Aaron Pointer is a man for all seasons
Seattle Times staff reporter
COURTESY AARON POINTER
ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES
ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES
COURTESY AARON POINTER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
TACOMA — The walls of Aaron Pointer's basement are lined with family history, rich in sports, music and public service, adorned with pictures and platinum records and posters.
His life's work is spread across them. Telling the story of one man ... last professional baseball player to hit .400 in one season ... college basketball player ... first black football referee in the Pac-10 ... NFL official ... brother of The Pointer Sisters ... mentor to thousands of Pierce County kids.
The history on the walls tells a sports story and a love story and, ultimately, his story. Spread over his 63 years. Set in California, North Carolina, Texas and Washington, along with Japan and Venezuela. Full of odds overcome and barriers long broken and sports. Always sports.
And ending here in Tacoma, where Pointer came in 1968, settled in 1973 and retired 30 years later with basement walls that lack for space.
"He's a brilliant guy," says Anita Pointer, one of Aaron's singing sisters. "Always was. He's done so many things, and I'm not a bit surprised. I always expected great things out of Aaron.
"As far as I'm concerned, he could have been president of the United States."
Follow his story from one season to the next, according to the calendar that Pointer lives by, according to the calendar of sports.
Pointer gravitated to sports growing up in west Oakland, Calif., same as most boys did back then. Same as future NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell, future NBA player and coach Paul Silas, Pointer's cousin, and future baseball legends Frank Robinson and Curt Flood — all graduates of McClymonds High School.
The playground courts were too small for full-court games, so the boys in west Oakland played strictly three-on-three. Imagine the talent level in those games, the older boys, the Russells and Robinsons, educating Pointer and his friends on the science that is sports.
Life lessons came at the West Oakland Church of God, where Pointer's father, Elton, served as minister. Church attendance and participation were mandatory — "It seemed like cruel and unusual punishment at the time," Pointer says — as was singing in the choir.
Naturally, Pointer's sisters were a hit. Aaron and his brother, Fritz? Not so much.
"He always made light of the fact that he wasn't going to ruin the family name or reputation by singing," says Jan Wolcott, a longtime colleague in the Pierce County Parks and Recreation department.
Pointer went to the University of San Francisco a couple years behind Russell on a basketball/baseball scholarship. He met his wife, Leona, at a dance there. Some 43 years and three children later, they're still married.
"Best thing that ever happened to me," Pointer says.
That and growing up in church, with parents so strict Anita remembers other children thinking the Pointer kids were square. Aaron Pointer made quick work of those stereotypes through sports — a common theme throughout his story — rising to student body president at McClymonds.
He would lean on those lessons soon enough. Especially in Salisbury, N.C. Especially in 1961.
Pointer left San Francisco after two seasons and signed a baseball contract with Houston in the winter of 1961. The Colt .45s offered a $30,000 signing bonus, big money for a family from west Oakland in those days, and Pointer bought his mom, Sarah, a lamp she'd always admired but never could afford.
His first season proved historic, for Pointer and for baseball.
The Class A Salisbury Braves played in the South Atlantic League and under the Jim Crow laws in the South. Pointer couldn't eat or lodge with teammates. The stadium had segregated seating. One time a child shot at Pointer in center field with a BB gun.
"They were tough on the blacks down there," says Mike White, a longtime teammate and friend. "No place for them to eat after a game. Staying in different places. The things they'd say in the stands."
White remembers that Pointer had all the tools, speed and arm strength and a bat that smacked baseballs to all fields. That bat never cooled off in 1961, despite the racist taunts and segregated signs.
Pointer hit nearly .500 through June and went into the final game of the season hovering just above .400. The Salisbury manager offered Pointer a day off to preserve his batting average. He declined, went 2 for 3 and finished the season at .402.
"It wasn't that big of a deal to me," says Pointer, who was the minor league player of the year that season. "And it didn't seem to be that big of a deal to anybody else. Nobody even mentioned it."
The last professional to hit .400 never gave it a second thought. He found out the historical significance — like his children, his co-workers and the rest of baseball — just last year, when an infielder named Rick Short in New Orleans became the latest minor-leaguer to threaten .400 in a season. He fell, um, short, just like the rest, finishing at .383.
Pointer left North Carolina after the 1961 season, his whole baseball career in front of him. He promised himself he would never return to Salisbury. He never has.
He bought a new car, a Pontiac Grand Prix, for $3,000. He needed to drive from Houston to hook up with the Class AAA team. There was one problem — getting there without any problems.
"There was a friend of mine on the Salisbury team, a white guy named Tommy Murray who lived in Marshall, Texas," Pointer says. "We drove together. He said to let him drive during the day because if the police saw me driving during the day, they would stop us. They would wonder, 'What's the black guy doing driving a new car like this?'"
