As Jackie Robinson made history, Don Newcombe had a front-row seat


This Aug. 22, 1948, file photo shows the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson, right, stealing home on Boston Braves catcher Bill Salkeld at Ebbets Field in New York. The new movie "42" is bringing the Robinson story to a whole new generation. (AP)
Jason Reid
Columnist April 20, 2013

The conversation was just like old times: former Brooklyn Dodgers great Don Newcombe spoke, I said little and learned a lot. Years ago, Newcombe was kind enough to educate a young baseball writer about many things, including the painful history of African Americans in the game. So after seeing “42,” I wanted another lesson.

Newcombe knows more than most about Dodgers Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, his former teammate and longtime friend who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Movies can be informative and great entertainment — “42” scores well on both — but I wondered whether someone such as Newcombe, who actually lived the story, would even want to check out the flick.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

“Not only have I seen it, I’ve seen it twice and I’m going to see it again,” Newcombe, now 86, said in a telephone conversation.

“I liked it. I’m happy they made it. And what I’m really happy about is that a lot of the younger kids, who maybe only knew something about Jackie as a baseball player, are getting a chance to see there was so much more to him. They’re getting a chance to see the story of one of the most courageous people ever in sports.”

Athletes are celebrated for their accomplishments in the arena. Fans cheer loudest for those who soar highest. And when athletes overcome adversity — injuries or illness, previous poor performances, etc. — they’re lauded for their courage. No athlete in history demonstrated as much as Robinson did while being the first to bust through the wall in professional sports.

During high school, I read books about the racism Robinson encountered throughout his season in the minors and his first with the Dodgers (the film mostly focuses on those two years). Newcombe provided the rest of the story.

The starting pitcher joined Robinson in Brooklyn in 1949. Robinson, Newcombe and Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, who arrived in 1948, formed the team’s core of gifted African American players. They helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants and one World Series from 1947 to ’56.

The movie attempts to explain what Robinson endured, “and they tried to make it accurate . . . but Jackie had to deal with so much people wouldn’t even believe,” said Newcombe, the 1956 NL most valuable player and Cy Young award winner. “The things that happened to Jackie that first year . . . you couldn’t put that stuff in a movie.”

Still, for any right-thinking person, even what made it into the theater was difficult to watch. For African Americans too young to remember the 1960s, the historic footage is painful: police using dogs, batons and fire hoses to attack people exercising their rights. It makes you angry. Watching an opposing big-league manager repeatedly hurl a racist slur at Robinson is no less unsettling.

The natural reaction would be to hit someone. And there’s definitely a time to raise your fists. Robinson, who died in 1972, understood he couldn’t fight back the traditional way.

When you’re unwanted, even one altercation is one too many. Were it not for Robinson’s mental strength, the arrival of Campanella, Newcombe and Larry Doby — the first African American in the American League — surely would have been delayed.

Facing unimaginable pressure, Robinson nonetheless excelled. He counterpunched with his baseball skills. Robinson won baseball’s rookie of the year award in 1947 (only one was given for both leagues), was the NL most valuable player in ’49 and a six-time all-star. In the process, Robinson provided the spark for the beginning of the civil-rights movement.

Robinson debuted with the Dodgers seven years before the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the integration of public schools. But Robinson inspired the confidence that led African Americans to believe we should push for equality. If we were good enough to compete in baseball, the thinking went, why shouldn’t we strive for the same opportunities everywhere else?

Chadwick Boseman, the actor who portrayed Robinson in “42,” got it. While preparing for the role, he gained an appreciation for how Robinson helped open countless doors for others.

“Honestly, man, I don’t know if I could have lived in that time period,” the Howard University graduate said in a telephone interview.

“When you go in your imagination, and you try to recreate that context, you feel for him and you realize . . . you couldn’t have done it. You wouldn’t have wanted to be that courageous and live through this thing.”

Robinson could have turned down Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, who signed him in 1945 with the intention of changing baseball. Rickey wanted African Americans who could help the Dodgers win. He was more concerned with green than black.

“Mr. Rickey and Jackie were in it together,” said Newcombe, a longtime member of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization.

“Jackie was the only man I knew who could have put up with what he did and play baseball the way he did, and Mr. Rickey knew he had the right man for the job. For what Jackie did, he’ll forever be my hero.”

Sometimes athletes truly are heroes. Robinson is proof of that.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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