Last week I delivered the keynote speech at a Hofstra University conference marking the 50th anniversary of the New York Mets. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of that talk. When George Weiss hired Casey Stengel to become the manager of the expansion New York Mets in September 1961, the Ol’ Professor declared to reporters, “It’s a great honor for me to be joining the Knickerbockers.”
Now, Casey had been around New York baseball forever. He broke in as an outfielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1912, starred with the New York Giants in the World Series of 1923, and created an unsurpassed record at the helm of the New York Yankees, only to be fired after losing the 1960 World Series in the final inning of the final game. But the Knickerbockers? Casey did not cavort with Alexander Cartwright and Doc Adams on the Elysian Fields of Hoboken before the Civil War, but in his misstep he was on to something.
Casey’s infant Mets owned the oldest name in New York baseball. Dating back to 1857, the height of the game’s amateur era, the first Metropolitan baseball club predated the Giants, Dodgers, or Yankees. Established as a professional nine in September 1880, the Mets and their one-armed pitcher, Hugh Daily, played baseball at a park known as the Polo Grounds because their Central Park field was initially leased for playing … polo. As champions of the American Association (at that time a major league), the 1884 Mets took part in baseball’s first world championship series (losing to the Providence Grays). Baseball ended at this first Polo Grounds when the city built 111th St. through center and right fields in the fall of 1888. The initial home of the expansion Mets was the fourth incarnation of these original Polo Grounds.
Casey’s links with the three New York ball clubs of the twentieth century were echoed by George Weiss’s selections in the expansion draft of October 10, 1961, when they relied heavily on experienced players. “The fans remember players like Gil Hodges, Don Zimmer, Roger Craig, and Gus Bell,” Weiss explained, “We have to give them players they know.” Weiss soon added other veterans to his roster: Frank Thomas, Richie Ashburn, Charlie Neal, Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, Clem Labine. The original Mets were a stopgap measure, not a green bunch building for the future: the average age of the 1962 team would be thirty.
These graybeards—to whom my hero, Duke Snider, was added in 1963—were no longer the boys of summer but, in poet Dylan Thomas’s actual phrase, seldom recalled in this baseball context, the “boys of summer in their ruin.” The 1962 Mets finished in last place on merit, occupying the bottom rung in batting, pitching, and fielding statistics. Opponents outscored them by more than two runs per game. They won only one game in four and suffered a twentieth-century record 120 losses. But New York fans, deprived of National League baseball since the defection of the Dodgers and Giants to the West Coast four years earlier, found their ineptitude lovable. On this club, Rod Kanehl and Marv Throneberry were gods of a sort. The Mets drew nearly a million fans in their first year, a very respectable total at that time, and by their third season, having moved out of the decrepit Polo Grounds into brand-new Shea Stadium though still in last place, they were regularly outdrawing the pennant-bound Yankees.
Another link between the departed Brooklyn Dodgers and the fledgling, or revived, Mets was Branch Rickey—and through his signal achievement, Jackie Robinson. The departure of the Dodgers and Giants in 1958 had created a vacuum in New York and an increased hunger for baseball in new boomtowns like Houston, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. Rickey was nearly eighty but still possessed a keen nose for new opportunity. The great innovator who had already brought baseball the farm system and integration now created the Continental League, a paper league with paper franchises. Nonetheless, Rickey’s mirage worried Organized Baseball into expansion.
Two of the Continental League “franchises”—the future New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s—were admitted for 1962. The American League was authorized to commence its western foray one year earlier with the expansion-draft Los Angeles Angels and the Minnesota Twins (the latter being the transplanted Washington Senators, who were replaced in the nation’s capital by an ill-fated expansion team that is today’s Texas Rangers).
Nationwide in the 1960s, as pitchers pounded batters into near oblivion, fans drifted away. Attendance in the National League, which in 1966 reached 15 million, fell by 1968 to only 11.7 million. In fact, despite the addition of four new clubs in 1961-62, attendance in 1968 was only 3 million more than it had been in 1960. Critics charged that baseball was a geriatric vestige of an America that had vanished, a game too slow for a nation that was rushing toward the moon; its decline would only steepen, they claimed, as that more with-it national pastime, pro football, extended its mastery of the airwaves.
