Editor’s Journal: The greatest pitching performance I’ve ever seen came from a 9-year-old

Jesse Merrill’s courageous step forward had ripples that none of us saw at the time.

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Baseball

Photograph by Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Nine-year-old Jesse Merrill was the Jackie Robinson of my hometown. Like much of the Southeast, my little West Georgia town caught baseball fever in 1966 when the Braves relocated from Milwaukee to Atlanta. That spring, two Little League teams were started to play in the county league. One was coached by my dad. Jesse had tried to sign up to play on the other team, and was turned away because “the roster was full.”

Even though I was only seven, I understood the coded language. I grew up in a place where the Black section of town was casually referred to as “N—–town.” I can’t recall ever seeing a Black person inside either of the town’s two grocery stores. Nor in the haberdashery, nor the five-and-dime. It was just what was normal; White people didn’t give it a second thought. It took a long time for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to trickle down from Washington, DC.

News of Jesse’s boldness quickly spread, as did rumors that he now intended to seek to play on our team. A few of my teammates defiantly vowed they would never allow such a thing to happen.

One afternoon, Jesse showed up at our practice, sat on a bleacher, and quietly watched. His yearning to be out there with us was palpable. A tension settled in over our play, as though we could all sense that something significant loomed. After practice, Jesse approached my dad and softly asked if he could join the team. My dad asked what position he played. Jesse replied that he was a pitcher and a shortstop. “Come to the next practice,” my dad told him. “Let’s see what you can do.” The giddy smile on Jesse’s face told me that we both understood my dad’s unspoken intentions.

Once he was on the team, Jesse became one of us, and his White teammates simply accepted him into the fold. I don’t recall any overt nastiness from opposing teams. My dad was a school principal who carried himself with the air of Atticus Finch, and that gave him a level of respect around town that helped protect Jesse.

I do have a memory of my dad forcefully dressing down an umpire because he was clearly refusing to call any strike Jesse threw. My dad had been a paratrooper during World War II; he was stoic and quiet, but he also had an aura of underlying danger. The umpire begrudgingly began to call Jesse’s strikes.

Later that spring, we played a game on our home field. Through the fifth inning, Jesse had struck out every batter; not a single one had even touched first base. We were on the brink of one of baseball’s most elusive and hallowed moments: a pitcher tossing a perfect game.

At the top of the sixth, and final, inning, one of the opposing team’s batters finally got a bat on the ball. He hit a weak, wobbly grounder to me at second base. It was the exact moment I had feared. But I cleanly gloved the ground ball and threw to first base ahead of the runner. Jesse then calmly struck out the next two batters.

We swarmed him at the pitcher’s mound with all the fervor of a major league team that had just won the World Series. Jesse had faced 18 batters and struck out 17 of them. It’s still the greatest pitching performance I’ve ever witnessed.

After that, the cap was off the bottle. The next season, every Black kid in town who wanted to play baseball was on my dad’s team. They became my friends. The schools were still segregated, but we spent hours playing basketball in my backyard and talking between games. Looking back, it’s a wonder the Klan didn’t burn a cross on our lawn; a reputed grand wizard lived just down the highway from my house.

Jesse Merrill’s courageous step forward had ripples that none of us saw at the time. Those friendships enabled me to grow beyond the mindset of my Southern heritage. As Andrew Young says in his essay for this issue, we’ve come a lot further than we realize. But that’s not to forget we still have a ways to go.

Read the full story: The legacy of the Civil Rights Act: 60 years later

This article appears in our June 2024 issue.

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