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It was a thrill to play for the Padres. The fans cheered and my feeling was it was because I was a San Diego boy making good. It had nothing to do with race. – John Ritchey
At first glance, nothing is particularly remarkable about the black-and-white photograph, a simple portrait of a visiting team, waiting to play in the World Series of the American Legion baseball league.
Growing up in Albemarle some years later, I knew that one of the most exciting and memorable events in the town’s history was winning the 1940 championship in front of the home crowd. To prepare for the finals, a crew of 100 carpenters added bleachers to the little ball park. All the stores and schools in town were ordered to close early on game days. Governor Clyde R. Hoey came from Raleigh to throw out the first ball.
Thousands thronged to the games. Albemarle’s star pitcher would be known as "Lefty" for the rest of his life.
That was the legend I knew.
But only after finding the photograph of San Diego’s American Legion Post 6 team did I learn there was much more to the story. At the instant that my father snapped the shutter, one player on the second row was partially obscured from view, cap pulled down, chin in hand. The player’s name was John Ritchey.
A powerful hitter, Ritchey was 15 years old when he propelled San Diego’s title run in 1938. The team advanced to the national semifinals in Spartanburg, SC, where officials barred Ritchey and another African-American player, Nelson Manuel [second row, second from right] from the game. Nevertheless, San Diego managed to overcome the racist chicanery and took the national championship that year.
Ritchey’s coach, Mike Morrow, was a San Diego legend whose high school teams included whites, blacks and Hispanics. Well into a successful season of American Legion play in 1940, Morrow wanted to prevent a repeat of 1938's player ban. For the national semifinals played in Shelby, NC, officials did allow Ritchey and Manuel to take the field.
Following their semifinals win, San Diego moved on to the finals against Albemarle. Anticipating problems, Coach Morrow threatened to take his entire team back to California if his players were ruled ineligible.
Two days before the first game, the Charlotte Observer reported it was "understood" that officials would allow them to play. One day before the opener, the newspaper (under the headline "Colored Boys Will Start for Pacifics") added:
A telegraphic poll conducted today by a Charlotte sportscaster brought replies from many North Carolina and out-of-state towns, all requesting that the colored lads be allowed to play.
The next day, reporting on the outcome of the first game, the paper stated that Ritchey and Manuel watched from the dugout because national Legion officials made the request not to use black players.
San Diego took the first two games over Albemarle by scores of 6-5 and 3-2, but Albemarle came back to tie the series with 6-3 and 7-5 victories against the California team.
In the fifth and deciding game, Albemarle held off a frantic San Diego rally to take a 9-8 win and claim the title. Although he was not allowed to play in the finals, John Ritchey was awarded a trophy as the tournament’s leading hitter.
In a wrap-up on the series, September 7, 1940, Observer sports writer Jake Wade addressed the controversy:
A crowd of something like 12,500 wrote history, with frenzied emotion such as has never been witnessed in a ball park in the Carolinas.
The crowd did not always behave so nicely. Parts of the crowd, I should say. The boos for the San Diego colored boys, when Coach Mike Morrow of the Coasters ill-advisedly had them warming up, was brutal. No credit to those who were guilty in this baseball crazy, partisan-mad assembly that overflowed Efird-Wiscassett Park.
Albemarle grasped it. Lisk flicked his pitch-out. The runner on third was nailed flat-footed. The ball game was over. Albemarle’s young men were junior champions of the world. The house came down, and tonight the bells were still ringing, the horns blowing, hoarse voices still whooping. The little kingpins were being accorded a rousing salute, and no kingpins deserved one more.
Art Cohn, sports editor for the Oakland Tribune, took a harder line against the ouster of San Diego’s players:
A great club, that San Diego team. It waded through the local, State, sectional and National play-offs and loomed as a cinch for the title. Until it hit Albemarle. Then hell broke loose.
Once below the Mason and Dixon, the most un-American of prejudices, racial discrimination, reared its ugly head, and, as a result, two regulars on the San Diego team were ruled ineligible. It seems that John Ritchey and Nelson Manuel, the two boys involved, had been found guilty…of being Negroes.
Ritchey and Manuel were good enough to play with and against their white brothers in California, Arizona, and even in Shelby, North Carolina, but it was a different story in Albemarle. There the good citizens had not yet learned that the Civil War recently ended.
So San Diego took the field for the first time without Ritchey and Manuel, and San Diego was beaten for the first time. It was a great triumph for Albemarle. The village should be proud of its contribution to American tolerance.
In a 1995 interview, John Ritchey recalled his life in baseball and his disastrous trip to Albemarle:
My earliest memories are of playing baseball, because there wasn't anything else to do. Most of my friends were White. Peanuts [Henry Savin] was a Mexican kid. The others were Nelson Manuel, Billy Williams, William Indalecio, Tom and Luis Ortiz. We played sandlot ball and the San Diego Police sponsored the league. Nelson was easy going and one time he got a job selling ice cream. It only lasted for one day, because he ate too much of the ice cream he was supposed to sell. He didn't get to eat much at home. They were good times playing with my friends....
With Post 6, I was taking batting practice in Albemarle and I hit a couple of line drives over the fence. They wouldn’t let me play for the National Championship game!
During World War II, Ritchey served as a staff sergeant in the Army Corps of Engineers and earned five battle stars from duty in Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and Berlin. After the war, Ritchey returned to baseball and led the Negro American League with a .369 batting average in 1947. The following year, he broke the color barrier in the Pacific Coast League when he joined the San Diego Padres, had seven hits in his first 11 at-bats and finished the season with a .323 average.
Although he never played in the major leagues, Ritchey enjoyed a successful baseball career until his retirement from the game in 1955. After baseball, Johnny and his wife Lydia raised a family in San Diego, where he worked as a deliveryman with Continental Bread Company for twenty years. Ritchey died in 2003 at the age of 80.
Two years later the San Diego Padres paid tribute to the "Jackie Robinson of the West Coast" by unveiling a bronze bust of John Ritchey. Tom Shanahan writes about what happened when family and friends raised money for the sculpture:
San Diego baseball historian Bill Swank came across some stories that tell us about John Ritchey as a man. "One guy said Johnny Ritchey didn’t know him, but he knew Johnny," Swank said. "He donated $200 because every time he saw Johnny around [San Diego State University] he would smile and say hello. He said he never forgot what a nice guy he was, and he knew what Johnny had been through in North Carolina."
Swank said a woman donated money because Ritchey had once rescued her from being taunted on campus by some bullies. Think about that for a moment: In 1940, Ritchey, a black man, stopped white bullies from tormenting a white girl.
"She said Johnny Ritchey’s bust should be made out of gold," Swank recalled.
Looking again at the photograph, I see nothing particularly remarkable in the image. Young ballplayers, far from home, looking a bit distracted. A team photo, not so different from thousands of others. Light and shadow of one split second from a September day, creating a picture of victory and defeat, pride and shame, back in my home town.