It's a test of skill and endurance so stringent that no major league batter has passed it since World War II. The stories of two minor leaguers who have since hit BASEBALL'S MAGIC NUMBER—one in the Jim Crow South, one in an independent hardball outpost—are monuments to the resolve it takes to succeed in the game
North Carolina in the summer of 1961 sizzled with heat you could see and feel, like waves off the scalding griddle of a luncheonette, many of which still refused to serve black customers at the counter. This was the summer of the searing in-between—the combustible space between the passing of federal desegregation laws and local compliance.
The in-between trembled with tension and violence. Civil rights activists known as Freedom Riders steered two buses through the South, including four stops in North Carolina, to protest the continued unlawful segregation of bus and train travel. Their ride ended in Alabama when they were ambushed and beaten by white mobs.
The summer of '61 gave rise to a third awakening of the Ku Klux Klan. Birthed as a wound-licking vestige of the Civil War and renewed in the early years of the 20th century as a reaction to growing immigration, the Klan appealed to lower-income whites who feared integration. Nowhere else did the KKK gain in strength and numbers as it did in North Carolina.
Thrown into this teeming cauldron was a first baseman from Oakland, the son of a pastor who made church attendance and participation mandatory for his children. Aaron Pointer, then 19, was the only black player on the Class D Salisbury Braves when the season started. He had just left the University of San Francisco during his sophomore year to sign with a National League expansion franchise, the Houston Colt .45s. The organization sent him to Jacksonville for spring training.
At the airport he saw signs above the restroom doors: WHITES ONLY and COLORED. He and the other black ballplayers that spring slept at a timeworn motel where a fan feebly fought the stifling heat. The whites' hotel had air-conditioning. Black players were not allowed to eat with white teammates and took their meals at an African-American restaurant one block from the motel. "That's the first time I ever experienced anything like that in terms of segregation," Pointer says.
The Salisbury Braves were one of six teams in the Western Carolina League, all based in North Carolina, which was a tinderbox as segregation grudgingly gave way to integration.
POWERFULLY BUILT at 5'11" and 210 pounds, Darryl Brinkley, an outfielder and leadoff batter, could always hit. Staying with teams was another matter. He was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball at Stamford (Conn.) High—but was also a self-described knucklehead. "Ninth grade, I didn't bother with baseball," he says. "Sophomore year, didn't even think about it. Junior year, I was too late for tryouts. Senior year, I made it and lasted a week or two before they kicked me off the team. I was pretty bad, and bad in school. But I was pretty good in Babe Ruth and Legion."
A scout from Sacred Heart in Fairfield, Conn., saw him play summer ball and offered him a scholarship. "When I decided to take the game more seriously, I knew I had to watch more baseball on TV," he says. "Who can I hit like? I settled on Paul Molitor. I thought, I can do that. He just lets the ball get there and he doesn't miss fastballs."
As a senior at Sacred Heart, in 1988, Brinkley batted .529. Nobody drafted him. Three years later a friend told him about an opportunity abroad: "Holland. They'll be waiting for you at the airport. Have a good season."
When Brinkley arrived, Kinheim team officials told him they never agreed to sign him, but they were willing to give him a tryout. Thus was born Brinkley's hit-to-survive drive. "I had a saying: If you hit .350 and knock in some runs, you don't have to worry about your phone not ringing," Brinkley says. "You're going to get a job somewhere."
Brinkley made $3,000 a month to play on weekends while the club gave him a Eurail pass to use during the week. It remains, he says, the most fun he ever had in baseball, but he knew it could end at any time if he slumped or got hurt. He returned to the Netherlands in 1992 and won the league's MVP award. He moved on to Italy in '93 and hit .462. The pattern repeated; only the locales changed. From 1996 through 2001—not including a one-month gig in Korea and tours with three teams in the Mexican League—Brinkley batted .331 with affiliates of the Padres, Pirates and Orioles but was never promoted to the big leagues.