The owners acted quickly to restore the game’s balance between offense and defense, reducing the strike zone and lowering the pitcher’s mound. But the most important change may have been one that was introduced in 1965 and was only beginning to take effect: the amateur free-agent draft. Successful teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Braves, and Cardinals had stayed successful because of their attention to scouting. Consistently they were able to garner more top prospects for their farm systems than clubs with less deep pockets or more volatile management. Now, dynasties—awe-inspiring but not healthy for the game—were suddenly rendered implausible. Now, baseball had a competitive balance that could produce a rotation of electrifying leaps to the top, like the ascension of the Boston Red Sox from ninth place in 1966 to the pennant the next, and the amazing rise of the New York Mets from the depths they had known to become world champions in 1969. Before then, skeptics were fond of proclaiming, “The Mets will win the pennant when men walk on the moon…”
I don’t know that any Mets success after that can equal the impossible thrills of that season. Not 1973, not 1986, not 2000, all of them years that ended with the Mets in the World Series. In truth, the Mets’ dark days as lovable losers and their periodic stretches of second-division slumber have obscured an amazing fact: they have appeared in more World Series than any of the expansion clubs. The disappointments of recent years have been magnified by the concurrent success of that other, unnamed franchise in the Bronx. But success in baseball or in “real life” tends to be cyclical. Late in his life, Casey was asked by a young reporter to sum up his life in the game.
“I’m a man that’s been up and down,” he replied. That’s a good summation of the Mets, and their fans, and common humanity.
Some deep-pocketed teams are able to stay in the pennant race year after year, masking the periodic downturns in their minor-league talent and fostering a general perception that they are “winners.” This sleight of hand deprives their fans of a basic American experience—the perception that success will come from hard work and patience more gratifyingly, if less reliably, than from privilege. An elite team breeds not hope, but instead expectation, which can be hard to satisfy and even harder to bear.
Hope is the key. It inflates us. It fulfills us. It makes us better fans, and we love the game and our club more deeply with each passing year. The tree does not grow to the sky; the top breaks off and the tree becomes wider and fuller. The limbs of disappointment are especially sturdy ones. Bart Giamatti wrote, echoing the poet Andrew Marvell, that the color of hope is green. In my experience it has been blue and orange.
All of you will recall Game Six of the 1986 World Series, when the prospect was so bleak that only a Mets fan might have hoped for a miracle. I was fortunate enough to attend that game (and last year’s Game Six, very nearly as great). But another game I attended still holds the most honored place in my memory. On September 20, 1973, the Mets were in a stumbling sort of pennant race with three teams, including their opponent that chilly evening, the Pittsburgh Pirates. With two outs and the game tied in the thirteenth inning, Richie Zisk was on first base. Dave Augustine lined a shot to left, over the head of Cleon Jones. The ball struck the very top of the wall, yet somehow stayed in play, miraculously popping into Cleon’s glove. He turned and threw a perfect relay to Wayne Garrett, who threw to Ron Hodges at the plate. Hodges blocked the plate perfectly and tagged Zisk for the third out. In the bottom of the inning, he singled home the winning run. I have watched baseball games for fifty-five years and I have never seen a play like it, before or since.
For this old boy, with more years behind than ahead, the Mets are still at life’s core. Not in the same dizzying way as when the Mets swept to implausible glory in 1969, filling my heart with joy and my mind with the certainty that anything, yes, anything could happen. No longer in the same warming way as seeing my sons become first players and then fans for life. They are grown now, scattered, yet baseball and the Mets remain a link for all of us. The game is what we talk about when we want to connect not only with our shared past but with each other as we are today.
The Mets are family. Tom Seaver and George Theodore, Darryl Strawberry and Jim Hickman—these old friends are now and then present at the dinner table; for us, ballgames of bygone days are stored in our hearts and retrieved like holiday snapshots.
Thank you, Mets.
Jules Tygiel and I collaborated on this story nearly twenty-five years ago. Apart from the dramatic new evidence about Rickey’s intent to insulate Jackie Robinson from the pressure of being “The One,” this article concludes below with the disconnect between Rickey and Robinson over the next pioneering step Jackie wished to take: becoming Major League Baseball’s first black manager. Parts One and Two may be read below this posting.
