Copyright (c) Maury Allen 1999. All Rights Reserved. [Terms and Conditions.]
Jackie Robinson: An American Hero
By Maury Allen
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Jackie Robinson takes off from third and steals home in one of the most dazzling feats of World Series history! Game One, The 1955 World Series, 8th inning, the Brooklyn Dodgers trailing the Yankees 6 to 4! [The Dodgers won the Series!]
Jackie Robinson reporting to the Brooklyn Dodgers from the minor league Montreal Royals, 1947.
By Maury Allen
The game of baseball is about runs, hits and errors, 70 homers by Mark McGwire and seven no hitters by Nolan Ryan, a .367 lifetime mark by Ty Cobb and 511 wins by Cy Young.
It is about more than 15,000 people who have made it to the big leagues from Hank Aaron in alphabetical order to Dutch Zwilling over the last 130 years of organized record keeping.
It is about people who get an instant moment of fame, not even Andy Warhol's 15 minutes, such as Moonlight Graham, a one gamer for the 1905 New York Giants until W.A. Kinsella made him famous in Field of Dreams, and Walter Alston with an at bat for the Cardinals in 1936. Only a Brooklyn Dodger World Series win in 1955 and a brilliant Hall of Fame managerial career saved him from lifelong obscurity.
It is also about the recognition of the judges, the writers of baseball and the recognition of the peers, the players of the game.
Half a century ago, in 1949, that all happened for a man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a figure of momentous standing in American history. He was named to the game's highest honor, the Most Valuable Player in 1949.
Robinson was not just about baseball. He was about equality, about decency, about morality, about injustice, about ending a wrong with a right after more than 60 years of America and Americans in and out of the game suggesting a kid born with a black skin could not be a big leaguer.
Kids across the country, well back into the last quarter of the 19th century, dreamed of playing big league ball as they hit rocks with sticks on city lots and farm fields, college parks and neighborhood lots, cement school yards and grassy diamonds. Only white kids could make that dream live. Black kids could only hawk their athletic wares in Negro leagues.
Then along came a man named Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who wanted to right that wrong and make a little money along the way. On October 23, 1945, he signed a UCLA baseball, football, basketball and track star out of Pasadena, California named Jack Roosevelt Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract.
Rickey had tried out his plan a few days earlier on the famed radio baseball announcer Red Barber, a son of Mississippi, residing most of his adult life in Florida.
"I'm going to sign a black man," Rickey told him.
"I'm going to quit," Barber told Rickey.
Barber's wife, the mother of his daughters, had other ideas about the
economy of the Barber household without the Brooklyn job.
"Think about it," Lila Barber said.
Barber thought about it, agreed to stay on the job, became even more famous and richer after Robinson arrived in Ebbets Field and announced years later how much he liked and respected the future Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman.
Economics is what it was all about in 1945 when Robinson signed and again in 1947 when he finally made it to the big club in Brooklyn. It may be what it is still all about in 1999.
There were grumbles about playing with the black man from southerners Hugh Casey, Dixie Walker and Bobby Bragan and a stone-headed Pennsylvanian named Carl Furillo. There was support from a New Yorker named Ralph Branca, a Californian named Duke Snider and a Kentucky Colonel named Harold (Pee Wee) Reese.
Reese, who died at his Louisville home on August 14 at age 81, was the captain of the Dodgers, best liked and most respected member of the team, a star since he joined the club in 1940. He remembered when he first heard the name of Jackie Robinson. Many considered Reese the best shortstop in baseball.
"This was in October of 1945 and I was on a ship coming back from Navy duty in the South Pacific," recalled Reese. "One of the radio operators came up to me and told me the Dodgers had just signed a nigger ball player. I didn't react much. What I cared about was getting home, back to my family and back to baseball."
The guy came back to Reese a few minutes later and blurted out, "The Niger ball player is a shortstop."
Now Reese cared.
He would soon be back at shortstop in Brooklyn as Robinson learned how to play first base for the Montreal Royals farm club. A guy named Alex Campanis, later to get caught up in verbal gymnastics over Robinson in 1987 when he said no black managers were in baseball because they didn't have "the necessities", was a big help.
Others helped too, including the southern manager Clay Hopper, who first told Rickey he would rather die than manage a black. When he saw how Robinson hit, fielded, threw and especially ran, he fell in love with him.
Robinson joined the Dodgers after spring training in Havana, Cuba. On April 10, 1947, after grounding out for the Montreal Royals against the Dodgers in an Ebbets Field exhibition, the following announcement was handed out in the Brooklyn press box. It read simply, "The Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jack Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals. He will report immediately."
