Batboy for Jackie Robinson and The Brooklyn Dodgers!
By Max Nichols
Daring, guts and lightning speed.
Jackie Robinson steals home in one of the most dazzling feats of World Series history – Game One, the 1955 World Series. The Dodgers triumphed over the Yankees to become World champs and Brooklyn exploded!
Batboy for Jackie Robinson and The Brooklyn Dodgers
By Max Nichols
Back in 1947, I was just another kid playing baseball in the Oklahoma City YMCA leagues and dreaming of playing in the major leagues some day.
I had seen the Oklahoma City Indians play a few games in the Texas League, and I had seen the Chicago Cubs and the Detroit Tigers play a 1945 spring exhibition game in Oklahoma City. I still have autographs from Henry Lee “Peanuts” Lowrey (who signed his name as “P-Nuts” Lowrey) and Hank Borowy of the Cubs.
I was playing shortstop in 1947, when I hurt my arm throwing sidearm, and it soon became clear I could never play professional baseball. However, I knew from school that I could write, and I had read my first Sport magazine that year, so I started thinking about becoming a sports writer. I read about Jackie Robinson and how badly he often was treated as major leagues’ first black player for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Two years later, when I was 15, I won an essay contest to become the batboy for visiting clubs of the Oklahoma City Indians, describing Robinson as my hero and my sports writing dream. On my first day, the Dodgers came to town for an exhibition, and I was honored to kneel in the on-deck circle with Robinson five times. I was thrilled.
That day and my batboy experience led directly to my 25-year career as a sports writer, primarily covering the Minnesota Twins during the 1960s and 1970s for The Minneapolis Star. My biggest day came in 1972, when I served as president of the Baseball Writers Association of America and master of ceremonies at the Baseball Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown. N.Y.
This story goes back to April 1947 and my first Sport magazine, which I still have. It featured a “Sport Special” by Tom Meany on “Leo Durocher – Always on the Spot.” I started learning about Hall of Fame stars Paul Waner, Lloyd Waner and Carl Hubbell, who had grown up within 45 miles of my home in Oklahoma.
The September issue of Sport that year included a piece by Roscoe McGowen entitled “If You Were Jackie Robinson.” McGowen described what it was like for Robinson to be the first black player in the majors, staying in separate hotels in some cities, and how players were divided on accepting him.
I knew about segregation in Oklahoma at that time, but I never really thought about it until I started to read more about Jackie. I started noticing signs for separate drinking fountains and rest rooms, and I started asking why blacks lived in segregated areas. I rooted for Jackie while listening to radio broadcasts of the 1947 World Series.
The more I read Sport and The Daily Oklahoman and Times sports pages, the more I wanted to become a sports writer. I read articles by Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Oscar Fraley, Frank Graham, Ed Fitzgerald, Fried Lieb, Milton Gross and Stanley Woodward, among others. Then came my job at Texas League Park.
On April 5, 1949, I served as batboy for the Brooklyn Dodgers before 6,832 fans. Before the game, my picture was taken with Pee Wee Reese, and it appeared the next day in The Daily Oklahoman, but that was just the start. Also before the game, I shagged balls for Brooklyn Coach Jake Pitler during infield practice. Pitler hit pop flies for catcher Roy Campanella, who caught each one and shouted “I’m the champ!” I believed him.
During the game, I was thrilled to watch from a few feet away as Jackie stole home on the front end of a double steal. I can still see the determination on his face.
The Cleveland Indians, who owned the Oklahoma City Indians, came to town the next day. The great Satchel Paige placed a match cover on home plate before the game and asked me to stand behind the catcher. Paige threw five fastballs over that match cover. I will never forget it, though I have read he did that other times.
During the season, I served as batboy for numerous future and former major league stars, but the most unforgettable was Pete Gray, who had only one arm. He had batted .218 for the St. Louis Browns in 1945 and was playing for the Dallas Eagles in 1949. He took me to the outfield and showed me how he would catch a ball, toss it up, shove his glove under his shortened arm, catch the ball and throw it – all in one motion.
Bob Reynolds, the Oklahoma City Indians general manager, hired me to work in the press box during the next four seasons, so I could get to the writers. Bob Murphy, the sportscaster later with the New York Mets, broadcast Oklahoma City Indians games during that time. His brother, Jack Murphy, wrote a column for the Oklahoma City Times before moving to San Diego. I started working part time for The Daily Oklahoman as a University of Oklahoma freshman and became a full time sports writer as a junior.
Larry Friedman, now a long time member of The Society of the Silurians, was working for the Associated Press in Oklahoma City during my senior year in 1956. He was a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and he recommended me to Columbia. I was admitted, and that was a tremendous step for me.
After graduating from Columbia in 1957, I worked that summer for the New York Associated Press sports staff, where I met Joe Reichler and Murray Chass. Reichler recommended that I take an offer from The Minneapolis Star, because Minnesota would become a major league area in the future. He was right. I served two years in the Army and joined The Star sports staff in 1959. The Washington Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961 and became the Twins. The Star baseball writer retired in August of that year, and I started covering the Twins. Reichler’s plan had worked perfectly.
Obviously, I had numerous big moments, including the Twins-Los Angeles Dodgers World Series of 1965. I saw Harmon Killebrew slug numerous big home runs, including the first one ever hit over the left field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. I saw the last game ever played at Griffith Stadium in Washington and the first game at Yankee Stadium after it was rebuilt in 1976. I also saw Henry Aaron hit home run No. 715.
There also were some fun times off the field. I once hunted ducks on a Minnesota game farm with Billy Martin, who coached third base for the Twins in 1967, and Mickey Mantle, his best friend and a former Oklahoman, It was so cold the ducks flew only a few feet over our heads, but Mantle put blanks in Martin’s gun. Martin would blast away and then curse as the ducks kept flying. Mantle rolled over in the snow, laughing.
Late in the 1967 season, I did not cover the final Twins games in Boston. Carl Yastrzemski led the Red Sox to the American League pennant in those final games. I knew Yastrzemski was a great player, but I had seen Cesar Tovar play four positions for the Twins in the pennant race that year and voted for him as my top choice for Most Valuable Player. It turned out I was the only BBWAA writer who did not make Yaztrzemski my first choice, and I was criticized by writers from coast to coast. I understood the criticism and did not fight back.
In 1969, I became sports editor and started writing a column. I was elected president of the BBWAA in 1972, and that led to one of my biggest days in baseball I served as master of ceremonies for the 1972 induction ceremonies at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I had the honor of introducing Mrs. Babe Ruth and eight new members of the Hall Fame, including Yogi Berra, Josh Gibson, Lefty Gomez, William Harridge, Sandy Koufax, Walter (Buck) Leonard, Early (Gus) Wynn and Ross Youngs.
Baseball Commissioner Howie Kuhn asked me to become publicity director for his office in 1973. I tried to move to Connecticut, but the commute was so difficult that I moved back to Minnesota within a few weeks and returned to The Star.
I continued my column until 1980, when I moved to Oklahoma as managing editor of The Journal Record, a daily business newspaper. In 1990, I became the public relations director for the Oklahoma Historical Society. My wife, Mickey, died of Alzheimer’s in 2002. I wrote a book (“Every Single Good Day”) about caring for her.
I moved to New York in 2003 to join my partner, Carol Rosenwald. We have connections going back to high school, though she is from New Haven and has lived in Manhattan for more than 50 years. I have had a wonderful life with great memories, and it all started with serving as a batboy for Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers.