- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 22, 2001

THE WAY IT WAS

It should have been an epochal event at the time; it certainly seems so now. On April 15, 1947, Jack Roosevelt Robinson became the first black man to play in a major league baseball game in 63 years. Five decades later, his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers would be hailed in ballparks across a vastly different nation, and it was decreed that Robinson's No. 42 would never again be given to a new player.
In 1947, though, Robinson's presence on the field that day against the Boston Braves at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field was not exactly a media happening. The next morning, it rated no more than a passing mention in any New York newspaper.
There were several reasons for this. In that distant day, civil rights were not on the minds of most white citizens. The Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools and the bus boycott in Selma, Ala., were years off. There was white America and black America, and seldom did the two penetrate each other's turf socially.
From a standpoint of the Dodgers and their fans, Robinson's arrival was hardly the biggest news. A few days earlier, commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler had suspended Leo Durocher, the most famous manager in baseball, one year for consorting with gamblers. The question on people's minds was who would succeed Durocher. (It turned out, a few days into the season, to be gentle veteran Burt Shotton, who led Brooklyn to a pennant while wearing street clothes in the dugout and promptly disappeared into the mists of horsehide history when Durocher returned.)
The tenor of the times was so different. Many years later, Dick Young, who had covered those Dodgers for the New York Daily News, was prompted by curiosity to go back and see what he had written about Robinson's first game. He was shocked by what he found almost nothing.
"I wondered how I could have been so blind to the meaning of it all," Young wrote. "And then I remembered: Robinson had not been a factor in the ballgame, and in those days we wrote what happened on the field. Period."
Another example of the times: When Robinson made his Organized Baseball debut in 1946, playing for the Montreal Royals against the Jersey City Giants, not one of the seven New York papers bothered to send a reporter across the Hudson River for the event. And newspaper coverage mattered more than any other kind, with the possible exception of Life magazine. Television sets were extremely rare and usually found in bars.
In his first game with the Dodgers, Robinson grounded out, flied out and hit into a double play. His performance gave no hint that he would become the National League's Rookie of the Year, its MVP two years later and, ultimately, a renowned firebrand who was the heart and soul of Brooklyn's Boys of Summer.
"Was I nervous? Yes, I was very nervous," Robinson said years later. "But it wasn't nerves that stopped me from getting any hits. Johnny Sain was pitching for the Braves, and he threw just about the best curveball I'd seen."
After a slow start, Robinson started to hit, of course; he finished the season batting .297 while playing first base because Alabama-born Eddie Stanky was a fixture at Robinson's second base position. The following year, Stanky was traded to Boston, and Robinson returned to second. He spent a decade playing alongside fellow Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, a Kentuckian who had no trouble at all becoming Robinson's friend.
Death threats arrived periodically during that first season. One day, while Dodgers infielders were tossing the ball around between innings, shortstop Reese sidled over to Robinson and cracked, "Don't stand so close. Some guy might be a bad shot."
Funny? Sure but not funny, too.
Not only was Robinson out of position that first season, he was out of character. Well known (thanks in part to "The Jackie Robinson Story," circa 1950, and starring Robinson himself in a surprisingly effective acting job) is the story of how Dodgers president Branch Rickey told Robinson before signing him that for at least several years he would have to take whatever insults the rednecks and yahoos cared to disperse.
"Mr. Rickey," Robinson said, "are you looking for a Negro who's afraid to fight back?"
Rickey: "I'm looking for a Negro with enough guts not to fight back."
Perhaps we assume that after Robinson broke the "color barrier" on April 15, 1947, everything was just dandy. It wasn't. The St. Louis Cardinals, beloved by many Southerners then, threatened to strike if Robinson took the field against them. In another possibly apocryphal story, league president Ford Frick is supposed to have replied, "If you strike, you will all be suspended from baseball, and I don't care if it wrecks the National League for 50 years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another."
Unfortunately, many baserunners were less open-minded. More than a few attempted earnestly to spike Robinson as they crossed first base, preferably severing his Achilles tendon. Next to the Cardinals, the Philadelphia Phillies and cornpone manager Ben Chapman were roughest. Chapman once tossed a black cat out of the dugout as Robinson came to bat, and bench jockeys polluted the scene with taunts such as, "Hey, black boy, which one of your white teammates' wives are you sleeping with tonight?"
Naturally, this sort of thing did more to unite the Dodgers than anything else could have; they won six pennants during Robinson's 10 seasons. Later in 1947, Cleveland made Larry Doby the first black player in the American League. Over the next two seasons, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe gave the Dodgers another touch of color, and then the Giants found Willie Mays. By the mid-'50s, black players were no longer news, although the Yankees and Red Sox held out as long as they could. Meanwhile, other sports and even Southern colleges began welcoming black athletes in a flood.
Kenny Washington and Woody Strode had integrated the NFL in 1946. Earl Lloyd, Chuck Cooper and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton would do the same for the NBA in 1950. But Robinson attracted much more attention because baseball was the professional sport in America then, and his talent, courage and grace were unmistakable to all but the most lunkheaded of witnesses. His achievement was a benchmark in America's long, hard journey to equality for all its citizens.
Robinson played for the Dodgers through 1956, then retired when the club tried to trade him to the archrival Giants. He became a successful businessman and respected spokesman for social and political concerns until his death from complications of diabetes in 1972 at the age of 53.
At his funeral, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said this in his eulogy: "He didn't integrate baseball for himself. He integrated baseball for all of us… . His body will rest, but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual."


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