"Nobody's ever completely taught him the game," said Trent Jewitt, his manager at Nashville in 1998, when reporters wondered why Brinkley was never promoted. Brinkley's .355 average led all Triple A hitters with 400 plate appearances that year. "He's an extraordinary hitter because of his strength and because of his grit and determination, but to get to that next level you really have to know the insides of the game."
Nine years after Jewitt's assessment, Brinkley found himself with the Calgary Vipers of the independent Northern League. He was a 38-year-old centerfielder had who played for 19 teams in eight nations. Of all the seasons across all the miles, this one was going to be the most epic.
LIKE CROSSING the country by covered wagon, hitting .400 hasn't happened in so long that it has lost all relevance. Ted Williams was the last to do it in the big leagues, batting .406 in 1941. It has been 25 years since someone hit .380 (Tony Gwynn's .394, in the strike-shortened 1994 season), which means this is the first generation of fans never to have seen anyone even get close to .400. It is difficult to imagine that the next one will, either.
Today's game, with its phalanx of hard-throwing relievers and rising strikeouts, has shoved .400 so far from possibility that nobody has hit even .350 for the past eight years, three more than the previous longest stretch. This year Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger became the first hitter in a decade to take a .400 average into his team's 50th game. "Just insane," he said about the idea of keeping up such a pace for an entire season. He batted .268 over the team's next 50 games.
Unlike a home run pursuit, in which there will be more games without a homer than with one, the quest for .400 affords only the briefest of lapses during a season. Williams never went three straight starts without a hit in 1941. It is the ultimate endurance test.
This is a truism in all of professional baseball, not just the majors. Gary Redus hit .462 in Billings, Mont., in 1978, but that was short-season rookie ball. Desi Wilson hit .411 in 2005 in the independent Golden League, but he came to the plate just 350 times.
Among the rare breed of hitter since Williams, two players with at least 400 plate appearances stand out. Aaron Pointer is the last to hit .400 in affiliated baseball with a single team. Darryl Brinkley is the last to reach that mark in independent ball. Both are living monuments to the ever-expanding difficulty of .400—and what it means to endure.
A TOWN OF 21,297, Salisbury in 1961 struck Pointer as a strange world, one made for people of color to feel unwelcome. "I was very naive as far as racial conditions," he says, "not knowing what I could or couldn't do or where I could go and not go."
Professional baseball had been played intermittently in Salisbury since 1905, but it was not integrated until '60—13 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the major leagues. At Newman Park blacks had to sit in a segregated section down the first base line. A kid standing behind centerfield once shot at Pointer with a BB gun. "I heard a number of times when the fans would call me 'n-----,'" he says. "It didn't bother me. That's not something I ever dwelled on. It probably incentivized me even more to do well."
Pointer couldn't live or socialize with his white teammates, so he hung out with students from Livingstone College, a historically black school in Salisbury. Only the previous year, on March 7, 1960, 10 students from Livingstone—two by two—dared to sit at five downtown drug-store lunch counters. Six were served at three of the establishments. The other four were told that it violated management's policy to serve Negroes. The lunch-counter sit-ins had begun in Greensboro a month earlier and were spreading across the state.
On road trips the team had to find private accommodations for Pointer, which sometimes meant a room beside tobacco processing plants. He had to remain on the bus while his white teammates ate at restaurants that refused to serve blacks. But at each stop one teammate, Tommy Murray, would come back to the bus smiling and carrying a meal in each hand. He made sure Pointer never ate alone.
Baseball is a game of chance. It's not just about the bounce of the ball, the call of the umpire or the whim of the wind. It's also about the company in which you land. Pointer was thrown into the tempest of North Carolina, but he also fell in with Murray.
Like Pointer, Murray was 19 in 1961. He grew into a three-sport star in Marshall, Texas (pop. 23,846), which was feeling the same tremors of the in-between that would hit Salisbury a decade later; the Marshall public schools would not be integrated until 1970, 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education.
Pointer grew up in a more racially mixed world. His parents were pastors at the West Oakland Church of God. They had six children, all of whom sang in the church choir. The four girls—Ruth, Anita, Bonnie and June—would become famous as the Pointer Sisters, the three-time Grammy Award--winning singers. Aaron's younger brother, Fritz, would play basketball at Creighton and become a college professor and author.
