Baltimore is burning: riots kept stadiums closed on Opening Day in '68


On April 10, 1968, the Daily Mountain Eagle published a composite wire photo of two professional baseball players in uniform on Opening Day — their National Guard uniform.

Pete Richert, a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, and Eddie Brinkman, a shortstop for the Washington Senators, had been called to active duty with the D.C. National Guard because of "the current crisis," the caption noted.

The unnamed crisis was the widespread violence that had erupted in major cities following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

In D.C. 12 people were killed between Thursday, April 4, and Monday, April 8. More than 1,000 buildings were damaged by looters and arsonists before order was restored.

Richert, who had played for the Senators for three seasons before being traded to the Orioles, later told a Baltimore Sun reporter about watching rioters throw Molotov cocktails at fire trucks while firemen were fighting fires.

In a "Where are They Now" article written in 2014, the Sun reported that Richert had injured an elbow and a knee during the two weeks that he was on duty.

“The thing is, we’d found out two days before that our Guard unit had been activated to go to Vietnam — but then the riots kept us here. So some poor unit on the West Coast took our spot in the war,” Richert said.

In "Baseball on the Brink: The Crisis of 1968," author William J. Ryczek shared attorney Stan Bregman's memories of Opening Day in D.C. — "I remember driving to Opening Day with my family and here's the National Guard patrolling the streets. It reminded me of the time I was in the Dominican Republic with the troops in the streets. It was a little scary."

In Baltimore, where riots killed six people, Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger also missed Opening Day in 1968 because he was serving with the Maryland Air National Guard.

Before the assassination, the baseball season had been scheduled to open on Monday, April 8, in several cities, with the majority of games to be played on Tuesday, April 9.

There was nothing to stop teams from playing on Monday, the day that King's widow and thousands of others participated in a silent march in Memphis, or Tuesday, the day that King's funeral was held.

Baseball commissioner William Eckert had left it up to each team's management to decide whether they wanted to postpone their opener out of respect.

Most pushed their games back voluntarily, but a few teams had to take a principled stand. 

According to Ryczek's book, the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies announced that his team would forfeit the game or pay the fine after the Los Angeles Dodgers insisted on playing the day of King's funeral. (Dodgers' management eventually relented.)

The Pittsburgh Pirates, which included 11 African-American and Latino players, the most of any team in baseball, also informed their management that they would not take the field against the Houston Astros.

"When Martin Luther King died, they come and ask the Negro players if we should play. I say, 'If you have to ask Negro players, then we do not have a great country,'" star outfielder Roberto Clemente later said.

Fan reaction to putting baseball on hold was mixed, according to Ryczek. Some agreed that it was an appropriate tribute to a slain civil rights leader. Others resented it because football games had gone on as scheduled in the days following President John Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and King wasn't an elected leader.

The 1968 baseball season officially opened on Wednesday, April 10. In the decades since that fateful season, teams reverted to the tradition of having baseball come to a few cities the day before it reached the rest of America.

This year, every MLB team was supposed to play their first game of the year on Thursday, which would have made it the first opening day shared by all teams since 1968. However, the Cincinnati Reds announced on Wednesday that they were postponing their game against the Washington Nationals  due to weather concerns.

At our house, we prepped for Opening Day earlier this week by watching "The Sandlot" and "Rookie of the Year," two classic baseball movies that turn 25 this year.

You don't have to be a baseball fan to enjoy "The Sandlot" reenactment featuring current Milwaukee Brewers players.

Look for it on YouTube — unless you're an L7 weenie.