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LU grand marshal talks baseball, race relations

LU grand marshal talks baseball, race relations

September 24th, 2017 by Philip Joens in Local News

Grand Marshal Theodore Savage waves to the crowd Saturday during Lincoln University's homecoming parade in downtown Jefferson City.

Photo by Shelby Kardell /News Tribune.

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On a balmy fall morning with not a cloud in the sky, hundreds of area residents, Lincoln University fans, and alumni lined the streets of downtown Jefferson City for the university's annual homecoming parade.

People of all colors and creeds lined the streets, marched in the parade and danced with the spirit squad; seemingly unaware of the past barriers that once separated them.

To the parade's grand marshal, though, the past didn't feel that far away.

Ted Savage played basketball at Lincoln University for three years, before graduating from the school in 1958. He later played for eight teams during a nine-season Major League Baseball career.

When Savage attended the school in the mid-1950s, black patrons could not sit with white patrons at a movie theater downtown. Instead, Savage said African Americans were sent to sit in the much smaller balcony. Elsewhere in Jefferson City, Savage said African Americans couldn't stay in hotels downtown, but they could work in them.

"We couldn't live together; we couldn't do nothing together," Savage said. "All the kids that came here to college would go to the movies, and we couldn't get in there."

Today, Caucasians make up 48 percent of the student population, while blacks make up just 40 percent. Since those dark days, Savage said the city and the university have changed for the better.

"There's not to big of, or any at all, race problems here anymore," he said. "A lot of people have finally realized we deserve the same rights they have, and everybody is getting along pretty good."

These days, Savage comes back to Lincoln once every two to three years; he was inducted in the Lincoln Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013. The parade went well, though he did have one problem.

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"I needed some more candy to toss to the kids because I ran out of candy," Savage said.

Raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, Savage first fell in love with basketball. He first went to the University of Illinois on the advice of a scout. After lasting only one semester though, he ended up at Lincoln, which is where several of his high school friends attended.

Savage played basketball at Lincoln for three years and led the team in scoring in 1957 and 1958. At the time, the school did not have a baseball program. It later added baseball, but dropped the sport again in 2016.

After graduating from LU, Savage entered the U.S. Army medical service and played baseball and basketball around the country for the U.S. Army. Eventually a scout called, saying the Philadelphia Phillies purchased his contract.

During his Major League career, Savage played for eight teams in nine seasons, hitting a career.233 batting average and 34 home runs in 1,375 at-bats. His career included parts of three seasons in for his hometown St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he played 55 games between 1965-67.

As a child, he loved baseball too, but the discriminatory culture of the time bothered him, he said.

"I always wanted to be like Jackie Robinson, but things were so different from what I thought it would be because of the way things were," he said.

Savage broke into baseball at a unique time in the game's history. Though Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier 15 years before Savage played his rookie season with the Phillies, holdouts like the Boston Red Sox, which became the last club to integrate in 1959, took years to play athletes of color. The Phillies intigrated in 1957, just three years before Savage's first season in the team's minor league system.

Savage said blacks weren't allowed to stay in hotels with white players until 1966.

"The managers and coaches would say 'Teamwork! We've got to be together,' and as soon as we got off the airplane, they went downtown to the beautiful hotels, while we had to stay in the hood," Savage said.

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Now, Savage wears his Cardinal pride on his sleeves. He's worked in the Cardinals front office since 1987, and he rattles off story after story from his time playing and working for the team.

Even when covered in a royal blue Lincoln University polo and jacket, Savage walked with a cane that had a Cardinal shaped handle. For the occasion, he also wore his 2011 World Series ring.

In 2015 African Americans made up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Participation by African Americans in baseball peaked at 19 percent in 1986, according to the Society of American Baseball Research. The percentage of African Americans players dropped from 8.27 percent in 2016, though, to 7.73 percent in 2017.

Savage created the St. Louis chapter of MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, which provides grants and equipment and for youth baseball and softball programs created by the organization. MLB expanded upon its RBI program with its MLB Urban Youth Academies that include fields, grandstands, lights and other facilities to cultivate interest in the game among urban youths.

Savage said both programs are working. When the RBI started though, he noticed parents were with their children more than they seem to be now, he said.

"I think it's working to some degree," Savage said. "Kids want to play, but somebody's got to be there supervising."

As early-afternoon turned to late-afternoon Saturday, Lincoln staff escorted Savage upstairs in the sparkling new Linc wellness center to the President's Room to watch the Lincoln football team play Truman State in its annual homecoming football game.

In the suite, people of all races mindlessly ate, drank and bonded together over sports. Since Savage's days at the school, things had changed, in big ways and small.