Newcombe, Campanella, Wright, and Partlow all joined the Dodger organization in the spring of 1946. Jethroe became a victim of the “deliberate speed” of baseball integration. Rickey did not interview Jethroe in 1945. Since few teams followed the Dodger lead, the fleet, powerful outfielder remained in the Negro Leagues until 1948, when Rickey finally bought his contract from the Cleveland Buckeyes for $5,000. Jethroe had two spectacular seasons at Montreal before Rickey, fearing a “surfeit of colored boys on the Brooklyn club,” profitably sold him to the Boston Braves for $100,000. Jethroe won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1950, but his delayed entry into Organized Baseball foreshortened what should have been a stellar career. Until I informed him of how he had been part of Rickey’s 1945 plan, Jethroe had been unaware of how close he had come to joining Robinson, Newcombe, and Campanella in the pantheon of integration pioneers.
For Robinson, who had always occupied center stage in Rickey’s thinking, the early announcement intensified the pressures and enhanced the legend. The success or failure of integration rested disproportionately on his capable shoulders. He became the lightning rod for supporters and opponents alike, attracting the responsibility, the opprobrium and ultimately the acclaim for his historic achievement.
Beyond these revelations about the Robinson signing, the Library of Congress documents add surprisingly little to the familiar story of the integration of baseball. The Rickey Papers copiously detail his post-Dodger career as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but are strangely silent about the criticial period of 1944 to 1948. Records for these years probably remained with the Dodger organization, which in 1988 claimed to have no knowledge of their whereabouts. National League Office documents for these years have remained closed to the public.
In light of the controversy engendered by former Dodger General Manager Al Campanis’s remarks about blacks in management, however, one exchange between Rickey and Robinson becomes particularly relevant. In 1950, after his fourth season with the Dodgers, Robinson appears to have written Rickey about the possibility of employment in baseball when his playing days ended. Robinson’s original letter cannot be found in either the Rickey papers or the Robinson family archives. However, Rickey’s reply, dated December 31, 1950, survives. Rickey, who had recently left the Dodgers after an unsuccessful struggle to wrest control of the team from Walter O’Malley, responded to Robinson’s inquiry with a long and equivocal answer.
“It is not at all because of lack of appreciation that I have not acknowledged your good letter of some time ago,” Rickey began. “Neither your writing, nor sending the letter, nor its contents gave me very much surprise.” On the subject of managing, Rickey replied optimistically, “I hope that the day will soon come when it will be entirely possible, as it is entirely right, that you can be considered for administrative work in baseball, particularly in the direction of field management.” Rickey claimed to have told several writers that “I do not know of any player in the game today who could, in my judgment, manage a major-league team better than yourself,” but that the news media had inexplicably ignored these comments.
Yet Rickey tempered his encouragement with remarks that to a reader today seem gratuitous. “As I have often expressed to you,” he wrote, “I think you carry a great responsibility for your people . . . and I cannot close this letter without admonishing you to prepare yourself to do a widely useful work, and, at the same time, dignifed and effective in the field of public relations. A part of this preparation, and I know you are smiling, for you have already guessed my oft repeated suggestion—to finish your college course meritoriously and get your degree.” This advice, according to Rachel Robinson, was a “matter of routine” between the two men ever since their first meeting. Nonetheless, to the thirty-one-year-old Robinson, whose non-athletic academic career had been marked by indifferent success and whose endorsements and business acumen had already established the promise of a secure future, Rickey’s response may have seemed to beg the question.
Rickey concluded with the promise, which seems to hinge on the completion of a college degree, that “It would be a great pleasure for me to be your agent in placing you in a big job after your playing days are finished. Believe me always.” Shortly after writing this letter Rickey became the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Had Robinson ended his playing career before Rickey left the Pirates, perhaps the Mahatma would have made good on his pledge. But Rickey resigned from the Pirates at the end of the 1955 season, one year before Robinson’s retirement, and never again had the power to hire a manager.
