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A foot in the door

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 31, 1999


Before President Truman integrated the armed services in 1948, before Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 decreed public school segregation unconstitutional, before the first federal Civil Rights Act in 1957 -- before Rosa Parks, before Martin Luther King Jr. -- there was Jackie Robinson.

When he took his position at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field on Opening Day 1947, he crossed a white line -- and obliterated it -- changing the complexion of baseball.

America's conscience followed.

The Dodgers' offices occupied 215 Montague St. The building, like the team and the ballpark, is gone. A plaque at the site reads in part: " in these offices, on August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson, a rising star of the Negro Leagues, met with Branch Rickey, Dodger president and general manager, and signed an agreement to play in the Dodger organization. This initiated the process of becoming the first African-American player on a major-league baseball team -- integrating the major leagues and making baseball truly the pastime of all the nation."

The signing wasn't announced until Oct. 23, after the World Series. Robinson, the Dodgers said, would play in 1946 for Montreal, their top farm team. Dixie Walker, Brooklyn's Georgia-born rightfielder, wasn't concerned. "As long as he isn't with the Dodgers, I'm not worried," he said.

Nor was Alva Bradley, owner of the Cleveland Indians. He approved of the signing with this convoluted logic: "That's the only way colored boys will ever get into the major leagues -- by breaking in with the minor-league teams and proving they have the ability to play major-league ball. Colored players have never been discriminated against in the major leagues. They have simply never been able to get into minor leagues to get the proper training for major-league competition."

That the major leagues owned the minor leagues was, to Bradley, apparently irrelevant.

Not until April 15, 1947, did the symbolic act of Robinson's signing became reality -- when he stepped out of the Dodgers dugout and officially shattered the color line major-league baseball had established at the turn of the century.

Robinson received an avalanche of hate mail and death threats. He endured racial epithets from fans and fellow major-leaguers. He repeatedly was spiked and hit by pitches.

He kept a promise he made to Rickey, responding with stoicism and silence, and with a season that justified Rickey's faith in him.

There had been black players before the birth of the majors -- Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday with the 1884 Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. But in the 1900s, blacks became persona non grata.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis, commissioner since 1920, opposed integration. So did virtually every owner. Negro Leagues and teams in Latin America and Mexico were the black players' alternatives. When Bill Veeck tried to buy the bankrupt Philadelphia Phillies in 1943 and add black players to the roster, the owners rejected him.

That was the year Rickey took over the Dodgers. As was Veeck, he was intrigued by the idea of integration -- and not only for moral reasons. It could be very profitable, too. The best black players would improve the team, and black fans would enrich it.

After Landis' death in 1944, Rickey had his scouts quietly scour the Negro Leagues for two years. One day he sent Clyde Sukeforth to check on Robinson in Chicago, where the Kansas City Monarchs were playing.

"Well, Robinson wasn't playing, said he'd fallen on his shoulder and was going to be out of the lineup for a few days," Sukeforth, now 98 and living in Waldoboro, Maine, told the St. Petersburg Times in 1997. "That gave me the opening. I said to him, "Since you're not going to be playing, I'm going to leave around the seventh inning. How about meeting me down at the hotel?' He said he'd be glad to."

They took a Pullman car to New York and a taxi to 215 Montague St., where Robinson and Rickey met for three hours.

"When I introduced him," Sukeforth said, "Mr. Rickey said, "Jack, all my life I've been looking for a great colored ballplayer. I have some reason to believe you might be that man. But I have to have a man that'll accept the worst insults that can be heaped on a human being. If someone slides into you and calls you a black so-and-so, you'd be justified to come up swinging, but that would set the cause back.' "

Rickey wrote about the meeting in Branch Rickey's Little Blue Book; Wit and Strategy from Baseball's Last Wise Man. Rickey wrote that at one point Robinson asked: "Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who's afraid to fight back?" And Rickey said he shouted: "I want a player with guts enough not to fight back!"

Robinson thought it over.

"Finally," Sukeforth recalled, "he said, "If you want to take this gamble, I can promise you there will be no incidents.' "

Robinson's signing was the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues. Major-league teams soon began raiding their rosters and by 1949 they had all but vanished.

Dixie Walker and several other Southern players circulated a petition during spring training in 1947, saying they would not play on the same field as a black man.