The Pointers lived on 18th Street in a two-story house. They occupied the upstairs and the Silas family, including Aaron's cousin, future NBA star Paul Silas, lived downstairs. "My mom and dad taught us right from wrong and encouraged us," Aaron says. "They were both educated and knew the value of education. I'm grateful I had a mom and dad that understood life and good lessons and how to survive in this country being African-American."
Competitive sports held large sway with boys growing up in Oakland in the 1950s, and no place could test their skill and spirit like DeFremery Park, where Bill Russell played pickup basketball games and Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Curt Flood and Joe Morgan showed their baseball talents. The Pointers lived right across from the park. It was a hallowed proving ground.
Pointer followed Robinson, Pinson and Flood to McClymonds High, known as the School of Champions. With Silas and Fritz, Pointer also played on legendary undefeated basketball teams at Mack. Aaron was all-city in both basketball and baseball and was student body president.
Like Russell, he accepted a basketball scholarship to San Francisco. When the season ended, Pointer prepared to join the baseball team. The Colt .45s, upon the recommendation of his high school baseball coach, George Powles, who worked as a part-time scout, offered Pointer $10,000 to sign. "I don't remember hearing my parents say anything negative about me going away," he says. "All I know is that one of the reasons I did sign was to help the family financially. Between my signing bonus and my monthly salary, I was making more money than my dad."
May 1, 1961, was Opening Day of the Western Carolina League. Only 200 people braved a cold drizzle to watch the Braves lose to the Lexington Indians 5--2. Pointer, the black pastor's son from Oakland, played first base. Murray, the All-America white kid from Texas, was across the diamond at third.
Over the hills and hollows of North Carolina, it would be a memorable year of passage for the two teenagers. Together they shared dinners alone on a bus in the dark of segregated Carolina nights, creating small, simple moments that showed just how big the other side of the in-between years might be.
AS A KID Brinkley loved baseball so much that, alone, he would cut school and hop a train from Stamford to Yankee Stadium. He would arrive early enough in the rightfield bleachers to study how his favorite players took batting practice. His grades suffered. The school informed his mother, Annie, that he was missing classes and falling behind.
So one day she followed him. She was aghast to learn where he was spending his school days and upbraided him right there in the bleachers. The scolding continued at dinner that night. "What in your right mind were you thinking?" she shouted.
"I'm going to be a big league ballplayer," the boy replied.
"What? Just wait until your father comes home. And then you will tell him that same ridiculous story. A big league ballplayer! Ha!"
Darryl grew nervous. His dad, Randy, was a construction worker who would leave the house at 6 a.m. and often didn't get home until after dinner. The boy knew all that his dad wanted after a hard day's work were the quiet luxuries of a good meal and a comfortable chair. He knew that, as often was the way of parenting then, his father was not above taking his belt to the backside of his misbehaving child.
Randy had just begun dinner when Darryl haltingly approached him.
"Dad, I know you're eating, but I have something to tell you."
"I missed a couple of days of school."
Truth was, it was much more than a couple of days, and his father knew that already.
"I went to Yankee Stadium."
"Tell me why you went."
"Because I'm going to be a big league ballplayer."
Randy's eyebrows knitted into angry knots, but underneath the table he gave Darryl a couple of gentle kicks—the equivalents of a wink, out of eyesight of his mother.
"Let's go. Upstairs!"
The boy trudged up to his room, his father right behind him, beginning to slide his belt from the loops of his pants so the mother could see what was in store for the boy. When the door closed behind them, the father whispered to his son, "Now you fake it. Start screaming."
As Randy pantomimed a whipping, Darryl gave a shriek that must have startled all of Stamford. And then again. And again. The performance was so over-the-top that his father had to cut short the faux beating.
That little boy grew to be 32 years old and world-weary by the time he finally got his shot at the big leagues. In August 2001, the Orioles signed him to fill out their roster at Triple A Rochester for the final nine games. When injuries struck the parent club a few weeks later, Baltimore general manager Syd Thrift phoned Rochester manager Andy Etchebarren and asked him to recommend a replacement.
