The uninvited guest: Brad Pye Jr.’s fight for black press equality

Brad Pye Jr. has had a history of firsts during his illustrious sports journalism career. The Hollywood Walk of Fame may not call Pye’s name, but they should. The “Switch Reels” guy made radio sports talk cool to listen to before it became customary barbershop gossip.

The beneficiaries of all this coolness have been urban radio and non-traditional media outlets throughout North America. Los Angeles-based black radio stations KJLH, KACE, KDAY, and KGFJ got the best of Pye when he served as sports director. The raspy voice of Pye would run down the latest happenings in the world of sports with aplomb and grace. His spit-fire knowledge of athletes and coaches became mythical.

Before Jim Hill arrived on the scene, Pye was already established as the black voice of sports reporting in Los Angeles. Baby Boomers got to know Pye on an up close and personal basis as every week he would break down the good, bad and ugly in sports. It was an extremely rare thing in the 1960s and 1970s to have sports told from a black American perspective.

“Long before there was a Jim Hill, a Fast Eddie (Eddie Alexander), a Byrant Gumbel…long before they came on board, there was Brad Pye,” said Pye in a wide-ranging interview about his remarkable career.

Jackie Robinson
Legendary sportswriter Brad Pye Jr. with the great Jackie Robinson. Photo courtesy of Brad Pye Jr.

Name a prominent black athlete, and chances are that Pye touched bases with them in one form or another. Pye struck up a friendship with heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Muhammad Ali supported him when he decided to get into politics. Pye witnessed the greatness of Tennessee State University track and field stars Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus fly through the Los Angeles Invitational at the old Los Angeles Sports Arena.

Before soccer, basketball and football became the hottest tickets in sports entertainment in the Los Angeles market, track and field ruled. The Los Angeles Invitational, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Relays and the Compton Invitational, marked annual sightings of world-class track and field stars and Olympians, Pye said.

Olympic greats Mal Whitfield, Earlene Brown, Rafer Johnson (gold medal, decathlon, 1960 Olympics) and Major League Baseball stars Reggie Smith (Dodgers), Duke Snider (Dodgers) and Roy White (New York Yankees) are just some of the athletes who participated in the Compton Invitational. That’s how big track and field once was in Southern California.

“At that time, Los Angeles was the hub of track and field,” Pye said. “When the Los Angeles Dodgers came to town, they took over the Coliseum, and that just virtually killed track and field in Los Angeles. Before that, they had the (Los Angeles) Coliseum Relays and it featured world-class athletes, Olympians; they weren’t getting any money…they were getting money under the table, but like what they do in Europe now. Track and field just went by the board, locally. After the Coliseum Relays, we had the Compton Invitational, which was held at Compton High School, and you couldn’t get a seat because it only holds about 11,000 or so people. Some of the most famous athletes in Olympic Games history competed in those two meets.”

Those track meets brought a lot of excitement. But for blacks living in Los Angeles, the partying only went as far as their local neighborhoods. LA was gripped with the same type of segregation as in places like Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. The year-round sunny weather and people-friendly beaches made it easier to mask all this prejudice. It took a judge to give out desegregation orders to Inglewood schools in 1970. Just a decade earlier, black Americans, weren’t allowed to move into Inglewood. Ku Klux Klan activities were notorious in the city.

When you talk about Inglewood today, the conversation switches to diversity and forward progress. The city has a black mayor. Minority representation on the Inglewood City Council in 2018 is reflective of what the city’s demographics look like. The National Football League is putting two football teams into a new stadium in Inglewood. Times have changed. Pye reflects on that time when blacks were forbidden from entering Inglewood, and even some parts of Los Angeles.

“Compton, Inglewood…was like little Mississippi,” Pye said. “The first black guy to move into Inglewood was Curtis Tucker, who became the first black assemblyman. They burned a cross on his lawn when he moved into Inglewood. If you went south of Slauson Ave., you were in Jim Crow land.

“There were no blacks when they had the Compton Relays (Invitational),” Pye added. “We had our problems. Here in Leimert Park where I live, a black maid couldn’t spend the night in Leimert Park. I remember on Figueroa (Street) and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard-it used to be Santa Barbara Ave. and Figueroa, they had the Coliseum Hotel and black athletes couldn’t even live in that rinky-dink hotel.”

Kenneth Hahn
Brad Pye Jr. with friend and ally Kenneth Hahn (center), an influential and prominent Los Angeles City Council and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors member. Photo courtesy of Brad Pye Jr.

Following down the path of great black sportswriters Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith, Pye blazed a trail in sports journalism that has kicked the door open for another generation of black journalists to have their say in sports reporting. The veteran reporter is the Los Angeles sports media version of Jackie Robinson.