The memories from his baseball days remain, even if Pointer's career never reached its full potential. Like making it to the big leagues in 1963, starting a game Sept. 27 of that year on the only all-rookie starting lineup in baseball history, alongside such notables as Joe Morgan, Jim Wynn and Rusty Staub.
He remembers trying to catch fly balls in the Astrodome underneath a glass ceiling so bright the outfielders wore batting helmets for protection. The team tried purple baseballs and green baseballs, then tried painting the ceiling to get rid of the glare. Only that killed the grass — hence the invention of AstroTurf.
Pointer can say he singled off Sandy Koufax and hit against Bob Gibson in 40-degree weather. He kept a bat and a glove and his Topps trading card — all part of the history in his basement.
Houston traded Pointer to the Chicago Cubs in 1968, and he played for the Tacoma Cubs in 1968 and '69. In his last season there, the Cubs fell behind 2-0 to Eugene in the league championship series.
Pointer remembers Eugene keeping champagne on ice, but Tacoma rallied and won three straight in Oregon to take the title.
After three years in Japan and winter ball in Venezuela, Pointer retired from baseball with no regrets. All his belongings were in storage in Tacoma. Pointer returned to get them and never left.
Pointer needed extra money after his playing career ended. He found it officiating for Pierce County Parks and Recreation. Recreational games led to high-school games and college games, and before he knew it, Pointer had added another season — football — to his sports calendar, and a host of mementos to his basement walls.
He worked his way up the Pac-10 ladder starting in 1978, eventually becoming the first — and still the only, Pointer says — black referee in the Pac-10. By the time he worked the 1987 Rose Bowl, Pointer was torn in two directions. Stay in the Pac-10 and set an example, or move to the more prestigious, more lucrative NFL.
He chose the latter and made his NFL debut as a head linesman during the strike season in 1987. Pointer officiated NFC and AFC championship games, Pro Bowls and international exhibitions. Thrilling, all, but those are not the games that Pointer remembers most.
Pointer recalls Jerry Rice catching a pass and stretching toward the goal line in New Orleans. Pointer ruled Rice short, but replays — this was before instant replay — showed he wasn't. He remembers coaches like Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos who were constantly in his ear.
"It's the same at every level," Pointer says. "It's no different in the NFL than it is for a fifth-grade pee-wee football game. Everybody expects you to be perfect and to be perfect the way they see it."
He remembers officiating a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers, in which his son, Deron, a former Washington State football star, made his first NFL reception and handed his dad the ball.
"One of the best moments of my life," Deron says.
And Pointer remembers officiating a Raiders game back in the Los Angeles Coliseum. He got emotional just listening to the national anthem — sung by The Pointer Sisters.
(June Pointer, the youngest of the sisters, died of cancer Tuesday at age 52. She was surrounded by her family, including Aaron.)
The experience of racism in Salisbury thickened Pointer's skin. Combine that with charisma and charm and common sense, and he had the perfect disposition for officiating. He retired after the 2003 season and now serves as an observer at NFL games, mostly at Qwest Field.
"I've never seen Aaron lose his temper," Wolcott says. "That's probably what made him such a good official. He has a gentle disposition, so much so that even those who worked with him didn't know the depth of his sports background. Just think about that, how incredible that is."
A man for all sports seasons
From basketball to baseball to football, Pointer lives his life by the sports calendar. And after all of it, after the college scholarship and the baseball career and the decades of officiating, Pointer kept returning to Tacoma and the kids.
Wolcott remembers the respect Pointer earned in the Pierce County Parks and Recreation office. Just the magnetism, Wolcott says, that made Pointer "one of those guys everybody naturally liked or even loved."
Deron Pointer remembers the way people talked about his father — "You could call it a fan base," Deron says — and the kids who said that Aaron Pointer saved their lives.
"He instilled that in you from the beginning," Deron Pointer says. "Don't take anything for granted. We didn't, because he wasn't that type of person."
The basement walls provide the proof, one history lesson after another, from one season to the next.
"We can learn a lot from Aaron Pointer," Wolcott says.
"I tell kids this all the time," Pointer says. "At some point in someone's life, even yours, there's going to be an opportunity. You've got to be prepared. Too many kids don't take advantage of preparing themselves. Too many kids think the easy way is the best way."
Last professional baseball player to hit .400 in one season ... college basketball player ... first black football referee in the Pac-10 ... NFL official ... mentor to thousands of Pierce County kids.
"You've got to prepare yourself," Pointer says again, more firmly this time. "And it will happen."
Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company