Etchebarren answered quickly: "Brinkley was swinging the bat better than anybody. He's ready to hit in the majors."
So Thrift called Brinkley to join the team in Baltimore. He reached Annie instead. She told him Darryl was vacationing in Brisbane, Australia. It was Monday night in Connecticut, midday Tuesday in Brisbane, when she reached her son with the news: "Syd Thrift is looking for you. The Orioles want you in the big leagues."
"Are you serious? Tell him I'm coming home. I'll be on the next flight."
Early the next morning Brinkley arrived at the airport to get a flight to New York City. He noticed the airport was strangely crowded, but no one seemed to be going anywhere. He approached the ticket counter and announced to the agent, "Ma'am, I'm going to the Show!"
"Sir," she said, "I don't know what show you're in, but that show is probably canceled."
It was the evening of Sept. 11, 2001; Brinkley didn't know that the Twin Towers lay in smoldering ruins. The first plane hit the North Tower at 8:46 a.m, about 12 hours after Thrift had called looking for Brinkley. "Just get me to Canada," Brinkley pleaded. "Get me to Mexico. I'll take a bus from there. Get me anywhere in North America."
"I'm sorry. No flights are going anywhere."
Brinkley returned to the airport each day for the next few days, but no planes were leaving. Major League Baseball shut down for a week. By the time play resumed, Baltimore no longer needed Brinkley.
Over the next two weeks, the Orioles suffered more injuries in the outfield, but they did not call up Brinkley. They did call up Tim Raines Jr., a .256 hitter at Rochester, to make his major league debut. Two days later they traded for his 42-year-old father.
ON MAY 5, 1961, when the Braves were scheduled to host the Statesville Owls, the Freedom Riders rolled into Salisbury without incident. They continued to Charlotte. There one of the black riders asked for a shoe shine at what was designated as a "whites only" station. He was arrested for trespassing, denied bail and thrown in jail for two nights.
Nine days later a KKK mob ambushed one bus in Aniston, Ala., firebombing it. Another group of Klansman infiltrated the other bus and enforced "blacks-in-the-back" seating by beating up passengers.
On May 18, Salisbury split a doubleheader with Statesville in which players umpired the first game because nobody scheduled the umps. Pointer went 5 for 7 in the two games. By May 28, with his smooth, righthanded all-fields stroke, he was hitting .420. By June 5, Pointer was up to .513, with 40 hits in his first 73 professional at bats.
That same night, about 30 miles away in Trinity, eight black men walked into the Trinity Self-Service Grill and dared to sit down for a meal. The grill's operator, Robert Parris, 20, refused to serve them. According to Parris, the men left and he hid beneath a house behind the grill. He showed up the next morning with welts on his back and arms and said the blacks had beaten him with leather belts. Parris told police a mob of blacks "about 40 strong" also had beaten two other white men with sticks and belts.
As word of the "beatings" spread, the night grew more dangerous. Mobs burned an eight-foot-tall cross in an open field, the calling card of the KKK. Cars roared up and down Trinity's streets, packed with white men yelling and cursing out open windows. License plates were observed from High Point, Thomasville, Greensboro and points farther.
The summer of 1961 percolated with fear and anxiety. Pointer kept to places where blacks were welcomed and immersed himself in baseball. Tall and rangy but broad-shouldered at 6'2" and 185 pounds, he was hitting .420 on July 14 when he was a unanimous selection for the first of the league's two All-Star Games. "At that time all I cared about was getting to the ballpark and away from all that stuff," Pointer says. "Being on the baseball field was my salvation. If I hadn't had baseball, I'm not sure I could have survived.
"My teammates, I don't remember anything about where or how they lived. They stayed in their part of town. We stayed in our section. It wasn't fair, but that was all there was and you couldn't change anything if you wanted.
"I'm kind of conflicted about it now. If I hadn't been so naive, and instead knew what I know now, I might not even be alive today. Since that time I've been politically active. And I wonder what life would be like if I was like that then. I might not be walking this earth now."
