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As Long as We Remember...

February 22, 2012

The “Magic” of Jackie Robinson

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The first day of Baltimore Orioles’ spring training began Sunday when the pitchers and catchers reported for the annual ritual in Sarasota, Florida.


It’s a sure sign that – thankfully – spring weather is about to make its debut in Maryland.


Baseball has always been a favorite topic for many local history writers. And why not? Writing about baseball is fun. It has everything to warm the keyboard including summertime, arcane statistics, intrigue, colorful events, talent, family, and friends.


Articles about sports are fun to read and sports writers are some of my favorite writers.


However, in full disclosure, I’m a pathetic sports fan. My wife, Miss Caroline, keeps me informed on the latest developments in the sports world, so I don’t sound like a total dork when the conversation at a social event turns to sports.


Nevertheless, as I arrived in Sarasota on Saturday, in part, to attend as many of the spring training sessions as possible, my thoughts turn to several of my all-time favorite baseball stories.


One story is about the saga of how one my sports heroes, Jackie Robinson, broke the Major League Baseball color barrier, which had begun in the 1880s, on April 15, 1947.


Mr. Robinson is also the focal point of one of my three favorite baseball trivia stories. But first, let’s talk about Mr. Robinson.


Wearing an old Brooklyn Dodgers uniform with the number 42 on it, Mr. Robinson, to paraphrase sports writer William McNeil, made his debut in front of 26,623 baseball fans at the old Ebbets Field. Approximately 14,000 spectators in the stands were African-Americans, who witnessed the Dodgers win 5-3.


However, the real winner that day was all of us. And it was about time. As Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich wrote on March 28, 1997: “Four hundred fifty-five years after Columbus discovered America, white America discovered that blacks could play major league baseball. The first definitive clue was offered by the fifth child of a Cairo, Ga., sharecropper who was selected for the daring racial experiment.”


A brief account by the Library of Congress reveals “Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed a contract with Robinson to play for the team on October 23, 1945. Robinson then spent a year on a minor league team to sharpen his skills.


“Rickey, who called the move baseball's ‘great experiment,’ chose Robinson because of his excellent athletic record and strength of character. The first player to ‘cross the color line’ would have to be able to withstand intense public scrutiny and to avoid confrontation even when met with insults and hostility.”


As an aside, Mr. Richey also deserves a special place in history for having the character and insights to make it all happen. According to Mr. Povich, breaking the color barrier “had become a cause. Rickey was a former player and later a team president with high morals and a religious bent.”


It is interesting to note that Mr. Richey’s strength of conviction caused him, in earlier years when he played the game as an American League catcher, to “steadfastly” refuse to play baseball on Sundays, according to Mr. Povich.


Mr. Richey’s baseball scouts found Mr. Robinson, who had previously served in the Army, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the “Negro baseball leagues” in 1945.


Mr. Povich writes that Mr. Richey “warned Robinson of the insults and the racial slurs he would hear from both players and fans in every city in the league. ‘I want a player with guts — the guts not to fight back, to turn the other cheek,’ Mr. Rickey told Mr. Robinson…”


“Rickey's bargain was for Robinson to hold his temper for two years. After that he was his own man, free to combat prejudice any way he saw fit.”


Mr. Robinson, by all accounts, endured a great deal of horrific abuse. However, according to the Library of Congress article, “Not only was Robinson able to quell opposition to his presence on the field, but he quickly won the respect and enthusiasm of the fans.”


That same article notes that Mr. Robinson “retired from baseball after the 1956 season with a lifetime batting average of .311 and the distinction of having stolen home an incredible 19 times. A legend even in his day, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.”


Another of my favorite baseball stories, which also involves Mr. Robinson, is memorialized by a statute in front of “KeySpan Park,” a minor league baseball stadium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY. The statute is of Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese with his arm around Mr. Robinson.


According to Mr. Povich, The New York Times’ writer Bob Herbert recalls the story behind the statute. In a game in Cincinnati: “As the crowd heaped abuse on Robinson, Reese called time and walked across the diamond and draped an arm around Robinson's shoulder, standing with him in defiance of the crowd's mood.


“It was at once a sentimental display of friendship for a beleaguered teammate and a resounding rebuke to the lackwits who could not come to terms with Jackie Robinson in a major league lineup.”


Mr. Povich notes that Roger Kahn, author of “The Boys of Summer,” said of the scene: “It gets my vote as baseball’s finest moment.”


And mine also.


. . . . .I’m just saying…


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