there was some bias against Jackson, not so much because he was black, but because he was a southern black athlete who spoke differently than black athletes from Illinois and other northern regions.
“It was really his accent,” Summers said. “He had that southern accent, a little bit slower speech pattern and thick drawl even to me, and they told him it threw people off their rhythm.” (14)
There is no doubt that Jesse Jackson tried out with the Chicago White Sox in 1959.
What is in doubt is how well he performed. If he did as well as he claimed – three strikeouts and no base hits against a future MLB All-Star – then a $6,000 offer was trifling, insulting and a legitimate claim of bigotry. But, if he actually plunked the hitter that the scouts were there to see, then any offer at all would have been a compliment and any claims of bigotry seem to be far-fetched at best and an outright lie at worst.
Jackson’s claims of bigotry at the University of Illinois are simply untrue. Not only was there already a starting quarterback of his same race, but his grades had failed to the point of his academic suspension after just two semesters. Other black teammates of Jackson’s went through the same experience and graduated. That “experience” was, of course, a racist atmosphere that surrounded the campus, if not wafting through it on a daily basis. However, when the starting quarterback is black it seems wildly wrong for another black player to accuse the coaches of bigotry.
Yet, the bigotry could have been more subtle than that – a northern black athlete with less of a verbal accent was apparently accepted more readily than a southern one with a drawl.
Journalist Gaylord Shaw oversaw a Los Angeles Times group of reporters who spent four months chronicling all of Jesse Jackson’s exaggerations, fabrications, and hyperbolic statements during his second presidential campaign. Shaw and his colleagues probably broke more myths about Jackson in four months than the rest of the world of writers have in decades.
After a dozen interviews in five countries, Shaw determined that one of Jackson’s friends who has known the politician since they were children, summed up the former White Sox prospect this way:
“There is a good Jesse, and a bad Jesse,” said one friend who has known Jackson since his college days. “The two sides of him are often in conflict.”
The good Jesse is the brilliant and courageous man willing to take personal and political risks in pursuit of lofty goals, a man of boundless energy and broad intellect whose political instincts are matched by awe-inspiring oratory, a man who remembers his roots even as he projects a bold vision for a better America.
The bad Jesse is the schemer, the man always looking for the angle to win personal or political advantage, the man who has invented stories or shaded the truth to meet his immediate needs, the man whose actions sometimes seem to say: “Your rules don’t apply to me.” (15)
- Chicago Tribune, October 24, 2005, pg 7-8. Last accessed February 9, 2018.
- Indianapolis Star, June 14, 1959.
- Jesse: The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson, Marshall Frady, (New York: Random House, 1996).
- Jesse Jackson: Civil Rights Leader and Politician, Robert C. Jakoubek, (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2005).
- “Apostle of Economics,” Ebony, August 1967, pp 78-79.
- Jesse, Frady.
- Chicago Tribune, October 24, 2005.
- Jesse, Frady, pp 138-139.
- “A Clash Within: The Mixed Blessings of Jesse Jackson,” Los Angeles Times, Gaylord Shaw, December 16, 1987. Last accessed February 9, 2018. http://articles.latimes.com/1987-12-16/news/mn-19650_1_jesse-l-jackson
- “At Random,” Frontline. Last accessed February 9, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/jesse/fradyint.html
- Jesse, Frady, pp 139-141.
- Shaw, Los Angeles Times.
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