No mention of race. No mention of history. No mention of the reactions of Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Lena Horne, Joe Louis or, for that matter, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States.
A Negro was now on the roster of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. There may have been dancing in the streets of Harlem, the cotton fields of Carolina or the black ghetto neighborhoods across the country. It was still too early to get excited.
What if this guy with the black face, pigeon toed walk, big body, squeaky voice and perfect diction fell on his bottom? What then? A lot of guys came along who couldn't hit big league pitching, danced away from curve balls, lost their feet in the bucket at home plate, couldn't cover ground in the field or choked when the count was 3-2 and the lead runner was 90 feet away.
What then, indeed?
Robinson failed to get a hit in his first big league game off Johnny Sain, the right handed half of the famed Boston ditty, "Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain," in reference to the skills of Warren Spahn, the game's winningest lefthander and Sain, a tough starter and later a tougher reliever.
Then a few hits came, a few stolen bases and some fine fielding plays at first, a position he had never experienced before. The racists sent the hate mail, screamed from the stands and called out obscenities over an anonymous hotel telephone. That's the way it had always been for blacks, hooded men in the night, rarely one on one in reasoned discussion about who it was that made people white or black after all.
Things got hot when the Dodgers played in Cincinnati, a southern border town with a history of antagonistic attitudes toward people of color. One death threat letter came into the clubhouse. When Robinson took the field that day his shortstop and captain, the previously mentioned Mr. Reese, sauntered over to him, put his arm over his shoulder and talked for a few seconds the way pals often do. No big deal. No extreme measure. Nobody in the press box screaming "stop the presses."
"That meant so much, so much," Jackie Robinson told me years later. "It was just a kind and incredible gesture."
"I took some heat about it when I went home to Louisville," Reese remembered. "Then it was forgotten."
Things turned. Robinson began getting more hits. He started running wild on the bases and Brooklyn fans began screaming for his steals. Every kid in Brooklyn -- I was 15 then -- practiced getting and out of the pickle, as we called it, Robinson dancing off third base and the third baseman and the catcher chasing him back and forth until one or the other dropped the throw. Jackie was safe. The fans howled. What a player. What a guy. What an entertainer.
Robinson batted .297 with 29 stolen bases that first year. He was named the winner of the Rookie of the Year award, the highest honor for a new player in the game. The award now bears his name and when players receive the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year award they understand the history.
The Dodgers won the pennant that year and played the Yankees in the World Series. They lost in a bitter seven game Series but Robinson was the talk of the town, the way he hit, fielded, ran and led his team, only a few months after fighting off hate mail and death threats.
He was like most second year players in 1948, a little too cocky, a lot overweight from banquets (also a movie of his life), a little too anxious to cash in on his sudden success. He managed to hit .296 after a slow start, stole only 22 bases and missed out on the World Series as the Braves ("Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain") lost out to the Cleveland Indians.
A black man named Larry Doby starred for the Indians, the second black in the game, and the most famous Negro League player of all time, Satchel Paige ("Don't look back, something may be gaining on you") pitched in one game at age 42 or 46 or 48, depending on the story Paige was telling that day.
Fifty years ago, 1949, was Robinson's most brilliant season. He was 30 years old that season, far older than most third year players in the history of the game. He peaked with a league leading .342 average and 37 stolen bases. He beat out the great Stan Musial, who hit .376 the year before and .338 in 1949 and swept the MVP title 50 years ago.
What was most significant was that the honor was gained on the field, had nothing to do with Robinson's birthright and almost ended discussion about race for the rest of his playing days.
Robinson was a fading star in 1955 when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally won a World Series over the Yankees and quit after a lackluster 1956. He had been traded to the Giants over that winter but had already decided he had enough. He left with a loud roar, a controversial article announcing his retirement in Look Magazine.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 23, 1962, the first black to gain the honor.
Jackie Robinson died on October 24, 1972. He had become a little crusty in his later years, angry at the slow progress blacks made in the game, upset that the game didn't seem to care about him or his history anymore, looked on sometimes as an Uncle Tom by the radicals of the black movement of the 1960's and forcefully relegated to the past.
His legend took off again in 1997 as the 50th anniversary of his arrival in the game was celebrated. Numerous books and articles about him appeared. His widow, Rachel Robinson, stepped forward to remind a new generation of his legacy.
Baseball honored his memory by removing his uniform number 42 from the back of any other player in the game's future.
Fifty years ago he was the MVP of baseball.
There is a strong case to be made that Jackie Robinson was the game's ultimate Most Valuable Player.