Inside the joy and loneliness of Jackie Robinson’s rookie season

Inside the joy and loneliness of Jackie Robinson's rookie season

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Editor’s note: This article, “If You Were Jackie Robinson,” originally ran in the September 1947 issue of SPORT Magazine, during Jackie Robinson’s first season in the major leagues. We are publishing it here in honor of the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s debut, on April 15 of that year. It has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.

It was Saturday night in Sports­man’s Park, St. Louis, where the prosaic practice of playing major­ league baseball games in the after­noon sunlight has become as obsolete as the horse and buggy since the dis­covery that an outdoor sports arena can be lighted as well as your living room.

The Brooklyn Dodgers and the St. Louis Cardinals were involved in a one-sided National League game, with the world champions having seven runs and the famous Brooklyn Bums none at all.

As the sixth inning opened, the Dodgers were still vainly striving to add to their puny total of three singles, and to get a runner as far as second base.

Harry (The Cat) Brecheen, winner of three World Series games in 1946, was having a wonderful time on the mound for the Cardinals. Inning after inning he screwballed and soft balled the Dodgers into submission.

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There was one man out when Jackie Robinson stepped to the plate in the sixth. Swinging hard, he topped a bounding ball between the mound and first base. Brecheen, true to his nickname, was off the rubber in a flash, and fielded the ball on a direct line toward the bag.

But instead of making the obvious play of tossing easily to Stan Musial for the putout, Brecheen circled back and over to the base line where he half-crouched to meet Robinson and tag him out with the ball held in both extended hands.

That marked the first open “incident” on the playing field in the scarcely begun, certainly unfinished, and possibly brilliant major-league career of the first Black player ever to play on a big-league club in the modern history of baseball.

If you were Jackie Robinson, what would you have done?

Being human, which this intelligent young man certainly is, you doubtless would have reacted just as he did, but perhaps with less restraint. He stopped dead and accepted the tag, but remarked quietly to Brecheen: “You better play your position as you should. If you do that again, I’ll set you right on the seat of your pants.”

Only five days later, in Mr. Wrigley’s beautiful ball park in Chicago, Robinson singled to open the ninth inning of what was the fourth straight losing game for the Bruins — and none of them was feeling even slightly cheerful about it.

With one out, Robinson stole second after he had annoyed big Bill Lee, the handsome veteran right­hander from Plaquemine, Louisiana, no little by his feints off first base. Then, after Jackie had dashed safely into second, Lee made several efforts to pick him off. Len Merullo, Cub shortstop, covered the bag.

One play was close, Jackie sliding between Merullo’s legs to safety. The two players were pretty much entangled, Merullo being astride the prostrate Dodger first-baseman. As Merullo lifted his right leg, he appeared to take a slight kick at Robinson. Almost instantly, Robinson seemed to be making a retaliatory movement with his left arm.

There was tension in the situation, with nearly 20,000 fans, as well as players of both teams, observing the action.

Nothing else happened, however, both boys getting to their feet and the game proceeding without further incident.

If you were Jackie Robinson, would you have been able to keep your head that way?

Many baseball observers, and some players, hold the belief, whether well or ill founded, that there is dynamite in Robinson’s entrance into the major leagues. They point to such incidents as the two foregoing as evidence an explosion is inevitable. The hiring of Larry Doby, another Black star, by Cleveland, simply has added to their fears.

Courtesy of SPORT Magazine

Branch Rickey, president and part owner of the Brooklyn club, the man who shattered tradition by signing Robinson to a Montreal contract and later brought him to the Dodgers, does not believe so. Although frankly recognizing the problems con­fronting Robinson — and his teammates as well — Rickey has spoken only of Jackie’s ability to play baseball. He has expressed his complete conviction that Robinson is now a major-league player, and will be a continually improving one.

“No one could say,” remarked Rickey, “that that boy ­hasn’t done a remarkable job in playing a position he never had played before. As time goes on — and not too long a time — he will display a confidence he did not have in the beginning. He will become more assertive. He will run the bases as he is capable of running them.”

1dJackie Robinson, as told to Ed Fitzgerald

21hDoug Glanville


2 Related

Robinson’s ability — his speed, lightning reflexes, his all-around skill as a ballplayer — is conceded by all save the most prejudiced observers. Therefore, but for the one obvious reason, it would not have to be dis­cussed any differently from the way in which the talents of the Musials, the Walkers, the Blackwells, the Mizes, the Fellers, et al., are discussed.

But what of Robinson, the person? The fellow who, from the force of circumstances, finds himself so much in the limelight and still must be a man who walks alone?

If you were Jackie Robinson, you would stop at all the hotels in the cities visited by the Dodgers with the exception of the Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia and the Hotel Chase in St. Louis.

When the team detrained in these two cities, groups of three or four of your teammates would barge into taxicabs and ride to the hotel. But you would ride alone to the place that you or your friend Wendell Smith, sportswriter on the Pittsburgh Courier, had arranged for you. Smith, incidentally, travels with the club all around the National League circuit.

In St. Louis, it would be the De Luxe Hotel, a hostelry operated ex­clusively for a Black clientele.

“Some nice things have happened,” says Jackie. “It was nice of Hank Greenberg to speak to me as he did once when I pulled up at first base at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. “‘You’re doing fine,’ he told me. ‘Keep your chin up.’ Mr. Greenberg is a fine gentleman,” added Jackie.

Another incident occurred on the club’s first Western trip when the Dodgers reached Wrigley Field, Chi­cago. Great curiosity about Robinson was shown by reporters and photog­raphers, especially the latter, who swarmed around Robinson in and out of the dugout with constant requests for him to pose for pictures.

