John Lopez’ award-winning in-depth profile of Jackie Robinson’s life and legacy
(This is the profile I wrote about Jackie Robinson for the Houston Chronicle 15-years ago. I was honored to win several national awards for this piece. Take your time. I hope you enjoy.)
By John P. Lopez
Jackie Robinson was a baseball player, alright.
He possessed the five key ingredients about which every big-league general manager dreams: He could run, field, throw, hit, and hit for power.
But Branch Rickey, a rumpled, cigar-smoking dreamer, wondered if Robinson possessed that special sixth ingredient.
Did Robinson, a dreamer himself, have that sixth sense, that ability to walk away from the torment and scorn that was sure to haunt him, yet still play with risk and daring on the field the next day?
Could he be called every racial epithet imaginable, spiked, spat upon, thrown at and knocked down, yet still get up and calmly dust himself off?
Rickey wanted to know.
Rickey’s “Noble Experiment,” as he called it, was to try and find the perfect blend of character and ability, maturity and electricity.
He wanted to mix a black man into a white world.
The move would contradict more than half a century of baseball culture and shock much of a white society entrenched in racism.
It would serve as a rallying point for America’s black population and perhaps even be the spark toward true civil rights in this nation.
But only if the experiment worked.
Rickey realized baseball needed the right man to carry the aspirations of more than 13 million blacks and every other American who ever hoped for equality.
There had been talk of making such a move in the months after World War II. But it was only talk.
A few ballclubs had offered token tryouts to black players. An owner or two occasionally would hint that perhaps “someday” there would be integration.
After the death of baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a man committed to segregated ways, new commissioner Happy Chandler hinted he would be more willing to support integration.
It was an experiment that had all the potential to be volatile. It was certain to be offered many chances to blow up in Rickey’s face and bring resentment from people of all colors.
On Aug., 28, 1945, Robinson had no idea the date with history that awaited him at Rickey’s office.
After playing a doubleheader in Chicago for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs, a team he joined shortly before the end of World War II, Robinson flew to New York with Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth.
Robinson was under the impression that he was going to talk with the Dodgers’ general manager about playing for a new Negro League team.
Rickey had spent months sending scouts to Negro League games, scouting many games himself, searching for the right player to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
But when asked by the press about his interest in black players, Rickey did not want to reveal his true plan, so he fabricated the story about a new team forming Ñ the Brooklyn Negro Dodgers.
Secretly, Rickey had accumulated boxes full of statistical and personal information on nearly 100 black ballplayers.
He considered the likes of legendary Negro Leaguers such as Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige. He did background and criminal checks on an assortment of players.
Ultimately, he cut the list to a handful of young, educated, well-spoken players who had potential.
Larry Doby was on the list. So were Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.
But Rickey looked hard at the former Army second lieutenant, the sometimes-volatile, always-humble, college-educated Robinson. He decided no one could better take on the ultimate challenge of the noble experiment.
Rickey saw in Robinson a 26-year-old athlete, with strong values and a strong personality.
Even before bringing him to New York for the interview, Rickey already knew much of Robinson’s story.
Like Rickey, Robinson was from a Methodist upbringing and a tee-totaler. He was a young man of few vices Ñ the occasional cigarette Ñ and was not known as a carouser.
He was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves. He liked to take risks and push himself to the limit in everything he tried.
And what an athlete. At UCLA, Robinson had been called “the black Jim Thorpe” by writers.
He broke records in football, baseball, track and basketball. He long-jumped 25 feet to win the collegiate national championship. In basketball, he twice led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring.
In football, he averaged 11 yards per carry. He even won the conference golf championship and reached the semifinals of the national Negro tennis tournament.
And in just one season of Negro League baseball with the Monarchs, Robinson batted .387 and stole 40 bases.
Robinson had a tough arrogance about him, too. He knew how to control himself in critical situations and work through problems the right way.
While in the Army, Rickey discovered, Robinson challenged segregation at the Post Exchange at Camp (Fort) Hood. Ultimately, as he went through proper military channels stating his cause to superior officers, Robinson’s protest led to desegregation at the exchange.