Sometimes this fact gets overlooked. Pye made it possible for the black community in Los Angeles to have behind the scenes access to athletes with his well-articulated takeaways from the world of sports.

That included going against the grain and saying something unpopular at times. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their Black Power/Human Rights salute at the 1968 Olympics, Pye was one of the rare voices of color rebuking the San Jose State teammates for their action on the medal stand. Years later and more reflective of what that moment meant in the racial resistance movement, Pye has since changed his position about what Smith and Carlos did.

“As I look back, I think I was wrong,” Pye said. “I thought you shouldn’t show out in somebody’s house when you’re invited. That was my thinking. History proved what they did was a milestone. But at the time I figured I don’t want to invite you to my house and you’re going to show out. We still had some major problems and that’s what Tommie Smith and John Carlos were trying to bring attention to, and they did. But I didn’t understand it at the time. Somebody had to take a stand to bring racism to the attention of the world, and the biggest stage available was the Olympic Games. I thought my position was proper, but today I don’t think it was.”

Pye became the standard-bearer for black journalists a long time ago, becoming Los Angeles first African American sportscaster. That’s the thing with Pye; when you see his name listed in biographical form, you see that he accomplished a lot. When he began work inside of the Los Angeles Angels’ public relations department in 1961, Pye was the first black person to crack that Major League Baseball hurdle.

Pye’s biggest influence in Southern California sports wasn’t just being a journalist. He was an inside buffer between black athletes and those who sought out their services. Former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was far ahead of the curveball in this game. That’s because he had plenty of help from Pye. When Davis ran the American Football League as commissioner, Pye got a gig as the first black American to have administrative duties.

Pye worked with Davis in recruiting more African Americans to the University of Southern California football program. When Davis took his coaching prowess to the Los Angeles Chargers as an assistant coach, Pye worked for him as a recruiter. Chauffeuring Dodger great Jackie Robinson around town when the moment called on it and making connections with heavyweight champion Joe Louis only showed off Pye’s clout with prominent black athletes.

“The athletes I have a good relationship with, we were all on the same page,” Pye said.

Another area where Pye contributed to the Los Angeles sports scene was infiltrating the all-white press box at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. That didn’t come easy.

“We couldn’t even sit in the press box at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum until 1960,” Pye said. “We campaigned to integrate the Coliseum press box. We went to the sports information directors; they said no. We went to an alleged (Los Angeles Memorial) Coliseum Commission, which was composed of Bill Nicholas, who was the manager of the Coliseum, the PR director from USC and the PR director from UCLA, and they said no. You had to be a member of the Coliseum Commission to be on the committee. So, we did, and we tried everything to integrate the press box.”

Noted sportswriter and broadcaster Brad Pye Jr. in a dated photo with his mother. Photo courtesy of Brad Pye Jr.

Meetings with administration representatives from USC, UCLA, and members of the Coliseum Commission seemed like nothing more than a fruitless exercise. That is until Pye hitched up his connection bandwagon to Kenneth Hahn, a civil rights advocate and a highly influential mover and shaker member on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

When the Coliseum Commission voted overwhelmingly (8-1) in favor of not allowing black reporters in the press box, Hahn had some choice words for his colleagues, Pye recalled.

“Kenny (Hahn) got up and said, ‘I am embarrassed to be on this commission where my friend, Leon Washington, sports editor, can’t sit in this publicly owned Coliseum press box,” Pye said.

And when the time called for it, Pye had no qualms calling out prominent black athletes like Willie Mays on not speaking out about the daily injustices and atrocities that black Americans encountered during that time period.

“I wrote him a letter, and I said, ‘Dear Willie, you don’t like to talk about race, but you can’t even go to a little restaurant in your city-or you won’t-to get a sandwich,’” Pye stated. “But you don’t like to talk about race. I said, ‘Willie, black reporters can’t even sit in the press box to watch you play in San Francisco.’”

Pye’s calling card as a sports buff began in earnest at Los Angeles Jefferson High School. The budding reporter turned his early passion for sports into a lifelong journey, eventually hammering out sports tidbits for over three decades with the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper. His influence within the black Los Angeles community didn’t stop at pumping out weekly editorials. Pye was named the first black president of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks Board of Commissioners.

Pye worked for Hahn as an assistant chief deputy. He made a run for a Los Angeles City Council seat in 1991. Two years later, Pye was named division chief of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. After leaving the Los Angeles Sentinel over a dispute, Pye returned to the historical publication in 2016 as sports editor emeritus.

The Plain Dealing, Louisiana native, who once ran away from home at the age of 12, had done well for himself.

 Brad Pye Jr. was the first African American to work as a Major League Baseball public relation staffer with his stint with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (formerly known as California Angels). He also recorded another historic first with his employment with the American Football League.  

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