SIX WEEKS after Sept. 11, Brinkley signed another minor league contract with the Orioles for the 2002 season. That year he led Rochester with 73 RBIs, hit .285 and was the team's only position player at the Triple A All-Star Game. And still, he was not called up.
Never again would Brinkley take another at bat in affiliated baseball. He played in independent ball and foreign leagues for another seven years, until he was 40. In 2006 he hit .355 for the Tuneros de San Luis of the Mexican League. That's when the Calgary Vipers of the eight-team Northern League became the latest outpost to request his services. He hit .368 in 29 games, and when that season ended, the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish of the Atlantic League hired him for their stretch drive, completing his sixth-month tour of North America.
The next year Calgary invited him back. Brinkley got off to a slow start with the Vipers, hitting .188 through the first week or so when Joliet (Ill.) Jackhammers pitcher Kyle Zaleski plunked him on the elbow. The next day he went 4 for 5. "Oh, I was mad," Brinkley said at the time. "He hit me on purpose. I wanted to come out aggressive, no matter what."
He crafted a 23-game hitting streak. Thirty-one games into a 96-game season, Brinkley was hitting .408. Reporters began to pepper him with questions about hitting .400. "We've only played one-third of the season. C'mon," he told them. "Anybody who knows the game knows that ain't happening. I don't trip off that average thing."
ON SATURDAY, Aug. 26, 1961, the final day of the WCL season, Braves manager Alex Cosmidis asked Pointer if he wanted to sit out the game. Pointer was hitting slightly better than .400. Salisbury already had clinched a spot in the playoffs. But Pointer chose to play, stroked two more hits in three at bats and finished at .407 according to news accounts at the time. (Baseball Reference lists his average as .402.)
In the big leagues that same year, three of the top seven hitters in the National League with at least 350 plate appearances were from McClymonds High: Robinson, Pinson and Flood. And Russell won another NBA title with the Celtics.
"All I wanted to do was play baseball," Pointer says. "For me it was still no different than high school and college. I wasn't under any pressure to hit .400. I can't remember thinking at any time, what's my batting average? We were trying to win and have a good time. To us it was still just a game."
The next day Freedom Riders returned to Monroe, an hour south of Salisbury, to support an NAACP leader, Robert Williams, who wanted to press assault charges against a KKK member. They planned a peaceful protest at the courthouse.
Local authorities feared the worst. The area around the courthouse swarmed with highway patrol officers armed with automatic carbines and sawed-off shotguns, local police and 75 firemen deputized as cops. The governor sent another 50 patrol cars, including squads from Statesville, whose team, like Salisbury's, would begin the playoffs the next night.
Despite the show of force, a white mob pushed in, broke the police line and attacked the activists. Chaos ensued. Gunfire was heard around Monroe for the next several hours. A white couple made a wrong turn onto the street in the black neighborhood where Williams lived. They were pulled from their car and held, then released unharmed at Williams's house.
Williams eventually escaped to Cuba. More than 50 people were arrested, most of them white. In those years the population of Monroe was about 12,000. Press reports indicated the Monroe chapter of the KKK claimed about 7,500 members.
WITH TWO weeks left in the season Brinkley was batting .396. Then the endurance test caught up to him. After a 2-for-14 slide Brinkley was down to .390 entering the last three games, a weekend series in Calgary against the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. The few reporters around stopped asking him about .400.
On Friday he went 3 for 5. On Saturday he went 3 for 5. On Sunday, with his average at .395, as he walked on the field a fan called to him, "All right, Brink. You've only got to go 3 for 3!"
"I thought, Oh, God, he just jinxed it," Brinkley says.
Brinkley singled his first two times up. His average was now .398.
"I just knew I was going to get it," he says. "I realized their pitcher was coming at me. A lot of people didn't know this but later on I found out that their pitching coach mentioned that their manager wanted to walk me. But the pitching coach wasn't having any of it. I was fortunate they pitched to me."