Robinson also once faced and defeated court martial proceedings, after refusing to move to the back of an Army bus when the driver gave the order. Robinson’s protest — a legitimate one, since Army regulations prohibited discrimination on government vehicles — eventually led to all charges being dismissed.
This was the man with the talent, courage and conviction that Rickey believed would change major league sports forever and perhaps even affect the nation’s view on race relations.
Now 50 years later, the nation celebrates the anniversary of Robinson doing just that.
Robinson walked into Rickey’s office and saw a stubby man with bushy eyebrows, bifocals and a barrel chest, poking a cigar in Robinson’s face and asking, “You got a girl?”
Years later in his autobiography, Robinson recalled the surprise he felt at Rickey’s first question. But the surprise was nothing compared to the emotions Rickey would draw out of Robinson over the course of the long interview.
After reportedly telling Robinson, “There are going to be times when you’re going to need a woman by your side,” Rickey began explaining the real reason he had invited Robinson to his office.
The interview lasted more than three hours, covering every conceivable reaction and expectation Robinson would face in a white world.
At one point, Rickey went into a role-playing exchange with Robinson, asking, “What if I’m a hotel clerk, you come in with the rest of your team and I tell you, “we don’t let niggers sleep here.’ What do you do?”
“What if I’m sitting behind the dugout and I call you, “nigger boy’ or “watermelon eater?’ ” Rickey said.
Rickey constantly interrupted Robinson’s responses, continuing with the role-playing as an unruly fan, a racist umpire, an opponent flying into Robinson spikes-high.
Robinson became increasingly upset, later admitting he felt like shoving Rickey’s cigar-pointing hand away from his face.
Finally, Rickey, drenched in sweat, told Robinson, “I want you to be the first Negro player in the major leagues. Can you take it? Can you take everything that’s going to come your way?
“Do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back?” Robinson reportedly told Rickey.
“No, I want a player with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey responded. “You’ve got to do this job with base hits and stolen bases and fielding ground balls, Jackie. Nothing else.”
By the end of the afternoon, Rickey had his man. And baseball had a pioneer.
When Rickey signed Robinson to a contract, it was three years before the integration of the armed forces. It was nine years before the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision. It was 10 years before the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.
“We knew it would affect a lot of people,” said Rachel Robinson, who was Robinson’s young fiancee in 1945. “We never knew it would have such a deep effect on so many.”
Houston Federal Judge David Hittner, a lifelong Brooklyn Dodgers fan, grew up in the Bayridge area watching “hundreds” of Dodgers games. As an adult, he has heard several race-charged cases and prominently displays a portrait of Robinson in his chambers.
“I think the start of the heavy civil rights movement came with the breaking of the color barrier in major league baseball,” Hittner said. “It was one of the great indications of the impetus of the civil rights movement in the United States. To me, it really was the start.
“It showed a lot of folks that, here was the concept of equality. It nailed many nails in the coffin, particularly in terms of the perception of inferiority. Jackie Robinson was a pioneer. He had to stand there and take it, just so others could maybe someday get to where he was.”
Almost immediately, the abuse heaped on Robinson was unrelenting.
Rickey’s carefully planned strategy included assigning Robinson to the Dodgers’ Class AAA farm team, the Montreal Royals. The more contemporary, largely metropolitan and desegregated French-Canadian city would give Robinson a certain amount of shelter.
Rickey also consistently tried to downplay the significance of breaking the color barrier, saying, “I did not employ a Negro because he was a Negro, nor did I have in mind at all doing something for the Negro race, or even bringing up that issue. I simply wanted to win a pennant for the Brooklyn Dodgers and I wanted the best human beings I could find to help me win it.”
In reality, Rickey was keenly affected by race problems, having served on race-relation committees in New York earlier in the 1940s.
But none of these strategies helped Robinson.
After the news conference announcing his signing, national reports criticizing and questioning the move immediately were aired and printed.
New York newspapers called Robinson a 1,000-to-1 shot and “a player likely to fail.” A columnist said the pressure of the moment would “flood and drown” Robinson.
