Enduring worst of human nature, J. Robinson appealed to best in us


Banquets are being held, documentaries produced and baseball is commemorating that it was 50 years ago when the major leagues allowed a black player to enter what had been a protected, "white only" domain. Yes, Jackie Robinson is being brought back to life with written and oral testimonials.

But no matter how descriptive the recall, there's no possible way to profoundly and accurately portray what it was like for him to have experienced the role of a pioneer, going it alone and being subjected to a painful ugliness that brought out only the worst in other men. They wanted him to fail and expressed the cruelest of insults in an attempt at out-of-control intimidation.

Two of his own teammates, Fred "Dixie" Walker and Eddie Stanky, were pondering a petition to emphasize their dislike with having to play with him and maybe not even take the field. His first manager with the Montreal Royals, the top farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was Clay Hopper, who asked Dodgers president Branch Rickey if he really thought a black man was a human being.

But Robinson, by his play at Montreal in 1946, leading the International League in hitting, changed Hopper's thinking and left scant doubt he was capable of advancing to the Dodgers. In Syracuse, a black cat had been turned loose in the park to mock his presence and, according to the grand woman at his side, wife Rachel, Baltimore and Louisville, site of the Little World Series that year, were difficult places to visit because of the tenor of the reception.

Then came 1947, and Robinson not only had to meet the demanding professional qualifications of moving to a higher level -- joining the Dodgers -- but was converted from second base to what was an entirely new playing role for him, first base. He also, more importantly, was breaking the color line, entering the majors, the first and only black in a lineup of white faces.

Subjected to taunts and vicious shouts of anger, he was having the situation compounded by having to break in at a position he had never handled before. He was using a mitt instead of a glove. There was no way he could have been comfortable. Racial hand grenades were falling all around him. Other teams were disturbed, tension increased and the poison of bias fermented. National League president Ford Frick and commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler never backed away, insisting they would not stand for anarchy and warned they were ready to enforce forfeits if a player boycott occurred.

Robinson never drank or smoked, had been an outstanding athlete at UCLA and was a second lieutenant in the Army during World War II. He was endowed with intelligence and a fearlessness that wouldn't allow him to back away from confrontation and Jim Crow traditions. He created excitement as a player and craved the challenge that was before him.

We saw him play and had opportunities to interview him, so there's no need to tell us now, a half-century later, what his name means and how much he accomplished. You only had to be a witness to the saga to realize the character of Jack Roosevelt Robinson. He ran with a pigeon-toed stride, yet was deceptively quick and a hard slider who went into bases with all-out aggressiveness.

Rival dugouts, especially the Philadelphia Phillies, worked him over with vile language, a barrage led by two not so Southern gentlemen, manager Ben Chapman and pitcher Lynwood "Schoolboy" Rowe. They prided themselves in trying to antagonize Robinson, to break his spirit and concentration, but it didn't work.

They shouted things like, "Why don't you go back to the cotton fields where you belong?" or "Snowflake, how much is watermelon?"

They likewise turned their venom on manager Leo Durocher, who was coaching at third base, fabricating suggestions that Robinson was going out with his actress wife, Larraine Day. Chapman tried to explain his vicious tirades by saying that hard bench-jockeying was the Phillies' style.

Lou Grasmick, a Baltimore businessman, came along to pitch briefly for the Phillies in 1948 and was there for two series played against the Dodgers. "Chapman and Rowe would get on the top step of the dugout and tell the rest of the players to sit on the bench; that they'd handle things," recalls Grasmick. "Then they'd start in on Robinson and Durocher. It was unmerciful.

"I remember the trip home from spring training. We played the Dodgers an exhibition in Atlanta, and as we players came in the entrance at Ponce de Leon Park, there was a phalanx of Ku Klux Klan members wearing hoods. We had to walk between them. They looked eight feet tall. Blacks were there in record numbers, overflowing the seats, to see Jackie. It could have been an explosive situation."

Did Robinson have to contend with more problems, born of bigotry, than any other athlete in the history of sports? "I don't think there's any question of that," Grasmick said. "He had to make good at the highest level of competition, was thrown at by pitchers, bowled over by base runners and, all the while, trying to ignore the profane indignities directed to him."

It was not the best of times for humanity, but then again, the final result justified the anguish Robinson singularly endured. Yes, the Jackie Robinson experience was good for America because it exposed, as never before, the depth of prejudice that prevailed within the country. The Robinson plight, fighting against the tide of hatred, delivered a powerful sermon all its own.

It sounded, loud and clear, the clarion for decency and made a large segment of the white majority embarrassed and uncomfortable with what was going on. The arrival of Robinson signified that baseball, a mere microcosm of society, was going to change and with it new venues of opportunity would be opened for all men and women in areas far broader than a mere game that offered the elementary intent of hitting a round ball with a beveled bat.

The legacy of Robinson, from the perspective of looking down the tunnel of time, a half-century later, has little to do with baseball and the fact he became a Hall of Fame player. He awakened the inherent moral code of basic social principles that is born to everyone but is too often twisted by environment, family and colleagues who so wrongfully misshape young minds and implant bitterness instead of demonstrating lessons of tolerance.

Jackie Robinson, by what he went through, embarrassed whites into trying to find a path to understanding and an improved degree of racial harmony. In truth, he was a one-man crusade toward a better America. We are in his debt.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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