Jones found escape in baseball
Longtime Met grew up in baseball-rich Mobile County
NEW YORK -- Cleon Jones grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the civil rights movement was at its most volatile. While violence and hate raged around the state and much of the South, Jones, like so many others in the small town of Plateau, found comfort in one of the few things that transcended the prejudice.
One of the greatest and most unheralded hitters in Mets history, Jones grew up playing baseball in the hotbed of Mobile County. Future teammate and close friend Tommie Agee was raised in Whistler, a town about a mile and a half from Jones' home. Agee and Hank Aaron grew up in Mobile County as well, same as Willie McCovey and one-time Met Amos Otis. Not too far off, Willie Mays also cut his baseball teeth in a small Alabama town.
There were Sunday-afternoon games after church when teams chocked with future stars squared off against one another, playing baseball as friends and families told stories about the stars that made their way through the quiet Alabama community. Satchel Paige played there at one time. So did Ted "Double Duty" Radcliff.
Occasionally, there were trips to Mississippi or Florida to play more baseball. And it was always baseball that helped keep a troubled world outside. Jones, who still lives in Mobile with his wife, Angela, remembers those days fondly.
"This area has had, and I say this to anyone, very few racial encounters or incidents once the civil-rights stuff passed," Jones, 62, said. "Yes, we were part of what was going on all over America. But where I lived was segregated. It was an all-black community, and it was never anything but black. As a result, people stayed in this community. And as a kid, I was able to grow and see these people, whether they played baseball or whatever.
"On the other hand, when I got to high school, I had contact with white guys. Though we were segregated, we got together and would play baseball and football in a hidden area. I didn't see any of that, 'Hey [expletive], get off my field,' or other racial slurs. I wasn't exposed to that until I started to march and have sit-ins."
Jones was signed by the Mets as a 19-year-old in 1963, a dynamic young outfielder who could hit for average and run. He was sent to Buffalo for the 1964 season and that's when race, for one of the first times, truly became an issue for him.
His team had traveled to Atlanta for a series early that year. At the time, the city was preparing for the arrival of the Braves, and some changes had to be made in the racial philosophy of the times if Major League Baseball was going to succeed in Georgia.
"When I was with Buffalo, I had the task/pleasure of integrating the team hotel in Atlanta," Jones said. "We had guys like Pumpsie Green and Elio Chacon and Dick Ricketts on that team, guys who had been in the big leagues and had been exposed to what was going on. Buffalo was chosen to integrate that hotel in Atlanta, and that was quite an experience.
"Now, I was 20, 21 years old, and I hadn't been exposed to a lot. The year before I played in Raleigh, and we lived in a segregated area. The bus would drop us off at a family's house and take the white players to a hotel. But now we're in the big leagues, so to speak, and Atlanta is coming to town the next year and they have to integrate the hotels."
Jones said he and his teammates had no problems at their hotel during their stay. It was when they left the hotel to get something to eat that the issue of race arose. Jones and his teammates encountered bigotry at a nearby restaurant, which led to his first sit-in.
"Chacon went across the street to eat and they wouldn't feed him because of segregation. He came back to the hotel, upset with tears in his eyes, saying he wanted to go back to Venezuela, saying how could he play ball if he couldn't eat. Ricketts was our captain, and he said we should all go eat there. So we went back there, sat in and they said they wouldn't feed us.
"We sat there until they called the police. But they said that civil rights had passed and they had to feed us. About that time I made up my mind that I didn't want to eat, that I was just going to sit there and see what took place. Finally, they said they would feed us, and they brought out food but I wouldn't eat."
After that, Jones and his teammates went back to the hotel, packed their belongings and headed to a motel on the other side of the city where they would be accepted and able to get a meal. But as they reached the motel, city officials, Jones said, flagged them down and asked that they return to the hotel.
" 'We can't have this,' they told us," Jones said. "We have to go to the hotel and make this work because we have a team [the Braves] coming. So we all went back to the hotel."
That wasn't the end, though. Buffalo traveled to Jacksonville for its next series, and the same problems arose at a restaurant near the hotel. Once again, they sat-in as a team, with Jones taking part.
"We sat there for an hour, and no one waited on us. So Dick got up again and talked to the owner," Jones said. "He went and got the waitress and asked why she wouldn't wait on us. And she said she wasn't going to 'wait on these [expletive].' He said her job depended on it, and she left. We got waited on and went back the next day. The same lady came over and waited on us and apologized, saying she didn't think the situation through the day before. She sounded very sincere."
Jones said he never encountered such bigotry once he got to the Major Leagues. He established himself as one of the bright young stars of the game when he arrived on the scene, eventually helping the Mets to a World Series championship in 1969. He hit .340 that year, good for third in the league. It was also the highest single-season average by a Met until John Olerud hit .354 in 1998.
Though Jones went on to have a solid Major League career -- he had a .281 career average before retiring in 1976 -- he never considered himself a trailblazer because of the road he traveled to reach the big leagues. He left that praise for Jackie Robinson.
"I don't consider myself a pioneer," he said. "I consider Jackie Robinson the pioneer. He was my favorite player of all time. What I went through all day, and then having to go on the field and concentrate, I know how tough it was for me. But I had the confidence and support of my teammates, even white players. When you look back at it, you think of what a great person he was and the sacrifice he made because he did it alone. That's what made him so much better than all of us."
Jones says that things in Mobile haven't changed much over the years. There have been few racial incidents, and when integration did take place, it went smoothly. Jones doesn't hate and there's no bitterness. He understands people and knows change, even today, takes time.
"I was in a situation in Carolina once, where I got in the batter's box and a guy stands up and yells, '[Expletive], if you hit that ball, I'll come down there and get you.' Well, I hit that ball, a line drive off the wall, and the guy came down and says, 'Boy, you ain't scared of nuthin.' You're gonna be a good one.' Often what comes out of people's mouths is not what they mean."
It all goes back to the lessons he learned growing up in the baseball-rich county of Mobile.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.