Legend inspires U. Texas baseball player’s dream

By Austin Ries

On a clear, warm April day last season, Kevin Keyes walked through the doors at Disch-Falk Field before U. Texas’ series finale against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. He strutted down the hallway past the Horns’ weight room, turned the corner and headed toward the clubhouse when one of the team’s trainers stopped to remind him it was April 15.

That day, 62 years ago, another man walked into a much quieter clubhouse at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, dressed in a camel-hair coat to block out the brisk morning air. He found his uniform hanging on an empty wall behind a folding chair because he didn’t have a locker yet.

With the opening pitch to Boston Braves batter Dick Culler, in front of an average-sized crowd, Jackie Robinson stood at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier for Major League Baseball.

This story wasn’t new to Keyes. He’d admired Robinson as a player, describing him as a man you never forget. Keyes had just forgotten the date.

Keyes walked up to Coach Augie Garrido and asked if he could, for a day, trade in his number 29 for a number more fitting — 42, Robinson’s number.
Garrido was all for it.

“I felt so honored to wear the number of a guy that was one of the best and who is the forefather of African-Americans playing baseball,” Keyes said. “Honoring him was one of the greatest thrills I’ve ever had. It’s a day I’ll never forget.”

While the world remembers April 15, 1947, as a monumental moment for black athletes and for baseball, Robinson went 0 for 5 that April day.

Luckily, Keyes didn’t copy the performance. He went 3 for 3 with two runs and two stolen bases to record one of his greatest and most memorable games as a Longhorn.

“I got to the ballpark, and I was so proud to see him wearing the number,” Keyes’s father Gregory Keyes said. “Lot of kids don’t really know about the tradition, so it was great to see him acknowledge what guys before him have gone through.”

As the only African-American on the baseball team, it was the least Kevin Keyes could do to show respect to a man that he believes paved the path for him and his family. Robinson played a similar role in sports that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. played in the civil rights movement, according to Ben Carrington, an African and African-American studies professor at UT.

“He’s become perhaps the key symbolic figure in the gradual transition from Jim-Crow racism into the kind of pre- and then post-civil rights accommodation,” Carrington said. “There is something about the centrality of baseball to the American psyche and narrative that elevates Jackie above others.”

Keyes learned baseball at an early age with help from his father. While he played basketball in junior high and football at Connally High School in Pflugerville, he chose to pursue baseball.

“He would always come up to me to go play catch or to the hit the ball. He just really loved it,” Gregory Keyes said about his son. “You should see how many pickets are knocked off our fence from him hitting balls at it.”

As an African-American, Kevin Keyes is an increasing rarity in Division I baseball because of a decline in blacks playing the game over the past thirty years.

The most recent statistics say that only 6 percent of Division I baseball players are black, compared to 58 percent in basketball and 44 percent in football. Many critics have associated the decline with the high cost of playing baseball and the length of time it takes to reach the professional level, but Louis Harrison, an associate professor in the College of Education, says the decline has a lot to do with blacks identifying more with other sports.

“They are looking at what they see from the media and television, and I think kids are identifying with basketball and football because they see more people that look like them in those sports,” Harrison said.

Harrison doesn’t see the decline as a problem or believe the work Robinson did will be undone.

“He broke a color barrier to show blacks they can do anything,” Harrison said. “I don’t think blacks have to prove themselves on a particular stage to be accepted. Kids should pursue what they’re interested in, and it’s not all that important to have blacks involved with sports. I’d rather see them in board rooms and head of corporations.”

Although the numbers are low across the board — 9.5 percent in the major leagues — Keyes hasn’t always been the only African-American on his teams. He has played with black players on select teams in high school and even had five on his summer team.

“It’s good to see blacks re-establish themselves in this game,” Keyes said. “And maybe with charities like [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities], it can help turn the corner and make progress.”

Another factor to consider in professional baseball is the rise in international players. In the most recent report from the University of Central Florida, Latinos make up 28.7 percent of players while Asians comprise 2.5 percent.

“Baseball is becoming more diverse in a different way,” Carrington said. “The international migration could displace local labor, so African-Americans are being replaced with black and brown bodies from the Americas, but not from the United States of America.”

Still, Keyes’s father believes that parents and high school coaches are encouraging black athletes to concentrate on bigger sports like football and basketball. With Keyes’s 6-foot-4, 225-pound build, who could blame them?

“I sat down with Kevin sophomore year and asked what he wanted to play,” Keyes’s father said. “He wanted to play baseball and wanted to play at Texas. So we committed and put the time in. I don’t think the football coaches were very happy.”

Keyes, again, will be the only African-American player on the field or in the dugout in this weekend’s series against Texas A&M. He doesn’t plan on wearing number 42 today like he did last season, since it’s the day after April 15, but he wouldn’t mind a similar performance at the plate.

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