In the fourth inning Brinkley fell behind Doug Young, a 31-year-old righthander, 1 and 2. Young threw a slider. Brinkley hit it off the end of the bat, which snapped in half. The ball bounced through the middle of the infield and safely into center for a single. It was his 150th hit in 375 at bats—his ninth in his final 13—to put his average at exactly .400 according to multiple newspaper reports at the time. (Baseball Reference alone has him as hitting .399.) Calgary manager Mike Busch immediately removed him for a pinch runner. The fans gave Brinkley a standing ovation.
The headline the next morning in the Calgary Herald read, BRINKLEY CRACKS BAT TO GAIN IMMORTALITY.
POINTER DID make the major leagues. His first start, in 1963 for the Colt .45s, is the only game in history in which a team started nine rookies—a lineup that included Morgan, Rusty Staub and Jimmy Wynn. Pointer appeared in 40 games over the 1963, '66 and '67 seasons, hitting .208. He played two more seasons in the minors, then another three in Japan. He retired at age 30 in 1972 and settled in Tacoma, Wash.
In 1978 he became the first black football referee in what was then the Pac-10 Conference. From 1987 to 2003 he served as an NFL head linesman. Before one game he worked, in Los Angeles, he stood on the sideline as his sisters sang the national anthem.
"One of my milestones," he says.
In a preseason game he worked in Pittsburgh in 1994, his son Deron, a wide receiver trying to make the Colts, caught his first NFL pass right in front of him near the sideline. After going out-of-bounds, Deron flipped the ball to his father. "Another moment I'll never forget," Aaron says.
Today, after working 30 years as Pierce County athletics supervisor, he is the president of the Tacoma Board of Park Commissioners. He still hears often about 1961.
"Right now I'm an elected official, and usually if someone is introducing me, invariably they will say, 'Here's Aaron Pointer, the last player in professional baseball to hit .400,'" he says. "It's not weekly, but it's at least a couple of times a month. It makes me feel good that it's a record that's 57 years old."
In 1962, Pointer played 59 games in Durham for Houston's Class B team as they converted him from first base to the outfield. He has never returned to Salisbury. "There was no reason to go back," he says. "There was nothing there that seemed to be important enough to go back and see how it was after so many years.
"Hey, whatever happened to Tommy?"
During that summer of '61, Murray met and fell in love with 19-year-old Carolyn Sue Yost, a secretary at Panda Drapery of Charlotte. They married after the season at Rowan Mills Baptist Church in Salisbury. She walked down the aisle clutching a white Bible with white organza, lace, a white orchid, satin streamers and blue forget-me-nots. The organist, maid of honor and ushers all were from Salisbury. (Pointer would marry the following year to a girl he met at a dance when they were at San Francisco. Aaron and Leona are approaching their 57th anniversary, and they've raised four children.)
Murray played 10 years but never reached the majors. He and Carolyn settled in Greenwood, S.C., his last minor league stop, where he worked 25 years for a business forms company and then as a newspaper printer. He died in 2003 at age 61.
Pointer is one of many players between 1947 and '79 for whom the Major League Players Association and MLB did not provide pensions at the same rate retroactively after their 1980 agreement. He is one of several activists who fought for such coverage—he has received about $1,200 a year for the past four years—and continues to fight for minor leaguers.
"Major League Baseball has just forgotten all those guys who contributed to the game," he says. "Baseball got so much benefit from them, and to not give them anything at all is not right.
"We've been trying to get minor league players some kind of credit. The MLBPA turned it down. There are a lot of guys like Tommy Murray. They spent a lot of time in baseball. And they never got a dime. Nothing."
BRINKLEY RETURNED to Calgary in 2008 and hit .351. "My last five, six, seven years I used to tell myself, 'If I can't hit .300, I'm retiring,'" he says. "'I'm a .320, .330 hitter. If I can't hit .300, it's time to get out of there.'"
The next summer, at 40, he led the Edmonton Capitals with 13 home runs and 82 RBIs in 81 games. He missed .300 by one hit, finishing at .297. So he quit.