Cleveland Indians ace pitcher Bob Feller was quoted as saying Robinson never would be able to hit big-league pitching because his shoulders were not constructed like other players. Boston infielder Alvin Dark said, “Negroes don’t think as quick as whites.”
Even some Negro League players expressed caution, because Robinson was chosen despite less than one year of professional baseball experience.
“There were some of the black players who didn’t think Jackie was the right man; he had played only a few months in the Negro Leagues, while someone like Roy Campanella had played 10 years,” said Monte Irvin, a former Negro Leaguer who broke in with the New York Giants in 1949. “I think it was jealousy.”
Others said Rickey chose Robinson because he knew Robinson would fail, thereby proving black players did not belong in the Major Leagues.
“Jackie was a super athlete, but we had only seen a little of his baseball talent,” said Doby, who in 1947 was the second black player to enter the major leagues and the first in the American League. “But he was the kind of person that was ahead of most of us in terms of how the system worked, the political system. He was very intelligent, too, so you knew he would find a way to succeed.”
In 1946, in his first spring training with white players, Robinson nearly snapped before his Dodgers career even began.
Two weeks after their marriage, Jackie and Rachel Robinson left New York for Daytona Beach, Fla.
It was the one part of playing for Montreal that would be most difficult to handle — spring training in the deep South.
As Robinson’s plane arrived in New Orleans, where they were scheduled to continue onto Daytona Beach, Robinson was told that he and Rachel had been bumped from the plane by white passengers.
He protested briefly, then remembered to stay in control. The next plane was not until the next day, so the newlyweds spent the night at a “colored” motel near the airport.
The next day, the Robinsons made it as far as Pensacola, Fla., before they were bumped again. They waited for another plane, but could not board. Finally, Robinson bought two tickets for a bus that was headed to Daytona Beach.
Even then, shortly after boarding the bus, Robinson was told to move to the back, with the other blacks. Remembering what Rickey had warned him about, Robinson obliged, instead of protesting as he had done in the military.
“That first spring training was a nightmare,” Rachel Robinson said. “There was so much degradation. There was bigotry like we had never encountered.”
During spring training, some exhibition games were canceled because of Robinson’s presence, with city officials in Deland, Jacksonville and Sanford, Fla., citing Jim Crow laws.
Other games became tense, profanity-laced affairs that Robinson hardly could stand. He was a strong-willed man forced to stay silent, and it nearly cost him a shot at making the Montreal club.
“One of the things I admired most about Jackie was that he was not a docile individual, but he controlled himself,” said Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who cites Robinson as an inspiration. “It showed how much control he had. It was out of character for him to sit and take it. But he did it for a greater good. A lot of educated, good men could not have tolerated what he tolerated.”
Rarely sleeping more than four hours a night and constantly sore from spike marks or pitches at his body that spring, Robinson fell into a deep slump. He began pressing badly.
“We were worried,” Rachel Robinson said.
But by the end of camp, Robinson had begun hitting and found himself on the opening day roster for the 1946 Montreal Royals.
Some 52,000 fans came to see the history-making game. And in that one game, Robinson showed every characteristic, every quality that would take him to another history-making appearance one year later.
Robinson grounded out his first time up, but then slammed a three-run home run, got a bunt single, slapped another single to the opposite field, bunted his way on again, stole two bases and forced opposing pitchers into a pair of balks with his daring leads off base.
He ran, fielded, threw, hit, hit with power.
And, most importantly, he flashed that sixth sense necessary to become a barrier-breaker.
“When we saw what Jackie Robinson was doing, I used to say, ‘Did you see what he did in that game?’ and my mother would tell me to listen to what he had to say,” Thompson said. “He presented himself and conducted himself as an example. Watching him break into the major leagues always will be a part of me.
“He served as an inspiration. It wasn’t that there were no other blacks, but that here was a person who could not just speak on the field, but was a symbol for so many other things.”
Robinson went on to lead the International League in batting (.349), runs scored (113) and fielding percentage (.985). He also stole 40 bases and drove in 66 runs, leading the Royals to an attendance record and the Little World Series championship.
