Willy Leventhal wasn't the best shortstop in high school, just the most intense. He was compact — 5 feet 9, 155 pounds — without the broad shoulders and sun-kissed arms that would carry some of his teammates to the pros.
Still, as a freshman at UCLA, in 1965, he remained a die-hard jock — right up until the moment he saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on campus.
King was seeking volunteers to register black voters in the South. Leventhal was one of the few who stepped forward. Working as a foot soldier in SCOPE — the Summer Community Organization and Political Education — would be a formative experience in his life. He would return to it again and again in books, articles and a Congressional report on the establishment of the King holiday.
Earlier this year, Leventhal's devotion to the civil rights cause brought an invitation from President Obama to a civil rights ceremony at the White House.
But back in 1965, the boy baseball player knew nothing of his future, certainly not that he would be arrested and shot at while working for civil rights that very summer — or that he would be the first white player in the Macon Bombers, an all-black team in Georgia.
“I was the only white to play,” Leventhal says. “They were all nice to me except one guy — the guy who played shortstop before me. I could tell he was thinking, 'I wish that white boy hadn't come.' ”
By the time Leventhal showed up in Georgia, the Negro Leagues were all but extinct. Jackie Robinson had joined the Dodgers a generation earlier.
Leventhal fell into the baseball gig. During the week, he volunteered with King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference, knocking on doors and trying to convince blacks to register for the first time in their lives. Through the SCLC, he met a couple of black volunteers who played for the Bombers, a semipro team sponsored by a local manufacturing company. When they found out he was a shortstop in high school, they invited Leventhal to try out.
“My strength was sports,” he says. “I knew that was the way I could connect with black guys.”
His first game was in the tiny town of Round Oak, Georgia. The field was in a corner of a cow pasture.
The first ball hit to him rattled out of his glove. He recovered and rushed the throw to first. He thought the runner had beaten it out, but the umpire called him out — a gesture of welcome.
As a player, Leventhal saw the small towns around Macon, and got a last glimpse of a vanishing way of life. All the players, umpires and fans were black. Some of the older players were veterans of the Negro Leagues, while the younger ones could be scouted to play for affiliated teams.
Leventhal played for a month before volunteering to go to Americus, Georgia, a front line in the civil rights battle, where a white volunteer had been killed by segregationists. There he was shot at twice by segregationists and arrested for participating in a demonstration.
“People in power want to stay in power, and have that power consolidated,” Leventhal says. “What we had in the South was a revolution, a social revolution.”
He never returned to the Macon Bombers. His stat line was a little unusual: 11 walks, three strikeouts, a hit-by-pitch and a sacrifice fly.
The sac fly came in his last game, and it tied the score in the seventh inning.
“When I got back to the dugout, there were some looks of approval,” he says.
The L.A. native now makes his home in Manhattan Beach. He spent much of his career as a special-education instructor. And he still finds a way to stay involved in baseball and civil rights. Leventhal has worked on fund-raisers for Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI), a Compton-based training program that aims to boost the ranks of African-Americans in the major leagues.