There was no easy place for Jackie Robinson to play in 1947.
This was the year he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in Major League Baseball since African Americans were barred in 1884. At every game in every state, Robinson was treated like an outcast, and forced to tolerate racial slurs lobbed from the stands and the dugouts, from fans and his own teammates.
As The Washington Post’s Shirley Povich wrote in 1997, this was part of the “bargain” he had struck with Dodgers General Manager Wesley Branch Rickey, who said of the bigoted taunts that would inevitably come: “I want a player with guts — the guts not to fight back.”
Robinson displayed this courage with steadfastness, enduring the onslaughts as he traveled with the team across the country. Each city produced its unique trials, particularly when spring training brought him to the South, but almost none were as bad as Philadelphia.
It was there, Robinson wrote in his autobiography, that the Philadelphia Phillies and their unapologetically crude manager Ben Chapman “brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been.”
A 1997 Philadelphia Daily News looking back at that time concurred: “Whatever Jackie Robinson faced during the 1947 season — and it was immense — few teams treated him as disgracefully as the Phillies.”
Sixty-nine years later, the city is trying to make amends. The Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution on Thursday officially apologizing to Robinson for the racism he confronted.
The resolution, which passed unanimously, dictated “that City Council hereby recognize, honor and celebrate April 15, 2016 as a day honoring the lifetime achievements and lasting influence of Jackie Robinson, and apologizing for the racism he faced as a player while visiting Philadelphia,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Councilwoman Helen Gym, who introduced the resolution, told the Inquirer that acknowledging a “great man” “sometimes can start with an apology.”
The gesture will be presented to Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson. He died in 1972.
April 15, the day Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, is an annual tradition in MLB. On “Jackie Robinson Day,” players in the league don No. 42 jerseys in his honor.
The tribute in Philadelphia will recall distant, but searing memories of how Robinson was once treated in the City of Brotherly Love, where the trouble began even before he arrived.
Harold Parrot, a traveling secretary and publicist for the Brooklyn Dodgers, recounted in his book “The Lords of Baseball” a call Rickey received from Phillies general manager Herb Pennock.
You “….just can’t bring the n—–r here with the rest of your team, Branch,” Pennock said over the phone. “We’re just not ready for that sort of thing yet. We won’t be able to take the field against your Brooklyn team if that boy Robinson is in uniform.”
Rickey replied calmly: “Very well, Herbert. And if we must claim the game, nine to nothing, we will do just that, I assure you.” (Nine to zero was the official score of a forfeited match.)
When the team got to the city, they were denied service at the Ben Franklin Hotel. “And don’t bring your team back here while you have any Nigras with you,” the manager snapped at them, according to Parrot.
The worst assaults of all came during the game, throughout which Phillies manager spat relentless invective at Robinson. Parrot described the insults as follows:
Chapman mentioned everything from thick lips to the supposedly extra-thick Negro skull, which he said restricted brain growth to almost animal level compared to white folk. He listed the repulsive sores and disease he said Robbie’s teammates would become infected with if they touched the towels or the combs he used.
Chapman went on to tell Robinson he should go back to picking cotton. According to The Post’s Povich, Robinson was finally compelled to scream a retort: “Why don’t you get on somebody who can fight back?”
When Chapman was asked about the incident years later, he told the Sporting News that he was treating Robinson as he would any rookie.
“We always gave rookies a baptism like that first time around the league, to see how they could take it,” Chapman said. “You wouldn’t have wanted us to treat Robinson any different from the white boys, would you?”
To prove his equanimity, Chapman had deigned to take a photo with Robinson, one that Robinson would recall in his autobiography as “one of the most difficult things I had to make myself do.”
“There were times,” Robinson wrote,” after I had bowed to humiliation like shaking hands with Chapman, when deep depression and speculation as to whether it was all worthwhile would seize me.”
But there was a silver lining: the abuse Chapman and the Phillies had shown Robinson ultimately served to cement the Dodgers’ bond, bringing players together in a stand against the racist detractors.
“Chapman did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers,” Rickey would later declare. “When he poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and unified 30 men.”
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