Sixty-six years ago today, on a cold Tuesday in Brooklyn, Jack Roosevelt 'Jackie' Robinson took the field in a game against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. He was to face Johnny Sain, one-half of the legendary "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" pitching duo of the Braves.
Robinson didn't do too well that day: grounded out, flied out, hit into a double play, reached on an error. But his feat went far beyond what he did at the plate or in the field. He became the first African-American since the 1880s to play in a major league baseball game, and entered the history books. We didn't know it at the time but the USA's civil rights era began that day.
Jackie Robinson was a great athlete, but he proved to be an even greater man. Robinson endured a lot of crap (a euphemism) from other ballplayers, the public, sportswriters, and fans. He was a proud man, but had promised Dodgers owner Branch Rickey that he would hold his tongue and his fists for two years. Rickey feared that if Robinson proved to be too combative right off the bat, naysayers would proclaim 'I told you so!' and the cause of major league baseball integration would be damaged.
I like this 1997 passage by Ira Berkow, in which he talked about Robinson and Dodger teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, a Southern boy from Kentucky who was the Dodgers' captain at the time Robinson came to the big leagues.
The first of the two incidents occurred at the beginning of spring training in 1947, when Robinson had been called up to the Dodgers from Montreal, Brooklyn's top minor league team, on which Robinson had starred during the 1946 season. A petition was drawn up by a group of mostly Southern Dodgers players that stated they would not take the field with a black man.
"I'm not signing that," Reese told the ringleaders, who included Dixie Walker, Kirby Higbe and Bobby Bragan. "No way."
Reese, the soft-spoken but respected team captain, with a Southern upbringing, perhaps surprised the petition-carriers. "I wasn't thinking of myself as the Great White Father," Reese says now. "I just wanted to play baseball. I'd just come back from serving in the South Pacific with the Navy during the Second World War, and I had a wife and daughter to support. I needed the money. I just wanted to get on with it."
But there was more to it than the money.
And Reese's refusal to sign the petition, many believe, meant the end of the matter.
Robinson played, and endured vicious abuse from opposing teams, from beanballs and spikings to racial epithets and spitting. Robinson had promised Branch Rickey, the owner and general manager of the Dodgers, that for at least his first two years in the major leagues, he would hold his tongue and his fists, no matter the provocation. And one day -- it was probably in Cincinnati, Reese recalled, in 1947 or 1948 -- the attack was so nasty that Reese walked over to Robinson and put his hand on the black man's shoulder.
"Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while," Robinson recalled, as quoted in the forthcoming biography "Jackie Robinson," by Arnold Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf). "He didn't say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that." The hecklers ceased their attack. "I will never forget it," Robinson said.
After reading that pssage I gained a huge amount of respect for Pee Wee Reese. He could have easily gone the other way, but he did the right thing. Not easy for a white guy from Kentucky in the late 1940s.
Jackie left us at the all-too-early age of 53. What he endured no doubt contributed to his untimely death. Robinson was a truly remarkable man who rose to a challenge few of us could ever imagine, much less face with such grace, strength, and courage.
At the tender age of 8, in 1956, I saw him play against the St. Louis Cardinals and Stan "The Man" Musial at Ebbets Field. He was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career, but still went 2-for-4. My father attempted to explain to me the significance of what he had done, but I was too consumed with hot dogs and cotton candy to comprehend. Later, I understood, and realized that what Robinson had done helped free us all. He is now one of my all-time heroes, right up there with Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Arnold Rampersad wrote an excellent biography, Jackie Robinson. Read it. Never mind that you're not a sports fan. It is not a sports book; it's about a courageous man, a hero for all, who just happened to play baseball.
And don't forget the new movie, 42.
"Some numbers will always be associated with an athlete; '42' will forever be associated with a movement." - John Saunders, ESPN