Taney helps soothe an unsettling summer

Taney's Jared Sprague-Lott laughs at something teammate Mo'ne Davis said to him with teammates Zion Spearman and Scott Bandura. (Michael Bryant/Staff Photographer)

This summer feels eerily familiar.

Maybe it's the juxtaposition of all those emotional images from Ferguson and Williamsport, the smoky chaos of racial unrest countered by the wide-eyed optimism of Little Leaguers.

That jumble of riots, race, and baseball, of frustration and hope, of dreams born and buried recalls, for me at least, perhaps the most indelible summer in Philadelphia's long history.

Fifty years ago this month, on Aug. 31, 1964, civic leaders gathered in Mayor James H.J. Tate's City Hall office to talk about a baseball game.

Though the surprising Phillies occupied first place in the National League, and had through much of the summer, their discussion had nothing to do with balls and strikes.

Three days earlier, in what was becoming a painfully familiar 1960s ritual, North Philadelphia's African American community had erupted in rage.

A dispute between police and residents sparked long-standing resentments. The fiery explosion it touched off destroyed dozens of businesses along Columbia Avenue, injured hundreds, and resulted in the arrests of more than 700 people.

The Phillies, on the road in Pittsburgh during the unrest, were due to return for a Sept. 1 game against Houston at Connie Mack Stadium, the aging facility that, at 21st and Lehigh, sat on the edge of the riot-impacted neighborhoods.

Could the game be played? Should it be played? If so, would fans and players be safe?

There were no viable alternatives, so when that 8:05 p.m. game began more than a hundred policemen, culled from the 1,500 patrolling the still-simmering area, encircled and filled the ballpark. Only 13,306 fans, well below the Phillies home average that season, showed up. And the game's rapid pace (2 hours, 1 minute) seemed to indicate the players were just as eager as the spectators to depart.

By the weekend, a restive calm had settled on North Philadelphia. A three-game series with the San Francisco Giants attracted more than 81,000 fans. The Phils won two of three, and, with just 19 games to play, their lead was a substantial 51/2 games.

Gradually, the buzz about baseball obscured the concerns raised by the rioting. If it couldn't resolve the deep-seated conflicts between black Philadelphians and the police, it at least allowed us to shift our focus to something more pleasant, more easily discernible.

"Baseball is reassuring," poet Sharon Olds has said. "It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up."

In this summer of Ferguson and ISIS, of the Ukraine and ill-fated Malaysian airliners, that's what the Taney Dragons have done.

Likable and talented, with the almond-eyed Mo'ne Davis as their star attraction, the team of 12- and 13-year-olds has provided Philadelphia - and much of America - with welcome blinders.

Taney didn't cure the world's upset, but, for a couple of weeks, they unquestionably soothed it.

And they may have a more lasting impact, one that might at last undo an unfortunate legacy from that 1964 disturbance.

Though Philadelphia was spared more riots in the 1960s, the Phillies couldn't escape some of the racial issues the civil disorder brought to the surface.

One of the ironies showcased by the riot was the fact that a franchise with a woeful record on race relations played in the middle of a predominantly black neighborhood. The last National League team to integrate, the Phillies long before had turned off Philadelphia's African Americans. The only time you saw many black faces at Connie Mack in the early 1960s was when the Dodgers or Giants were the opponents.

The summer of 1964 seemed to promise change. The organization's first homegrown black star, the electric Richie Allen, had reawakened interest in that community.

Perhaps as a result of frustrations generated by the riot and by that baseball season's disappointing conclusion, the boobirds soon made Allen their favorite target. That increasingly alienated the young slugger and his black fans. When, during batting practice in 1965, Allen fought with teammate Frank Thomas, the racial animus exploded.

"Allen felt he was right in the middle of the issue of race, and was tortured by this," Bruce Kuklick wrote in his history of Connie Mack Stadium, To Every Thing a Season. "He was acutely aware that baseball in Philadelphia was white and he was black."

After several more unhappy seasons, he would be traded. And, supplanted by basketball and football, baseball virtually disappeared from Philadelphia's black neighborhoods.

Now, through the efforts of many dedicated adults, the game - as Taney's World Series matchup with an all-black Chicago team so vividly displayed - may once again be taking root there.

Taney's youngsters could be the catalyst for a baseball revival in North Philadelphia and other urban neighborhoods. But even if they aren't, they've made their mark.

A half-century later in Philadelphia, even those who never saw them play remember Gene Mauch's star-crossed team and that turbulent summer of 1964.

Likewise, we won't soon forget 2014, and the little team that helped make it bearable.