Robinson’s idea, of course (which reflected, mistaken or not, the ideas of Branch Rickey), was to avoid any undue publicity. His preference was to have no pictures taken, but he re­alized that was not possible.

But with half a dozen cameramen … asking for re­peated poses at a time when Robin­son was supposed to be taking the field for pre-game practice, the thing became too thick even for a fellow who, by circumstances and instruc­tion, was practicing the utmost re­straint.

“Damn it!” exploded Jackie, slam­ming his glove down on the dugout bench and plopping himself down be­side it. “That’s enough! How can a guy play ball?”

And at about that time Pee Wee Reese, the brilliant young shortstop whose native habitat is the state of Kentucky, suh, remarked with quiet exasperation: “Why the hell don’t they let the guy alone? Let him play ball.”

“Jackie felt good about that,” re­lated his friend, Smith, later. “It sort of seemed to him that he was ac­cepted as a ballplayer, which is what he wants to be and nothing else.”

Smith, incidentally, is a sort of un­official guide and companion for Rob­inson. He was engaged, Rickey re­vealed during the spring training junket into the Panama Canal Zone, to travel with Robinson, although Smith still works for his paper the same as any other sportswriter.

On the unpleasant side of Robin­son’s early experiences as a Dodger was the well-publicized affair in which Ben Chapman, Alabaman and manager of the Philadelphia Phils, was the central figure.

Chapman, defending remarks made by him and some of his players to Robinson, said he was “merely riding Robinson, the same as any other rookie player gets it.” Ben said he had to take the same treatment him­self when he broke into the game.

“If that’s what it means,” was Jackie’s only comment, “it’s all right with me. I can take it.”

Later, when the Dodgers appeared in Philadelphia for a night game, local photographers and newspaper­men engineered a meeting between Robinson and Chapman, with the two posing together in front of the Phil­lie dugout in apparent good nature.

In the view of one veteran ball player, who need not be named, the good nature was hardly real.

That the attitude of the players on the Brooklyn club is divided about Robinson to a greater or lesser degree there can be no gainsaying. Some of them have accepted him passively; that is, Branch Rickey, who “runs the club,” has put Robinson on it — “so, okay.”

Some have suffered no mental dis­turbance whatever about the unique move. Said one of the latter: “He’s a good ballplayer, and if he can help this club win a pennant and that makes me a couple of thousand dollars more, what kick have I got?”

This might be called a slightly mercenary point of view — but who among us may deny truthfully a similar soft impeachment?

Another, indicating that he had reservations on the subject, remarked with great fairness and candor: “The guy is a wizard. He really can play ball.”

As to some who remain tight­lipped at all times, it would require only a third-rate analyst to decide where they stand. Their state of mind may be best illustrated by the once-famous catch line used by the late Charley Mack, of the well­-known team of Moran and Mack.

“Even,” Mack used to say lugubri­ously, “if it wuz good, I wouldn’ like it.”

The name of one player, generally recognized as unreconciled to the presence of Robinson on the Dodgers, was mentioned to this writer by Wen­dell Smith, who asked, somewhat wistfully, if the player in question had ever been asked about Jackie.

Told that any such query seemed obviously useless, Smith commented: “Well, he has a good mind. He is a man who can think, and does. May­be he’ll see it differently some day.”

Courtesy of SPORT Magazine

The Rickey policy, incidentally, of attempting to keep Robinson out of the limelight has cost the player a great deal of money. Until almost mid-season Jackie had been denied the privilege of endorsing any prod­uct — a common and remunerative practice among prominent ballplay­ers and other athletes — nor was he allowed to appear on radio programs or have any sort of article appear un­der his name. …

One exception for radio was made early in the year when Jackie was a guest on “Information Please,” all profits from that appearance going to a Negro college fund.

“It was one request Jackie couldn’t turn down,” said a Brooklyn club spokesman.

Jackie Robinson is paying quite a price for the privilege of playing baseball in the major leagues, but he thinks it well worth the price.

He has no illusions, and if he had any, Rickey dispelled them before he signed the boy to his first organized baseball contract. He made it clear, as only the extremely articulate Ma­hatma of Montague Street can, ex­actly what problems Robinson would have to face.

So if you were Jackie Robinson, you probably would feel a twinge of loneliness once in a while. On train trips you might play a game of hearts now and then with three other ballplayers who look upon you as just a nice kid. But mostly you’d sit and stare out the window.

Occasionally you might eat at the same hotel dining room table with another Brooklyn player. But mostly you’d eat by yourself.

The games of hearts, and the in­frequent meals with a teammate, along with the conversation in the clubhouse, would make up most of your social contacts with the other Dodgers.

You would be among them, rather than of them.

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But if you were Jackie Robinson, you’d get a big kick out of the nice things the newspapers said about you. You’d get a special feeling when you read lines like these, which appeared recently in Ed Sullivan’s New York Daily News column, and were syndicated all over America: “Jackie Robinson has won over even Dixie Walker, who now gives the star batting tips! Stanky has been particularly helpful in telling him how to play batters.”

If you were Jackie Robinson, you’d notice that every day there were few­er “incidents” — that every day, you were getting better breaks from the fans and the players and the press. You’d find that more and more radio announcers like Red Barber were go­ing out of their way to speak favor­ably about you over the air.

And you’d feel good all over when you read news stories like those about the signing of Larry Doby, another Black ace, by the Cleveland Indians; and the addition of Willard Brown and Henry Thompson by the St. Louis Browns. You’d know then that the sweat you were pouring into your effort to pave the way for members of your race in major league baseball wasn’t being wasted.

Source: ESPN MLB


Author: Ellen Garcia