Since then he has managed or coached every season, the first five in independent baseball and the past five in the Dodgers' and the Reds' systems. Not bad for someone who didn't know "the insides of the game" well enough to be promoted. This year he is the hitting coach for the Billings (Mont.) Mustangs, the Reds' Rookie League affiliate in the Pioneer League. He has spent 28 of his 50 years in pro baseball, not a day of it in the majors. He and his wife, Gail, have a son, Darryl Jr., and live in Norwalk, Conn.
Last year Brinkley was elected to the Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame, joining Willie Mays as one of only six Americans so honored. (Brinkley hit .331 in five Caribbean Series.) Most of the Billings ballplayers he coaches—part of the generation that has grown up without a major leaguer making a run at .400—have no idea their coach hit .400 at age 38. "I don't talk about it," he says. "I'm not a braggart. The man upstairs has taken good care of me. Unfortunately, I was never able to play in the big leagues, but I couldn't be happier.
"I'm doing what I love. Why would I ask, 'What if?' I'm able to make a living. Once I got to Mexico in 1995—I had to start somewhere making good money—the salary was pretty good. I was playing baseball year round. I am very proud of what I accomplished. I made a lot of friends. And now I love what I do."
THE FOURTH-SEEDED Shelby Colonels knocked out the top-seeded Braves in two straight games in the 1961 playoffs. Pointer had played so well (the league batting average was .256, and no other regular was within 60 points of him) that the Colt .45s told Pointer to report to their Triple A team, the Omaha Buffs, for the end of that season.
Around that time Pointer used $3,000 of his bonus money to buy a beige 1962 Pontiac Grand Prix, its first model year. At 211 inches long and just 54 inches high, with bucket seats, it cut a silhouette so sleek that it seemed to be moving even when it was parked. Pointer would drive his hot new ride all the way to Houston. Pointer invited Murray to come with him. Murray was going home to Marshall, so Pointer would drop him off on his way.
Murray thought it was a great idea. But then he looked at Pointer, looked at the shiny, sleek Grand Prix and looked back at Pointer. "On one condition," Tommy said. "During the daylight hours, you let me drive. If the police see you—a black man driving a car like this?—they're going to pull you over. You drive at night. I'll drive during the day."
For 15 hours they drove through North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama—they practically retraced the route of the ill-fated buses of the Freedom Riders—and through Mississippi and Louisiana before crossing over the Texas border and into Marshall. With Pointer sticking to Murray's plan not to drive through the South in daylight, they covered the 1,000 miles without getting stopped.
Pointer continued on to Houston. He parked his car at the team headquarters and caught a flight to Omaha, where the Buffs were playing the Dodgers. Omaha wasn't the segregated South. Pointer stayed at the same hotel as his teammates, some of whom also were black. But even outside the South, the arc of the in-between years is long. Perceptions don't change simply with the passing of a law, code or ordinance. Human behavior is like baseball. It changes slowly, almost imperceptibly.
It was a pleasant afternoon. Pointer was early for the team bus that would take him to the ballpark for his second game with the Buffs. As he waited outside the hotel, a white man pulled up in a fancy car and left it in front of the main entrance. The man then walked straight for the hotel's door, handed his keys to Pointer and said, "Park my car, son."
Pointer was dumbfounded. He looked at the car. He looked at the keys. He looked for the man, but he was already gone.
Soon the team bus pulled up, and Pointer settled in a window seat. Somewhere on an Omaha road between the hotel and the ballpark, somewhere between the lives we live and the games we play, between the unwritten rules of society and the unwritten rules of sport, Aaron Pointer reached into his pocket and pulled out the keys. He clutched them for a moment in his right hand. Then he slid open the window as far as he could, pulled back his right arm as if he needed to throw out a runner and heaved those white man's keys into whatever nothingness would have them.
It felt good. He smiled, as he still does today, 58 years later, every time he thinks about that guy in Omaha, wondering what happened to his keys.
Baseball is a game of chance. It's not just about the bounce of the ball, the call of umpire or the whim of the win. IT'S ABOUT THE COMPANY IN WHICH YOU LAND.