Robinson’s 1950 letter to Rickey marked only the beginning of his quest to see a black manager in the major leagues. In 1952 he hoped to gain experience by managing in the Puerto Rican winter league, but, according to the New York Post, Commissioner Happy Chandler withheld his approval, forcing Robinson to cancel his plans. On November 30, 1952, the Dodgers star raised the prospect of a black manager in a televised interview on Youth Wants to Know, stating that both he and Campanella had been “approached” on the subject. In 1954, after the Dodgers had fired manager Chuck Dressen, speculation arose that either Robinson or Pee Wee Reese might be named to the post. But the team bypassed both men and selected veteran minor-league manager Walter Alston, who went on to hold the job for more than two decades.
Upon his retirement in 1956, Robinson, who had begun to manifest signs of the diabetes that would plague the rest of his life, had lost much of his enthusiasm for the prospect of managing, but nonetheless would probably have accepted another pioneering role. “He had wearied of the travel,” Rachel Robinson stated, “and no longer wanted to manage. He just wanted to be asked as a recognition of his accomplishments, his abilities as a strategist, and to show that white men could be led by a black.”
Ironically, in the early years of integration Organized Baseball had bypassed a large pool of qualified and experienced black managers: former Negro League players and managers like Chet Brewer, Ray Dandridge, and Quincy Trouppe. In the early 1950s Brewer and several other Negro League veterans managed all-black minor-league teams, but no interracial club at any level offered a managerial position to a black until 1961, when former Negro League and major-league infielder Gene Baker assumed the reins of a low-level Pittsburgh Pirate farm team, one of only three blacks to manage a major-league affiliate before 1975.
This lack of opportunity loomed as a major frustration for those who had broken the color line. “We bring dollars into club treasuries while we play,” protested Larry Doby, the first black American Leaguer, in 1964, “but when we stop playing, our dollars stop. When I retired in ’59 I wanted to stay in the game, to be a coach or in some other capacity, or to manage in the minors until I’d qualify for a big-league job. Baseball owners are missing the boat by not considering Negroes for such jobs.” Monte Irvin, who had integrated the New York Giants in 1949 and clearly possessed managerial capabilities, concurred. “Among retired and active players [there] are Negroes with backgrounds suited to these jobs,” wrote Irvin. “Owning a package liquor store, bowling alley or selling insurance is hardly the vocation for an athlete who has accumulated a lifetime knowledge of the game.”
Had Robinson, Doby, Irvin, or another black been offered a managerial position in the 1950s or early 1960s, and particularly if the first black manager had experienced success, it is possible that this would have opened the doors for other black candidates. As with Robinson’s ascension to the major leagues, this example might ultimately have made the hiring and firing of a black manager more or less routine. Robinson dismissed the notion that a black manager might experience extraordinary difficulties. “Many people believe that white athletes will not play for a Negro manager,” he argued in 1964. “A professional athlete will play with or for anyone who helps him make more money. He will respect ability, first, last, and all the time. This is something that baseball’s executives must learn—that any experienced player with leadership qualities can pilot a ballclub to victory, no matter what the color of his skin.”
On the other hand, the persistent biases of major-league owners and their subsequent history of discriminatory hiring indicated that the solitary example of a Jackie Robinson regime would probably not have been enough to shake the complacency of the baseball establishment. Few baseball executives considered hiring blacks as managers even in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1960 Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who had hired Doby in 1947 and represented the most enlightened thinking in the game, raised the issue, but even Veeck defined special qualifications needed for a black to manage. “A man will have to have more stability to be a Negro coach or manager and be slower to anger than if he were white,” stated Veeck. “The first major-league manager will have to be a fellow who has been playing extremely well for a dozen years or so, so that he becomes a byword for excellence.” The following year Veeck sold the White Sox; other owners ignored the issue entirely
Jackie Robinson himself never flagged in his determination to see a black manager. In 1972, at the World Series at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, baseball commemorated the twenty-fifth anniversary of his major-league debut. A graying, almost blind, but still defiant Robinson told a nationwide television audience, “I’d like to live to see a black manager.”
“I would have eagerly welcomed the challenge of a managerial job before I left the game,” Robinson revealed in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made. “I know I could have been a good manager.” But despite his obvious qualifications, no one offered him a job.
