ATLANTA -- Don Newcombe holds the letter in his hand, and you can tell he cherishes its contents. Newcombe is 86 years old. The letter arrived in time for his 85th birthday celebration last year. And as he reads the words aloud -- words written by a younger African-American ballplayer who gleaned great value from the lessons passed down by Newcombe, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella in those days when segregation was still law in some corners -- Newcombe swells with pride. "When it came to sheer competitiveness, I never faced anyone fiercer than you," the letter reads. "But what meant more was a side no one else saw. You reached out to us. You knew the odds were stacked against us, knew what we were dealing with. ... You and Jackie and Roy taught me how to stay focused and not get distracted."
Those words were written by Henry Louis Aaron. And there is a lesson in them for all of us. History gets repeated, recited, romanticized. We talk about the importance of players like Newcombe, the first black pitcher to start a World Series game and the first player of any race, color or creed to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP Awards in his career. And at events like this weekend's Civil Rights Game, where Newcombe will receive the Beacon of Hope Award at a luncheon Saturday, we honor those whose past helped push the country toward a better, brighter future. But when history comes alive -- as it does in that letter -- its impact is most evident. When we have that rare opportunity to encounter the emotion of its characters, well, that's when the stuff we once read in text books becomes three-dimensional. So I felt privileged to listen in on a round table discussion featuring Newcombe and other prominent figures in activism and education Friday afternoon. To hear their stories, to feel that emotion. It crystallized in my mind when Newcombe read that wonderful letter from Hammerin' Hank. Or when Mel Pender, an Olympic gold medalist and Vietnam veteran, talked about the treatment he received as a black man during the turbulence of the late 1960s. Pender didn't begin running track until he was 25 years old -- an absurdly late bloom, by today's standards. He's convinced that, with proper fields, equipment and coaching at a younger age, he would have had the opportunity to been his generation's Usain Bolt. "I could have been the fastest man in the world," he said. "I was good." But he didn't realize how good until he was playing on a football team while serving in Okinawa, Japan, with the 83rd Airborne Division of the Army. One of his coaches took note of his talent, and the encouragement Pender received at that point helped propel him to an appearance at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Four years later, at the age of 30, Pender won the gold as part of the men's 4x100-meter relay team at the Mexico City Games. Those 1968 Games were shrouded in controversy when John Carlos, who had been Pender's roommate during Olympic training, and Tommie Smith medaled in the 200-meter dash and made the "Black Power" salute at the podium. The two men would receive a suspension from the U.S. team and death threats for this action. But Pender knew these men and knew their true intentions. He, like them, had experienced the humiliation of being turned away at a restaurant because of the color of his skin, and he understood the importance of those Olympic feats. "We wanted to show the world how good we were," Pender said. "We wanted to show the world we were men, black Americans. ... What they did to them was a disgrace. We were the only team not to go to the White House, and that hurt." Listening to Pender speak, you can tell it still hurts. But that hurt is only purposeful if some good is created from it. After the Olympics, Pender finished his service in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star. He became the first black track and field coach at West Point, then went on to a long career in sports administration and community affairs, overseeing the Atlanta Hawks Foundation, among other endeavors. He is a proud man and, admittedly, a cocky one. "If I could have learned to throw [a baseball]," he joked to Newcombe, "I might have been right up there with you." Hearing these men share their stories about a life and a world that, to a white male born in the early 80s, is so difficult, if not impossible, to comprehend, is a base-broadening experience. And as Newcombe's gray hair and slow stroll illustrate, the opportunity for people from my generation and beyond to get a glimpse into the full scope of the Civil Rights Movement becomes rarer by the day. "If you lived through this period, it's on your memory as if it's physical," said Doug Shipman, an expert on issues of race, ethnicity and gender who took part in the panel discussion. "If you're born after it, like me, it's hard to understand it at that deepest level. It's hard to internalize what it was like." All we can do is be willing to share these stories, read these letters, listen to the voices of those who came before. And hopefully, much like one of the game's greatest sluggers learning valuable life lessons from a man now known as a Beacon of Hope, we can keep pushing forward.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.