Until Jackie Robinson, anointed by a deeply religious man, Branch Rickey, was to walk across the hot coals of the infield and into baseball's blazing bastion of all-white segregation, there was a distinct color line that offered a painful message:
Blacks need not apply.
It was 50 years ago that it happened, Robinson becoming the first of his race to prove that he had the capabilities -- physically and mentally -- to break down the barriers that then confronted all African-Americans. What occurred to him in Montreal was more important than what transpired in Brooklyn, where he ultimately was to earn his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Had there not been the 1946 season he spent with the Montreal Royals of the International League, it's likely Robinson wouldn't have been the man, a year later, to be the first to integrate the major leagues.
Failure in the minors, from the standpoint of on-the-field performance or an ability to handle the pressure of being the first black in organized professional baseball, would have doomed him to a lesser role and projected another black player, at some later date, to be the designated pioneer.
Robinson, though, wouldn't allow his name to become a mere footnote in history. What he achieved in Montreal was directly correlated to what followed. He dealt with the competition between the foul lines, the brutal verbal abuse from opposing dugouts and what emanated from the stands. In the end, Robinson prevailed.
It was not an easy transition from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro National League to Montreal, where he was picked to take on a challenge no man ever faced before. On his way to spring training, Robinson and his wife, Rachel, devoted to him for all his days, were bounced off two commercial airplanes, en route to Daytona Beach, Fla., for the vaguest of reasons.
Later, in DeLand, Fla., an afternoon exhibition game was canceled because it was announced the park lights were out of order. A sheriff in Sanford, Fla., interrupted an exhibition against the Indianapolis Indians and said Robinson would have to leave then and there because the law said no interracial athletic contests could be conducted.
In Jacksonville, Fla., a similar exhibition with the Jersey City Giants wasn't played because authorities insisted it violated a city ordinance. A month later, when he played his first official International League game in Jersey City, N.J., Robinson broke in with four hits, including a home run, and two stolen bases.
It was a smashing debut that foretold what would happen as Robinson went on to lead the league with a .349 average and election to the all-star team. The Most Valuable Player vote went to a Robinson of a different color, first name Eddie, the Baltimore Orioles' silk-smooth first baseman, who batted .318, hit 34 home runs and accounted for 123 RBIs.
Baltimore, considered a southern city, was difficult for Robinson. He wasn't allowed to check in with teammates at a hotel, so he stayed with friends. Rachel, at what was then Municipal Stadium, heard two fans seated behind her use racial epithets in reference to her husband.
"It was almost impossible for her to keep her temper, but her dignity was more important to her than descending to the level of those ignorant bigots," Robinson explained in his autobiography.
It was 50 years ago last night that Robinson integrated baseball in Baltimore. In 1941, the first black to play in a major college football game in Baltimore was a Cornell halfback, Sam Pierce, who faced Navy, in the same stadium where Robinson played. FTC Later, Pierce was named to President Reagan's Cabinet as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Robinson went 5-for-13 during his first weekend visit to Baltimore with the Montreal club, and his appearance in a Sunday doubleheader drew a crowd of 25,306. As a kid sportswriter, we witnessed the game and years later would tell Robinson that our first impression was he wouldn't make the grade. The comment interested him because, for the most part, he was hearing from others, after the fact, that they were sure he had the talent to play in the majors.
He was entirely focused on what we were about to tell him. The thought was advanced that he had a less-than-strong throwing arm and appeared to be tied up in his shoulders. "You're right," he said. "I hurt my arm in the Army, but there was no way I was
going to be intimidated out of it."
We told him that having seen Roy Campanella catching for the Baltimore Elite Giants, it appeared he was more talented as a catcher than Robinson was as an infielder, an observation that others in both black and white baseball probably believed. On that same occasion, we asked Robinson if he could write his own epitaph, what would it be? Again, he answered, "That's something I've never been asked and I welcome it." He paused, if only to clear his throat, and quickly replied. "Put it like this: 'He said strongly the things he believed.' "
Certainly, from that exchange, Robinson knew himself. When his rookie season in baseball was over, after Montreal won the pennant, playoffs and Little World Series in 1946, he talked with Sam Lacy, sports editor of the Baltimore Afro-American, on what had transpired, including the bitterness and gutter talk he encountered along the way.
The crowds in Louisville, Ky., during the Little World Series hadn't been at all compassionate. Two rivals, Fred Walters and Frank Shofner, had, in Lacy's opinion, tried to spike him. So Lacy wanted to know his reaction and, in retrospect, this is what Robinson told him:
"Baltimore was worse. The nasty things Baltimore people threw at me hardened me to the point that this was rather easy to take. Then, too, while it was bad enough, I guess I expected a lot more than I got. I knew I was coming into the South and I suppose I was preparing for just about anything. But that Baltimore, holy gee . . .
"In Syracuse, the players held up a black cat and yelled, 'Here's a black mate for you!' I had to laugh. I thought it was pretty good. Syracuse dished out everything they could to get my goat."
So Robinson, a fierce competitor, never lost his sense of focus, or humor, even when he was being demeaned.
Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, explained to members of the Montreal club in a talk during spring camp why he signed Robinson and another black, pitcher Johnny Wright. "I acted on the recommendation of my scouts and not because I sought to appease any pressure groups. If I thought an elephant could play center field better than the fellow we had out there, I'd do what I could to sign the elephant."
Jackie Robinson became more than a baseball player. His presence was a symbol that social justice no longer could be denied. The conscience of the nation had to be awakened. With something as rudimentary as a glove and bat, plus the ravenous intensity of the man, he changed the thought process of America for evermore.
Pub Date: 4/28/96