On Opening Day 1975, African American star player Frank Robinson took the reins of the Cleveland Indians. But Jackie had not lived to see that; he died nine days after his remarks at the 1972 World Series.
My friend Jules Tygiel and I collaborated on this story almost a quarter of a century ago, yet the myth has remained obdurate all these years later. Jules and I believed that the real story was not only more interesting than the schoolboy version but also made Jackie’s pioneering mission even more heroic. Part One ran yesterday and may be read in the post beneath this one.
Although it was impossible to confirm in 1987, when I found Maurice Terrell’s photos, it seemed to Jules and I highly likely that , inasmuch as they had been commissioned by Look, they were destined to accompany Mann’s article. (Once we located Terrell himself, he confirmed the linkage.) Clearer prints of the negatives revealed that Terrell had taken the pictures in San Diego’s Lane Stadium. This fit in with Robinson’s autumn itinerary. After his August meeting with Rickey, Robinson had returned briefly to the Kansas City Monarchs. With the Dodger offer securing his future and the relentless bus trips of the Negro League schedule wearing him down, he left the Monarchs before season’s end and returned home to Pasadena, California. In late September he hooked up with Chet Brewer’s Kansas City Royals, a postseason barnstorming team which toured the Pacific Coast, competing against other Negro League teams and major- and minor-league all-star squads. Thus the word “Royals” on Robinson’s uniform, which had so piqued our interest as a seeming anomaly, ironically turned out to relate not to Robinson’s future team in Montreal, but rather to his interim employment in California.
For further information Jules contacted Chet Brewer, who at age eighty still lived in Los Angeles. Brewer, one of the great pitchers of the Jim Crow era, had known Robinson well. He had followed Robinson’s spectacular athletic career at UCLA and in 1945 they became teammates on the Monarchs. “Jackie was major-league all the way,” recalled Brewer. “He had the fastest reflexes I ever saw in a player.”
Robinson particularly relished facing major-league all-star squads. Against Bob Feller, Robinson once slashed two doubles. “Jack was running crazy on the bases,” a Royals teammate remembered. In one game he upended Gerry Priddy, Washington Senators infielder. Priddy angrily complained about the hard slide in an exhibition game. “Any time I put on a uniform,” retorted Robinson, “I play to win.”
Brewer recalled that Robinson and two other Royals journeyed fromLos Angeles to San Diego on a day when the team was not scheduled to play. He identified the catcher in the photos as Buster Haywood and the other player as Royals third baseman Herb Souell. Souell was no longer living, but Haywood, who, like Brewer lived in Los Angeles, vaguely recalled the event, which he incorrectly remembered as occurring in Pasadena. Robinson recruited the catcher and Souell, his former Monarch teammate, to “work out” with him. All three wore their Kansas City Royals uniforms. Haywood found neither Robinson’s request nor the circumstances unusual. Although he was unaware that they were being photographed, Haywood described the session accurately. “We didn’t know what was going on,” he stated. “We’d hit and throw and run from third base to home plate.”
The San Diego pictures provide a rare glimpse of the pre-Montreal Robinson. The article which they were to accompany and related correspondence in the Library of Congress offer even more rare insights into Rickey’s thinking. The unpublished Mann manuscript was entitled “The Negro and Baseball: The National Game Faces a Racial Challenge Long Ignored.” As Mann doubtless based his account on conversations with Rickey and since Rickey’s handwritten comments appear in the margin, it stands as the earliest “official” account of the Rickey-Robinson story and reveals many of the concerns confronting Rickey in September 1945.
One of the most striking features of the article is the language used to refer to Robinson. Mann, reflecting the racism typical of postwarAmerica, portrays Robinson as the “first Negro chattel in the so-called National pastime.” At another point he writes, “Rickey felt the boy’s sincerity,” appropriate language perhaps for an eighteen-year-old prospect, but not for a twenty-six-year-old former Army officer.
