THE STORY of George Powles is largely a Bay Area legacy, but thanks to a recent symposium at the Baseball Hall of Fame detailing the life and accomplishments of Oakland's legendary youth coach, it's a story that may soon go national.
It may also lead to Powles being formally inducted into Cooperstown someday. While the Hall of Fame does not currently have a framework by which ancillary contributors to the game are accorded induction, the presentation on Powles was so profound, revelatory and dramatic, he could be a leading candidate if and when rules are changed to add such towering figures.
Unquestionably, the late Powles (1910-1987) was a towering figure in the Oakland area during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s. As a coach at McClymonds High and the Bill Erwin Post American Legion baseball team, Powles oversaw the development of 17 players who would eventually play major league baseball, including Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan as well as Curt Flood, the man who challenged the reserve clause.
Powles also was a major influence on basketball legend Bill Russell, as well as a number of other prominent African American athletes pre-dating the civil rights movements of the 1960s.
But the academicians, authors and longtime baseball dignitaries who attended the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture on June 3-5 were largely unaware of Powles' indirect but monumental role in shaping the future of baseball and professional sports in general during a time of social change. They were bowled over by what they heard, as well as awakened to the notion that the magnitude of Powles' pioneering contributions merits celebration, not suppression.
"Given the magnitude of his achievement and the role he played without fanfare of laying the foundation for the civil rights movement and creating some remarkable leaders in that movement, Powles is a man who should not be forgotten," said George Nicholson, an associate justice with the California State Court of Appeal.
Nicholson, who attended Oakland High in the late 1950s and played against Powles' Mack teams as well as his American Legion clubs, has coordinated Cooperstown symposium the past two years along with Branch Rickey III, grandson of the man who helped facilitate Jackie Robinson's breaking of the major-league color barrier. The justice's influence no doubt helped bring Powles' story before this national forum.
The judge deferred the credit for promoting Powles' legacy and singled out others more closely associated with the Oakland Athletic League and East Bay baseball: OAL commissioner Michael Moore, league historian Paul Brekke-Miesner, Bill Patterson, Aldo Nelson, Sam Bercovich and the Powles family.
Nicholson noted that Powles' brother Gordon wrote to the Hall of Fame in 1987 seeking some form of recognition for his brother. Twenty-two years later, a ball finally rolled.
"What should have happened long before happened," he said. "And when people finally heard the story, they all said the same thing: 'I never knew about George Powles. I can't believe it.' "
To wit, in an interview with the Bay Area News Group's Jeff Faraudo, Rickey admitted to being overwhelmed by the presentation.
"It had a charisma to it," he said. "I think it's because when you haven't had someone highly touted to you and then you get this panel who tells you all about the accomplishments of a person and you realize what he has really meant to the sport of baseball, that's something magical to everybody."
Brekke-Miesner, who is writing a book about the history of the OAL and in 1985 conducted the only known taped interviews with Powles about his life, was part of the panel and concurred it was a smash hit. He's hoping it may one day lead to Powles' formal induction into Cooperstown.
"There is this growing sentiment that there should be a way to recognize such people as coach Powles in the Hall of Fame," he said. "If nothing else, at least we started the conversation back there."
Momentum is building elsewhere, too. Both Nicholson and Brekke-Miesner said multiple people are considering books on Powles' life, and Nicholson added he has heard whispers about a possible feature-length movie or TV documentary.
As for the symposium presentation, significant icing was provided in a spontaneous address by retired Castlemont High athletic director and coach Johnny Lorigo, who told the audience of the impact Powles had made on his own life while he was a student-athlete at Mack.
"There was emotion through the entire room, this room full of scholars," Nicholson said. "We were like kids, there was such a feeling of empathy in all of us. It was an unexpected and emotional ending you couldn't have ever dreamed for."
Contact Carl Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.