Rickey got wind of it.

"He called us in, one by one," catcher Bobby Bragan recalled, "and said, "You're not going to tell me who to play. The guy's skin color has nothing to do with his ability. If he can play better than the guy we've got, he's going to play. Do you understand that?' "

"Yes, sir," Bragan said.

"Would you rather be traded or stay here?"

"I'd rather be traded."

"Well, if you stay here, are you going to play any different if he's on the team?"

"No, sir."

"Okay," Rickey said. "Good day."

Manager Leo Durocher put it more forcefully: "I don't care if he's black or yellow or has stripes like a f------ zebra! I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays! What's more, I say he can make all of us rich, and if any of you can't use the money, I'll see that you're traded." The rarely used Bragan stayed; Walker was traded to Pittsburgh after the season.

Robinson was quickly accepted by most of his teammates, starting with the late Pee Wee Reese, shortstop, captain and a Kentuckian whose refusal to sign the petition helped kill the revolt. "It was the first time I'd ever shaken the hand of a black man," Reese said.

On April 10, 1947, in the sixth inning of Brooklyn's exhibition game against Montreal at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers handed out a typed one-sentence statement: The Brooklyn Baseball Club today purchased the contract of Jack Robinson from Montreal.

"Even then it wasn't a big deal," said Jack Lang, then the baseball writer for the Long Island Press. "Everyone more or less expected it."

And to a predominantly white media selling newspapers to a mostly white America, Robinson's major-league debut five days later wasn't particularly important. Some of New York City's eight major papers didn't mention it; others did so only in the context of the game itself (he was hitless in three at-bats).

"Very simply," Lang said, "it wasn't news. It wasn't socially significant the way it would be today."

But William G. Nunn, managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, wrote then: "Today, Negro America, whose symbol is Jackie Robinson, is on trial. Mr. Rickey opened the door and Jackie's foot is in."

On that Tuesday afternoon, Robinson's wife, Rachel, said Jackie left their hotel room early for Ebbets Field; she and their infant son, Jackie Jr., followed four hours later.

"He was very calm," she recalled. "No outward nerves. It was just another game to him. He knew he could play. When he left, he said, "I'm going to the game. See you in Brooklyn.' "

In her book, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, Rachel wrote: " as Jack took his place in the batter's box in Ebbets Field, and Rickey watched from the owner's box, the meaning of the moment for me seemed to transcend the winning of a ballgame. The possibility of social change seemed more concrete, and the need for it seemed more imperative. I believe that the single most important impact of Jack's presence was that it enabled white baseball fans to root for a black man, thus encouraging more whites to realize that all our destinies were inextricably linked."

On April 22 the Dodgers played Philadelphia. Led by manager Ben Chapman, whose racist views were common knowledge, hate poured out of the Phillies dugout, Robinson wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made:

"Hey, n-----, why don't you go back to the cotton field where you belong?" "They're waiting for you in the jungles, black boy!" "Hey, snowflake, which one of those white boys' wives are you dating tonight?" "Go back to the bushes!"

For three days they spewed their venom, adding Robinson's teammates to their taunts. Finally, second baseman Eddie Stanky rushed the Phillies dugout and shouted: "Listen, you yellow-bellied cowards, why don't you yell at someone who can answer back?"

Rickey said Chapman's abuse "unified 30 men, not one of whom was willing to sit by and see someone kick around a man who had his hands tied behind his back. Chapman made Jackie a real member of the Dodgers."

Robinson played in 151 of 154 games in 1947, more than any other Dodger. He batted .297, and led the league in stolen bases with 29 (twice as many as anyone else). He tied for the team lead in home runs with 12. He was the major leagues' first Rookie of the Year; the award is named after him.

Hank Aaron, who as he pursued Babe Ruth's record suffered the same abuse Robinson faced, put it simply: "Without Jackie Robinson, there wouldn't have been any Hank Aaron."

Or Willie Mays, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Minnie Minoso, Don Newcombe, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella and the scores of other black stars who followed Robinson across a white line.

-- Information from researcher John Martin, the Brooklyn Eagle, New York Times, St. Petersburg Times and St. Petersburg Evening Independent was used in this report.

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