June 13, 2016

Indomitable Duffers

One thing African-American golfers in Pittsburgh have never lacked: resolve
Trevor Reid Photography

When the U.S. Open returns to Oakmont Country Club June 16-19, there will be much talk about history—the legendary rounds of Jones and Hogan, the Nicklaus-Palmer playoff of 1962, Johnny Miller's final-round miracle of 1973. But don't expect to hear much about a less-noble part of the club's legacy: the fact that for 88 years, like so many of the country's most prestigious golf clubs, Oakmont did not admit African-Americans.

It was a tradition Oakmont stood by even after Alabama's Shoal Creek was almost stripped of the PGA Championship in 1990 over its discriminatory policies. In the wake of that controversy, George Thompson, a club spokesman and former president, suggested that Oakmont had to decide whether to defend its right of "free association" even if it meant no longer hosting majors. Thompson also told a reporter: "When you stop and look at the demographics of golf, there are not that many blacks who play golf."

Nine months later, Oakmont invited two African-Americans to join—prominent attorney Eric Springer and his wife, Cecile, a chemist—in time to head off any unwanted headlines around its hosting of the 1994 U.S. Open. They were not as rare as some might have imagined. Bordering the country club, a scruffy public course called Oakmont East was the regular haunt of the Pittsburgh Duffers, a band of black golfers who formed a traveling "club" in the 1950s and began to integrate public courses across western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and beyond. "We were looking over the fence, longing to play Oakmont!" says Robert (Rock) Robinson, now president of the Duffers.

Trevor Reid Photography

The Duffers are part of a tradition even older than championships at Oakmont: black golfers in the Pittsburgh area doing whatever it took to play the game. In the era when the club hosted its first U.S. Amateur, in 1919, one of Pittsburgh's most gifted black athletes was Cumberland (Cum) Posey Jr. The son of a wealthy industrialist who did business with Andrew Carnegie, Posey dropped out of Penn State to play semi-professional basketball. Then in 1915, the light-skinned Posey enrolled in college again, at Holy Ghost (now Duquesne University)—but under an alias, Charles Cumbert, and passing as white. The ruse allowed him to play basketball as an amateur and join the all-white golf team. Posey rose to team captain before he dropped out again, and from then on he stuck to the more lucrative (for a black man) profession of baseball, buying a sandlot team called the Homestead Grays and turning it into one of the greatest franchises in the Negro Leagues.

In 1910, a young lawyer named Robert L. Vann took over a four-page pamphlet of community news called the Pittsburgh Courier and began building it into the most widely read black newspaper in the country. Among the many causes that Vann championed was golf. He mounted a campaign to pressure Pittsburgh authorities to set aside hours for African-Americans to play in one of the city's few public courses, in Schenley Park. He built one of several miniature golf courses in the city's black neighborhoods and covered their tournaments, which drew hundreds of spectators, as though they were pro championships. ("The course has all of the natural hazards of Oakmont," boasted one story.) In the 1930s, the Courier became known as the "Joe Louis paper" for its nonstop coverage of the boxing champ, and its accounts of Louis' fondness for golf introduced thousands of readers to the idea that this could be a sport for black people.

When America entered World War II, the Courier launched a national "Double V Campaign," urging its readers to support the war effort and demand an end to discrimination at home. Yet after the war, that second "victory" failed to materialize in institutions across America, including golf. Another avid black Pittsburgh golfer was the jazz singer Billy Eckstine, who by the late 1940s had become a crossover sensation. Because top black golfers like Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes were still excluded from most PGA tournaments, Eckstine helped them make ends meet by taking golf lessons and hiring Sifford as his personal valet and driver. Meanwhile, black recreational players in Pittsburgh continued to be turned away from most of the area's public courses—until in 1950 six of them met at the home of Gerald and Alma Fox, two local civil-rights activists, and decided to form their own golf club.

After the recessions of the 2000s, public courses could no longer afford to ignore the revenue that six or seven foursomes of Duffers brought in.

They called themselves "the Pittsburgh Dandy Duffers," and they found strength in numbers. They began by playing away matches with black golfers in Cleveland, Baltimore and Washington. Bit by bit, they pushed to get on more Pittsburgh-area courses. At first only North Park and South Park, two county courses on each side of the city, welcomed them. When Duffer Calvin Womack showed up at one course after booking a tee time by phone, the manager offered to refund his green fees if he never came back. Elsewhere, they had to put down hefty deposits or were dogged by suspicious rangers. "They acted like we didn't understand pace of play or replacing divots," Robinson says, "or like we were out there smoking weed or something."

The arrival of Tiger Woods in the '90s began to shift those perceptions, but only gradually. When Robinson launched a minority junior golf program in 1995, he arranged an outing at a club where an official asked if the youngsters knew how to "keep their pants up." What really changed the receptions were the recessions of the 2000s, when public courses could no longer afford to ignore the revenue that six or seven foursomes of Duffers brought in. "Now they can't wait for my call!" says Evan Baker, a physician who books tee times for the group. Today the Duffers play an April-to-September schedule of 19 matches at 17 courses, with a Mystery Trip to a new course each year. Their members range from busy professionals like Baker, who learned the game from his father, to retirees like Dennis James, a former city employee who took up golf when he saw white friends leaving early on Fridays and figured it was a good way to get out of work.

None of the Duffers have forgotten the kind of bigotry they once faced. Womack, 77, caddied for 60 cents a round as a teenager in Alabama; when white players bullied or patronized him, he took revenge by hustling them out of their money, betting that he could outdrive them with his putter. Jeff Allen, a graphics designer who grew up in Pittsburgh's Wilkinsburg district, tried out for the junior-varsity golf team only to have the coach tell him the season had been canceled; later he discovered the lie when the golfers received their JV letters. But today, they can all laugh about the past and are even willing to admit to "free association" disputes of their own. When Dennis James proposed two white friends for the club, he met so much resistance that he had to threaten to resign before the Duffers agreed to integrate.

Several Duffers have been invited to play Oakmont, and they offer the customary raves about the course.

Oakmont has continued to evolve as well. It has hosted several fund-raising dinners for Robinson's minority youth golf program, including one in 2000 that honored Duffers founder Gerald Fox. Several Duffers have been invited to play the course, and they offer the customary raves, although most say they still prefer the variety of the Duffers experience. The Springers are no longer the only African-American members, a board member assures. "It's 2016!" he says. "No one on the membership committee today would give a second thought to someone's race or religion or sexual orientation as long as they fit our other criteria for membership."

As for Eric Springer, he's in his 80s, and bad knees have forced him to put away his clubs. When he goes to Oakmont these days, it's to tag along with Cecile, still a passionate golfer with a weekly game, or to read in the library and sip a gin and tonic at the clubhouse. But Springer retains the sense of humor that he says was a key to getting along when they were the only black members. "My friends call me Gimpy," he says, "but I call them Brainless!" Then he offers a more lawyerly analysis. "There are two spheres there," he says. "There's a sphere that loves golf and anyone who loves golf, and there's a sphere that acts like you don't belong. But those spheres coexist at any golf club in America ... " He pauses, and his gray mustache curls into a knowing smile. "Actually," Springer says, "any place in America."

Mark Whitaker, the former editor of Newsweek and managing editor of CNN, is writing a book about the political and cultural legacy of black Pittsburgh.


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