(c) Maury Allen 1999. All Rights Reserved. [Terms and Conditions.]
Jackie Robinson: An American Hero
By Maury Allen
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Jackie Robinson takes off from third and steals home in one of the
most dazzling feats of World Series history! Game One, The 1955 World Series,
8th inning, the
Jackie Robinson reporting to the Brooklyn Dodgers from the minor
league Montreal Royals, 1947.
By Maury Allen
The game of baseball is about runs, hits
and errors, 70 homers by Mark McGwire and seven no hitters by Nolan Ryan, a .367
lifetime mark by Ty Cobb and 511 wins by Cy Young.
It is about more than 15,000 people who
have made it to the big leagues from Hank Aaron in alphabetical order to
Dutch Zwilling over the last 130 years of organized record keeping.
It is about people who get an instant
moment of fame, not even Andy Warhol's 15 minutes, such as Moonlight Graham,
a one gamer for the 1905 New York Giants until W.A. Kinsella made him famous
in Field of Dreams, and Walter Alston with an at bat for the Cardinals
in 1936. Only a Brooklyn Dodger World Series win in 1955 and a brilliant Hall
of Fame managerial career saved him from lifelong obscurity.
It is also about the recognition of the
judges, the writers of baseball and the recognition of the peers, the players
of the game.
Half a century ago, in 1949, that all
happened for a man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a figure of momentous
standing in American history. He was named to the game's highest honor, the
Most Valuable Player in 1949.
Robinson was not just about baseball. He
was about equality, about decency, about morality, about injustice, about
ending a wrong with a right after more than 60 years of
Kids across the country, well back into
the last quarter of the 19th century, dreamed of playing big league ball as
they hit rocks with sticks on city lots and farm fields, college parks and
neighborhood lots, cement school yards and grassy diamonds. Only white kids
could make that dream live. Black kids could only hawk their athletic wares
in Negro leagues.
Then along came a man named Branch
Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who wanted to right that
wrong and make a little money along the way. On
Rickey had tried out his plan a few days
earlier on the famed radio baseball announcer Red Barber, a son of
"I'm going to sign a black
man," Rickey told him.
"I'm going to quit," Barber
Barber's wife, the mother of his
daughters, had other ideas about the
economy of the Barber household without
"Think about it," Lila Barber
Barber thought about it, agreed to stay
on the job, became even more famous and richer after Robinson arrived in
Ebbets Field and announced years later how much he liked and respected the
future Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman.
Economics is what it was all about in
1945 when Robinson signed and again in 1947 when he finally made it to the
big club in
There were grumbles about playing with
the black man from southerners Hugh Casey, Dixie Walker and Bobby Bragan.
There was support from a New Yorker named Ralph Branca, a Californian named
Duke Snider and a Kentucky Colonel named Harold (Pee Wee) Reese.
Reese, who died at his
"This was in October of 1945 and I
was on a ship coming back from Navy duty in the South Pacific," recalled
Reese. "One of the radio operators came up to me and told me the Dodgers
had just signed a nigger ball player. I didn't react much. What I
cared about was getting home, back to my family and back to baseball."
The guy came back to Reese a few minutes
later and blurted out, "The Nigger ball player is a
Now Reese cared.
He would soon be back at shortstop in
Others helped too, including the
southern manager Clay Hopper, who first told Rickey he would rather die than
manage a black. When he saw how Robinson hit, fielded, threw and especially
ran, he fell in love with him.
Robinson joined the Dodgers after spring
No mention of race. No mention of
history. No mention of the reactions of Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther
King, Lena Horne, Joe Louis or, for that matter, Harry S. Truman, President
of the United States.
A Negro was now on the roster of the
Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. There may have been dancing in the streets of
What if this guy with the black
face, pigeon toed walk, big body, squeaky voice and perfect diction fell on
his bottom? What then? A lot of guys came along who couldn't hit big league
pitching, danced away from curve balls, lost their feet in the bucket at home
plate, couldn't cover ground in the field or choked when the count was 3-2
and the lead runner was 90 feet away.
What then, indeed?
Robinson failed to get a hit in his
first big league game off Johnny Sain, the right handed half of the famed
Boston ditty, "Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain," in reference to
the skills of Warren Spahn, the game's winningest lefthander and Sain, a
tough starter and later a tougher reliever.
Then a few hits came, a few stolen bases
and some fine fielding plays at first, a position he had never experienced
before. The racists sent the hate mail, screamed from the stands and called
out obscenities over an anonymous hotel telephone. That's the way it had
always been for blacks, hooded men in the night, rarely one on one in
reasoned discussion about who it was that made people white or black after
Things got hot when the Dodgers played
"That meant so much, so much,"
Jackie Robinson told me years later. "It was just a kind and incredible
"I took some heat about it when I
went home to
Things turned. Robinson began getting
more hits. He started running wild on the bases and
Robinson batted .297 with 29 stolen
bases that first year. He was named the winner of the Rookie of the Year
award, the highest honor for a new player in the game. The award now bears
his name and when players receive the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year
award they understand the history.
The Dodgers won the pennant that year
and played the Yankees in the World Series. They lost in a bitter seven game
Series but Robinson was the talk of the town, the way he hit, fielded, ran
and led his team, only a few months after fighting off hate mail and death
He was like most second year players in
1948, a little too cocky, a lot overweight from banquets (also a movie of his
life), a little too anxious to cash in on his sudden success. He managed to
hit .296 after a slow start, stole only 22 bases and missed out on the World
Series as the Braves ("Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain") lost out
to the Cleveland Indians.
A black man named Larry Doby starred for
the Indians, the second black in the game, and the most famous Negro League
player of all time, Satchel Paige ("Don't look back, something may be
gaining on you") pitched in one game at age 42 or 46 or 48, depending on
the story Paige was telling that day.
Fifty years ago, 1949, was Robinson's
most brilliant season. He was 30 years old that season, far older than most
third year players in the history of the game. He peaked with a league
leading .342 average and 37 stolen bases. He beat out the great Stan Musial,
who hit .376 the year before and .338 in 1949 and swept the MVP title 50
What was most significant was that the
honor was gained on the field, had nothing to do with Robinson's birthright
and almost ended discussion about race for the rest of his playing days.
Robinson was a fading star in 1955 when the Brooklyn Dodgers finally won a World Series over the Yankees and quit after a lackluster 1956. He had been traded to the Giants over that winter but had already decided he had enough. He left with a loud roar, a controversial article announcing his retirement in Look Magazine.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame on
Jackie Robinson died on
His legend took off again in 1997 as the
50th anniversary of his arrival in the game was celebrated. Numerous books
and articles about him appeared. His widow, Rachel Robinson, stepped forward
to remind a new generation of his legacy.
Baseball honored his memory by removing
his uniform number 42 from the back of any other player in the game's future.
Fifty years ago he was the MVP of
There is a strong case to be made that
Jackie Robinson was the game's ultimate Most Valuable Player.