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Back in the late spring of 1967, Bennie McMurray saw the invitation from the Lancaster Post 31 American Legion baseball program as just a chance to play.
Today – some 44 years later – he sees a greater significance.
“We went down to Eggleton Field and history was made,” said McMurray, now the head football coach at Lancaster High School.
Back in 1967, McMurray’s senior year at the then all-black Barr Street High School in Lancaster, the ace left-handed pitcher and his Golden Tigers’ teammates were making a name for themselves on the diamond.
Barr Street High, a school with a reputation for athletic excellence no matter the season, was coming off a 19-4 Class AAAA state championship season in baseball.
McMurray, then a mere 16-year-old, recalls getting a call to the office along with three other Barr Street Golden Tigers’ baseball standouts – catcher Dennis Bailey, shortstop Elroy Duncan and outfielder Lydie Porter.
Those four players were informed they had been extended an invitation to play for the Lancaster American Legion Post 31 baseball team.
The significance was that these four players would be the first black players in what was before an all-white baseball program.
“We really didn’t realize the significance of the situation,” McMurray said. “We were just going to play baseball. This would give us a chance to enhance our baseball skills over the summer. It was teenage boys playing baseball.”
McMurray and his three teammates, on an invitation from P-31 coach David Robinson, were told they would be picked up each day at school for a ride to practice at Eggleton Field, home of the P-31 baseball program.
“I think they knew we had won the state championship in baseball that spring and it was a chance to boost their team with some good players,” McMurray recalled. “As far as the Legion baseball program, I didn’t know much about it.”
McMurray and Bailey were headed to S.C. State to play baseball, with Bailey also set to play football for the Bulldogs. Duncan was bound for Johnson C. Smith to play football.
“We were in a pre-transition period and I don’t recall any negative experiences,” McMurray said. “Everybody, knowing what was about to happen, and they bent over backwards to make this happen. They made it very comfortable for us in view of being in a new environment.”
McMurray and his Barr Street teammates crossed racial lines, and crossing the chalk lines at the field – the treatment was fair.
“Practice was hard, but it was like that for everybody,” McMurray said. “Coach Robinson worked all of our butts off at practice. We all did the same thing.”
At that time, teams in the Legion league – Chester, Rock Hill and York also had their share of black players.
“I don’t remember any incidents about race,” McMurray said. “About the only thing I recall related to that was a few times from the opposing fans in the stands with some catcalls like ‘Boy,’ or Leroy,’ but it wasn’t regular and that all kinda subsided once you started striking them out and winning.”
Those days were three years prior to total integration of the Lancaster County schools.
“Everybody was supportive,” McMurray said. “There really wasn’t any animosity or jealousy. All did a good job of putting their best foot forward.”
McMurray played four seasons with the Lancaster program and finished his college degree at S.C. State in 1971.
Some four years later, Robinson, then a principal at Buford High School, summoned McMurray again.
McMurray, at that time, was working at a sporting goods store in the old Westgate Shopping Center in what is now the area around the Crown Cinema.
Robinson sought McMurray to be a science teacher and coach at BHS.
A major reason for wanting McMurray was to have him revive the Jackets’ baseball program.
“It had been shut down for a few years and Mr. Robinson wanted to see it start back,” McMurray said.
McMurray wasn’t as quick in his response as he was back in his Legion days.
“I told him no three times before I finally went out there,” McMurray said. “I didn’t really want to teach. School had already started and I began in the fall of 1975.
“I look back on it now as one of the most important decisions I’ve made in my career,” he said. “Thirty-seven years later and I’m still enjoying it.”
McMurray’s contribution to his profession is teaching and coaching.
He produced success in football and baseball, including fulfilling Robinson’s vision of building Buford into a state baseball power.
In 24 years as a head football coach at Lewisville High School in neighboring Chester County, E.E. Waddell High in Charlotte and now back at Lancaster High School in his hometown, McMurray has over 200 wins, including three state football titles and two state runner-up finishes.
In baseball, he won five state crowns and finished as the state runner-up on two occasions. He’s been a head coach in the Carolinas premier high school football all-star games, Shrine Bowl and North-South games. He’s also coached in high school all-star baseball games.
He credits much of his success to his parents, James and Jannie McMurray.
“My parents instilled in me and my brothers about doing the right thing,” he said. “We didn’t have but one way to go. They saw the need for us being positive role models.”
McMurray said his dad was his first coach.
“He’s a real good man and it’s hard to find that,” he said. “Those same ideals he taught us when we were playing country baseball are what I use today.”
McMurray, as an athlete and coach, has seen the black athlete excel in an area where blacks found success about as quickly as any area of advancement.
“Sports is a form of entertainment,” he said. “The best way to entertain is to have success. As a coach, I play to win. If you are a coach, truly a coach, you put your best players on the field, no matter who they are.
“Athletics was one of the earliest areas where blacks were given a chance to excel,” he said. “I like to be known as a player’s coach. It never comes into play who you are, where you live and who your parents are and definitely not race. The best will play.”
McMurray, reflecting on those early Legion days, realizes the impact now.
“We proved color is not a barometer for playing,” he said. “It takes athletic ability and commitment. We paved the way. The transition was established.
“Then, we didn’t know the significance, but since then, there’s been a number of African-American kids who have come through that program and done well in baseball and on into other walks of life.
“It was a good experience for me – good for all of us,” he said. “There’s fond memories and I hope they feel the same. From time to time, I see some of those guys around town, like Tommy Collins, Luther McAteer, Randy Funderburk, Hal Gregory and Ronnie Mills. When I do, my first thoughts are of those guys and playing Legion baseball with them. We were teammates for a few summers, but now friends for life.”
McMurray, as a coach, said winning is important, but it’s also a coach’s job to teach players to be productive citizens.
“You play to win each time you take the field, but at the same time, there’s a great amount of satisfaction in seeing a kid succeed on and off the field,” he said. “There’s a tremendous feeling when you see a kid sign a scholarship to go to college as a student-athlete.
“Often, they return and tell you they’ve graduated and are doing well,” he said. “You’ve made a difference in a life.
“It’s like that in sports, you give everyone a chance to get there and once you get there, you have to prove yourself to stay.”
McMurray said it’s important to educate young blacks on the early pioneers who blazed unchartered areas in all walks of life.
“There’s more opportunities now because of lot of people made sacrifices, some with their lives, so the next generation could have a better life.”
McMurray noted in baseball the challenge that faced some of the early black pioneers of the sport, like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Larry Doby and Frank Robinson.
“What they went through and endured wasn’t easy, but they probably made it better for me,” he said. “There’s a need to know our past in all walks of life.
“So many of our young kids don’t know the past – how we evolved. Our young blacks need to know that.
“Today, they can go in McDonald’s and sit down and eat. They don’t realize it hasn’t always been that way.”
McMurray noted education is the key.
“We don’t want to forget about our past,” McMurray said. “Black history started out as a week and has evolved into a month now.
“It’s significant we devote a month to black history, but it should be taught at all times,” he said.
“I’m just not talking about black history, but Native American history and the history of all races who have shaped our nation.”