Your conference is about a man whose presence every high school and American Legion ball player in Oakland knew when I began Oakland High School in 1956, the year after he graduated from high school. Curt Flood, along with Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, as well as their other teammates, were heroes to us. However, Curt Flood’s story began with someone most people in the game don’t know. In fact, very few have even heard his name.
In more than 30 years as a coach of all sports at McClymonds High School, and later at Skyline High School, Coach George Powles’s led teams who won 28 Oakland Athletic League championships. This veteran of WWII made an indelible mark on thousands of young men of all races, creeds, and colors. His contribution came through leveraging every opportunity, as a teacher and as a coach, for student athletes, at McClymonds High School and elsewhere. He did so, humbly and thoughtfully. He dealt with everyone he met, with a smile, a warm handshake, and as a presumptively worthwhile individual.
Coach Powles’ had a key role–quiet, unpretentious role–in the birth of the civil rights movement prompted in no small part by his shared leadership with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson a continent away in Brooklyn in 1947, the same year that Coach Powles began his inspired work at McClymonds High School.
In unknowing concert, while 3,000 miles apart, a white coach at a black high school, and a white lawyer and a black athlete, peacefully—without government incentive or intervention—changed baseball and the nation. Some will think it an exaggeration to relate baseball to the genesis of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not think so and told Mr. Rickey and Mr. Robinson as much. United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren did not think so and told his son, and my friend and colleague, Judge Earl Warren, Jr. as much.
I knew Coach Powles. As a student at Oakland High School, 1956-1959, I played against his high school and American Legion teams. We usually lost, although we did tie the High School team for the Oakland Athletic League Championship in 1959. It was our first championship in 40 years, but just another victory for McClymonds High School.
My junior high coach, Ernie Fernandes, and my future Oakland High coach, Mike Marcoulis took, took me with them to some American Legion games in 1955. We marveled at Coach Powles’s centerfielder, Curt Flood. He was small and slim, but obviously remarkable. How remarkable we did not know at the time. As we all know now, Mr. Flood would star in the Major Leagues for many years. More importantly, he would change the game of baseball forever.
In my profession, Flood is a renowned litigant, known to every lawyer and judge because of his courageous lawsuit against baseball. By his sacrifice and suffering for the common good, he became and remains an exemplar to other baseball players everywhere.
I am unashamed to say that my baseball coaches, along with Coach Powles, AND Curt Flood were role models for me. These men helped change my life.
The Honorable George Nicholson, Associate Justice, Third Appellate District, Court of Appeals, State of California.