The following spring, he would be a Dodger.
In another move aimed at helping ease the immense pressure on Robinson, Rickey moved the Dodgers’ training camp to Havana, Cuba.
Again, it did not help.
From the start, some Dodgers teammates protested, a few even starting a petition to keep Robinson off the big-league roster.
All-Star infielder Pee Wee Reese befriended Robinson, building a relationship that would last until Robinson’s death. But others never wavered in their resentment, particularly Fred “Dixie” Walker, who ultimately was traded to Pittsburgh.
Aside from the constant array of racial insults, opposing teams also threatened to strike if Robinson was allowed to play.
“There were a lot of threats in the air,” Rachel Robinson said. “We’d hear rumors of organized boycotts. They permeated our environment, but they were not the kinds of things we could take seriously. Those kinds of threats had to be handled by baseball.”
Finally, after a terrific spring performance, on April 10, 1947, Robinson walked into the Dodgers’ clubhouse and found Rickey holding a Major League contract. He was a Dodger.
Opening Day came five days later, April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field.
Robinson went hitless against the Boston Braves, but three days later belted his first home run and was off on a remarkable first season.
He starred even as he continued to battle remarkable mistreatment — a spikes-to-the-chest slide from Enos Slaughter, a relentless barrage of racist comments.
The most intense verbal abuse Jackie Robinson encountered in 1947 came from the Phillies at the urging of manager Ben Chapman, right. After being fined, Chapman grudgingly posed for photos with Robinson.
The worst episode of all came in an April series against the Philadelphia Phillies and manager Ben Chapman.
It was a moment Chapman probably believed would lead to Robinson retaliating, the “Noble Experiment” blowing up. Instead, it rallied many of Robinson’s Dodgers teammates around him.
Before the series, Chapman instructed his team to bait Robinson. From the dugout, Chapman led the verbal barrage.
After his retirement, Robinson vividly recalled the Chapman incident, calling it the most he ever had been hurt.
But in 1947, Robinson kept his mouth shut.
At one point, Dodger star Eddie Stanky had heard enough from Chapman and shouted into the Phillies dugout, “You cowards. Why the hell don’t you pick on someone who can fight back. You’re all yellow.”
When news of the verbal abuse was reported, Chapman was fined and suspended by Chandler.
There were countless other incidents throughout the first season — a threatened boycott by the St. Louis Cardinals, separate rooming accommodations in nearly every city, separate eating accommodations, pitches to the head, death threats.
“I never could have gone through what he went through,” Reese said. “He stood there and dared people to challenge him. And he took it.”
But the Phillies incident rallied the Dodgers to Robinson’s side. Robinson was named Rookie of the Year in 1947, after batting .297 with 125 runs scored, 31 doubles and 29 stolen bases.
He carried the Dodgers to the National League pennant.
By 1949, after more blacks had entered the league and Robinson was beginning to feel secure that integration had arrived for good, he told Rickey he wanted to be himself. He wanted to show more emotion, fight back when a call or a play did not go his way.
Rickey encouraged Robinson to do just that. Robinson went on to bat .342, drive in 124 runs and win the league’s Most Valuable Player award.
Over the next eight seasons, the Dodgers would win four more NL pennants.
Finally, in 1955, with Robinson stealing home in the first game of the World Series against the hated New York Yankees, the Dodgers finally won it all.
Two years later, his body a mess from all the abuse, the daring runs, the wild slides into the dirt, Robinson announced his retirement.
He had a career batting average of .311, with 947 runs scored, 1,518 hits, 197 stolen bases and a career fielding percentage of .983.
When he retired, Robinson entered the corporate world, serving as a spokesman and executive for various companies. He became a critical ally for politicians. He marched on Selma, Ala., shoulder-to-shoulder with Martin Luther King.
He watched the entire sports world follow his lead toward equality.
“He probably was the single most important black athlete who’s ever lived and one of the greatest black men who’s ever lived,” NBA superstar Charles Barkley said. “I don’t think Jackie Robinson could ever have fathomed what black athletes have accomplished. In his wildest, wildest dreams he never could have expected how far we’ve come.”