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  The Ball Stayed White, but the Game Did Not

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, March 28, 1997; Page E03

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.

For Wesley Branch Rickey, it had become a cause. Rickey was a former player and later a team president with high morals and a religious bent. As a second-string American League catcher, he had steadfastly refused to be in the lineup on Sundays.

As the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the mid-1940s, Rickey was determined to find the black player who could negotiate the sociological problems and traverse baseball's sacrosanct color line with the least volcanic effect.

There had not been a Negro player in the major leagues since 1884, when Moses Fleetwood Walker of the Toledo Blue Stockings was banished after the American Association and the National League agreed to bar blacks. Adrian "Cap" Anson, captain of the Chicago White Stockings and the most famous player of his day, refused to field his team against a club with a Negro in the lineup, in effect proclaiming once more that baseball was a white man's game.

But Rickey believed that he had found his man, who was then playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues in 1945. As Rickey and his scouts scanned the world of Negro baseball, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson came to his attention.

Robinson, they agreed, had the skills. But did he have the personality traits that would soften the resentment of the white baseball world populated so thickly by redneck players from southern states?

In August 1945, Jackie Robinson was called into Rickey's office, where he was surveyed, scrutinized and analyzed for any telltale weaknesses that might upset Rickey's plan.

He 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," Rickey told Robinson.

And Jackie Robinson said: "I've got two cheeks. Is that it, Mr. Rickey?"

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.

And for two years Robinson seethed inwardly, swallowing the insults, the indignities, the discrimination that hit him and, later, the other black players who followed in his path to the majors.

It was a difficult bargain for Robinson, a naturally combative person whose aggressiveness had helped him to set football records as a running back at UCLA.

For the Monarchs, he was a terror at bat (.387) and on the bases.

The Rickey plan was to sign Robinson for the Dodgers' Montreal farm team for the 1946 season as a prelude to bringing him to the Dodgers. It worked. Robinson hit Class AAA pitching for .349 and pronounced himself ready for the major leagues. This was exactly a half century ago, the most cataclysmic change in the 126-year history of professional baseball — the sanctioned appearance of a black man in a white man's game.

What the Dodgers got was a near 6-foot, 195-pound, square-shouldered, right-handed hitter, with a wide, pigeon-toed stance at the plate and a fat swing that could power the ball to the fences. And he was immediately the fastest man on the Dodgers, if not in the National League.

Jackie Robinson was also immediately aware of what Branch Rickey had been telling him. There were nasty cracks, not only from the bench jockeys on the road, but also from some of his own Brooklyn teammates who wouldn't come to terms with the presence of a black man on their team.

Robinson was shocked when Dixie Walker, a team leader and perhaps the most popular Dodger, actually drew up a petition that several Brooklyn players signed, protesting Robinson's presence.

Nothing came of it. Ironically, Robinson was supported by two other Southerners, Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Stanky, who quickly demonstrated a friendship for Robinson. But the discontent took on some league-wide aspects, with players on the Cardinals, the Reds and the Cubs threatening to strike if Robinson played. Stern warnings from National League President Ford Frick dissolved the revolt.

The team mutinies against Robinson subsided, but the prejudice of many players and fans toward the black man in the Dodgers' lineup would not abate. Fans threw garbage at Robinson from the stands, pitchers brushed him back continually, and base runners flew at him with spikes held high. Robinson held to his pledge.

One episode, in Cincinnati, was recently recalled by the New York Times' Bob Herbert. 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.

Roger Kahn, author of "The Boys of Summer," said of the scene: "It gets my vote as baseball's finest moment."

But Robinson couldn't escape other aspects of segregation. Hotels and restaurants in cities around the league forced him to leave his teammates and seek out food and lodging in the Negro sections of town.

This was especially galling to Robinson during spring training in the South, where he was even more of an outcast, but he kept his end of the bargain with Rickey. One of the few times he reacted was when Ben Chapman of the Phillies had been baiting him with racial slurs. Robinson screamed at him: "Why don't you get on somebody who can fight back?"

At the end of those two years, though, Robinson was no longer the passive victim of baseball's racism. He asserted himself as a fierce base runner, and infielders were giving him a wide berth. His baseball skills had won him acceptance, if grudgingly, and he had respect throughout the league.

What the Dodgers had gained was a superb ballplayer who in 1949 would win the National League's most valuable player award and who would play as many as four positions for the Dodgers after breaking in as a first baseman that April day 50 years ago when baseball's color line was breached for all the world to see.

The year he joined the Dodgers, Robinson led the league in stolen bases and was acclaimed rookie of the year, an award later named for him. In 1949, Robinson led the league not only in stolen bases but also in hitting, making the statement that the first black to play major league ball was now a commanding figure in the National League.

Robinson would make a specialty of stealing home.

He had the thick legs of a football player, but it must be understood that when Jesse Owens was winning those four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the man who finished a close second to him in the 200 meters was Jackie Robinson's older brother, Mack. The genes were on Jackie's side.

In the 10 years he wore a Dodgers uniform, he batted over .300 in six seasons and was a factor in six pennant-winning teams.

He would be selected to baseball's Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible.

Robinson also had broken the barriers for a flood of black and Hispanic players. Later in his Brooklyn career, he was displeased with some of his black teammates, notably Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Joe Black, who hung out with each other, ignoring white teammates who were ready to be friendly.

The struggle to break the game's color line had been a long one. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis gave short shrift to delegations asking him to lift the ban against blacks, opposing integration of the sport until his death in 1944. Washington owner Clark Griffith maintained his lame excuse, "We don't want to break up the Negro leagues."

Robinson, in fact, had been given what was outrageously called a "tryout" back in 1945 by the Red Sox in Fenway Park, along with fellow Negro leagues stars Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams. It was a charade. Red Sox officials gave them a scanty look and said they were not big league material. Finally signed in 1950, Jethroe gave the Boston Braves three good seasons. The Red Sox, along with the Yankees, were the chief foot-draggers in signing blacks, becoming the the last team to do so, 12 years after Rickey brought up Robinson. They signed second baseman Pumpsie Green.

Two months after the Dodgers won the 1956 pennant came stunning news. With Rickey no longer with the team, owner Walter O'Malley traded Robinson to the Giants. Twenty-three days later, Robinson announced he would have none of it. He was being bothered by bad knees and what was probably a surfeit of baseball. At 37, he was saying goodbye to the game.

He made his announcement in an article in Look magazine, with which he had a writing contract. New York's baseball writers, scooped by a monthly publication, were outraged.

Jackie plunged into civil rights work, becoming a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and joining New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in his various goodwill works. At the age of 53, white-haired, and a victim of diabetes, Robinson died on Oct. 24, 1972, honored as the man who truly helped baseball become, at last, the American game.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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