- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

On Aug. 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson, shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, went to the office of Brooklyn Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey, thinking Rickey wanted to sign him for a new team in black baseball.

In a much-publicized press conference a few months earlier, Rickey announced he was organizing a team called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers in the Negro Leagues. But Rickey’s press conference was nothing but a smokescreen so he could send his scouts to search for black players without arousing suspicion. They recommended Robinson.

Only a few people knew Rickey’s real reason for sending his scouts throughout the United States and the Caribbean. This was baseball’s Manhattan Project, America’s top-secret development of the atom bomb. In early August, America dropped two atom bombs on Japan, ending World War II.

Millions of servicemen were coming home — and America would have to face the dilemma of fighting a war to end racism in Europe and Asia while allowing racial discrimination at home.

One of the first real challenges to the long sordid legacy of segregation in America came in baseball. Nine years before Brown v. Board of Education, a 26-year-old black man sat across a desk from a 63-year-old white man with a flair for the dramatic, a political conservative who had probably given little thought to race relations most of his life.

After a few minutes of small talk, Rickey told Robinson he had sent for him because he wanted to sign him for the Brooklyn organization. Robinson knew that this meant he would break baseball’s color line. He was speechless.

“I know you’re a good ballplayer,” Rickey said. “What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.” Robinson, his manhood questioned, angrily moved forward in his chair when Rickey stopped him: “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

Rickey then took off his suitcoat and, standing over Robinson, began snarling at the ballplayer, first as a white hotel clerk telling him the hotel didn’t allow blacks and then as a white waiter telling him he couldn’t eat in the restaurant. Rickey then let loose a torrent of racial epithets to give Robinson a sense of what he would hear from spectators and opposing dugouts.

Rickey told Robinson if he lost his temper, if he let himself be baited into a confrontation, he would provide aid and comfort to all who thought blacks and whites could not coexist. America would be watching him, Rickey said.

Rickey, the Methodist deacon who didn’t attend baseball games on Sundays, then read to Robinson, himself a Methodist, from Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ, quoting Christ who said: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

When Rickey asked Robinson if he could do that, Robinson replied that he could. And he did.

From the moment Robinson left Rickey’s office until he retired from baseball, he knew he was playing for something bigger than himself. No other athlete ever faced such pressure or such vile verbal and physical abuse. Robinson accepted it — because Rickey had told him he had to and because he had no other choice. He had to suffer for our sins.

Sixty years ago, a black man walked into an office in Brooklyn and neither baseball nor America would ever be the same.

Chris Lamb is the author of “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson and Baseball’s First Spring Training,” published last year by the University of Nebraska Press. He now is writing a book of essays on the press and segregated baseball.

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