Saturday, April 6, 2013

Robinson Stories

Received in an email from:

Baseball was the theme last night at the White House, where POTUS
screened "42," the new movie about Jackie Robinson. The president warmly greeted the pioneering ballplayer's widow beforehand.

Robinson broke baseball's color barrier 66 years ago this April.

The first week of April in 1947, as the Dodgers prepared to break camp and head back to New York for the start of the season, Brooklyn's general manager, Branch Rickey, had a great deal on his plate. He and manager Leo Durocher had managed to squelch a petition by five Southern players to keep Jackie Robinson off the roster.

Durocher, as was his wont, had cussed out the players; Rickey had traded one of the ringleaders, South Carolina-born Kirby Higbe, to the Pirates. But then slugging outfielder Dixie Walker, Brooklyn's most popular player, asked to be traded.

Rickey also learned that Major League Baseball was investigating Durocher's association with gamblers - Leo the Lip would be suspended for the 1947 season - and as the GM prepared to integrate the team he was increasingly dependent on star shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a Kentuckian whose attitudes on race were unknown.

Reese had grown up under the apron of segregation. But he'd served in the Navy in World War II, and he developed a pretty good idea of where rampant racism could lead. The team's captain, Reese refused to sign the petition, explaining later that he simply thought Robinson "had a right to be there."

Jackie Robinson debuted in the big leagues on April 15, 1947, playing first base against the Boston Braves in the Dodgers' home opener at Ebbets Field. Since Branch Rickey had signed Robinson in 1945, the two men had been planning for this moment. Rickey had warned Jack - that's what his friends and family called him - that the worst kind of race-baiting would come his way, and that he'd have to keep his cool.

Are you looking, Robinson asked Rickey, for a black man "who is afraid to fight back?"

"I need," Rickey replied, "a player who has the guts not to fight back." Robinson had fortitude aplenty, but that first year he also needed a friend. He found it in the well-regarded shortstop of the team known by its fans as the "Brooklyn Bums."

Recollections differ as to what exactly happened - or even where. Most Dodgers thought it was in Cincinnati, although Duke Snider thought it was Boston, but during one road game the heckling got louder, the racial epithets more vicious. It got to Robinson, and his teammates could tell - one teammate in particular.

"Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of helpless, dead feeling in me," Robinson told biographer Arnold Rampersad. Suddenly, Reese was on his side of the baseball diamond, standing beside Robinson in solidarity. Some said Pee Wee put his arm around the rookie. Others said he was just standing close to him, as a silent rebuke to the racists.

Miraculously, it must have seemed to Robinson, the taunts died down.

"I remember Jackie talking about Pee Wee's gesture the day it happened," Rachel Robinson recalled in 2005. "It came as such a relief to him, that a teammate and the captain of the team would go out of his way in such a public fashion to express friendship."

"He didn't say a word, but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me and just stared," Jack Robinson told Rampersad. "He was standing by me, I could tell you that. I will never forget it."

In that simple way, in that season, Brooklyn's beloved Bums did their part to chip away at the imposing, but essentially empty, edifice known as Jim Crow.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Editor
Twitter: @CarlCannon

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