Oklahoma City's Jackie Robinson: “A human treasure” returns for one last pitch
COMMENTARY — Sixty years ago this summer Bill Greason integrated professional baseball in Oklahoma City. This is the story of Greason and the man who helped make sure he was recognized.
Next Thursday evening, Bill Greason will take to the mound at the ballyard downtown and throw one last pitch in Oklahoma City.
Tossing out that ceremonial first pitch will be the culmination of a night honoring the man who was the first black player in our city's professional baseball history. Sixty years ago, he was a starting pitcher for the Oklahoma City Indians and became a baseball and box-office smash in a state that was still three years from its first integrated high school football game and four years from Prentice Gautt becoming the first black football player at Oklahoma.
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Greason was a brave pioneer in the largely uncharted territory of integration.
For that, he is going to be lauded and cheered next week before a RedHawks game, stepping into a much-deserved spotlight.
But should you go to The Brick that night, there's a man who will be nowhere near that spotlight, who you likely won't see but who deserves a round of applause, too.
Mark House has been working behind the scenes for months to make the ceremony honoring Greason a reality. Even though the middle-aged father from Mustang would be quick to point to all the other folks who are helping — donations have come from Hertz and Southwest Airlines among others — he was the one who got the snowball rolling.
“To me, he's like a human treasure,” House said of Greason. “I hope that people will understand who he is and what he's done.”
Why did a white guy from the suburbs decide that an 87-year-old black man needed to be recognized and remembered?
It started with three baseball caps.
House is a collector of sports memorabilia. Walk into his home office, and you'll see everything from cigar boxes overflowing with baseball cards to leather boxing gloves weathered and cracked by the hands of time.
But last fall, he stumbled across something at an antique store in the city that he'd never seen before — three baseball caps worn by players with the Oklahoma City Indians.
Truth be told, he had never even heard of the Indians. He was born the same year that the 89ers came to town, so he always figured that's where Oklahoma City's minor-league baseball history started.
“Had no clue,” he said of the Indians' history.
He not only bought the caps but also started researching the Indians.
It wasn't the first time a unique find piqued his curiosity. Several years back at an estate sale, House found a picture of the undefeated football team from Oklahoma City University circa 1931. He googled the names on the photo and discovered that one of the players, Ace Gutowsky, went on to play in the first Thanksgiving day professional football game broadcast on radio.
“It's sort of a treasure hunt to see what's what,” House said.
His search for information about the Indians turned up an article about Greason written a few years ago by our man Berry Tramel. Included was a black-and-white photo of Greason in his uniform, including his cap which looked just like the ones House had purchased.