“The Negro and Baseball” consists largely of the now familiar Rickey-Robinson story. Mann recreated Rickey’s haunting 1904 experience as collegiate coach when one of his black baseball players, Charlie Thomas, was denied access to a hotel. Thomas cried and rubbed his hands, chanting, “Black skin! Black skin! If I could only make ’em white.” Mann described Rickey’s search for the “right” man, the formation of the United States League as a cover for scouting operations, the reasons for selecting Robinson, and the fateful Rickey-Robinson confrontation. Other sections, however, graphically illustrate additional issues Rickey deemed significant. Mann repeatedly cites the costs the Dodgers incurred: $5,000 to scout Cuba, $6,000 to scout Mexico, $5,000 to establish the “Brooklyn Brown Dodgers.” The final total reaches $25,000, a modest sum considering the ultimate returns, but one sufficiently large that Rickey must have felt it would counter his skinflint image.
Rickey’s desire to show that he was not motivated by political pressures also emerges clearly. Mann had suggested that upon arriving in Brooklyn in 1942, Rickey “was besieged by telephone calls, telegrams and letters of petition in behalf of black ball players,” and that this “staggering pile of missives [was] so inspired to convince him that he and the Dodgers had been selected as a kind of guinea pig.” In his marginal comments, Rickey vehemently wrote “No!” in a strong dark script. “I began all this as soon as I went to Brooklyn.” Explaining why he had never attacked the subject during his two decades as general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, Rickey referred to the segregation in that city. “St. Louis never permitted Negro patrons in the grandstand,” he wrote, describing a policy he apparently had felt powerless to change.
Mann also devoted two of his twelve pages to a spirited attack on the Negro Leagues, repeating Rickey’s charges that “they are the poorest excuse for the word league” and documented the prevalence of barnstorming, the uneven scheduling, absence of contracts, and dominance of booking agents. Mann revealingly traces Rickey’s distaste for the Negro Leagues to the “outrageous” guarantees demanded by New York booking agent William Leuschner to place black teams in Ebbets Field while the Dodgers were on the road.
Rickey’s misplaced obsession with the internal disorganization of the Negro Leagues had substantial factual basis. But Rickey had an ulterior motive. In his September 8 article, Wendell Smith addressed the issue of “player tampering,” asking, “Would [Rickey] not first approach the owners of these Negro teams who have these stars under contract?” Rickey, argued Smith in what might have been an unsuccessful preemptive strike, “is obligated to do so and his record as a businessman indicated that he would.” As Smith may have known, Rickey maintained that Negro League players did not sign valid contracts and so became free agents at the end of each season. Thus the Mahatma had no intention of compensating Negro League teams for the players he signed. His repeated attacks on black baseball, including those in the Mann article, served to justify this questionable position.
The one respect in which “The Negro and Baseball” departs radically from the common picture of the Robinson legend is in its report of Robinson as one of a group of blacks about to be signed by the Dodgers. Mann’s manuscript and subsequent correspondence from Rickey reveal that Rickey did not intend for Robinson to withstand the pressures alone. “Determined not to be charged with merely nibbling at the problem,” wrote Mann, “Rickey went all out and brought in two more Negro players,” and “consigned them, with Robinson, to the Dodgers’ top farm club, the Montreal Royals.” Mann named pitcher Don Newcombe and, surprisingly, outfielder Sam Jethroe as Robinson’s future teammates. Whether the recruitment of additional blacks had always been Rickey’s intention or whether he had reached his decision after meeting with Robinson in August is unclear. But by late September, when he provided information to Mann for his article, Rickey had clearly decided to bring in other Negro League stars.
During the first weekend in October, Dodger coach Chuck Dressen fielded a major-league all-star team in a series of exhibition games against Negro League standouts at Ebbets Field. Rickey took the opportunity to interview at least three black pitching prospects–Newcombe, Roy Partlow, and John Wright. The following week he met with catcher Roy Campanella. Campanella and Newcombe, at least, believed they had been approached to play for the “Brown Dodgers.”
At the same time, Rickey decided to postpone publication of Mann’s manuscript. In a remarkable letter sent from the World Series in Chicago on October 7, Rickey informed Mann:
We just can’t go now with the article. The thing isn’t dead,–not at all. It is more alive than ever and that is the reason we can’t go with any publicity at this time. There is more involved in the situation than I had contemplated. Other players are in it and it may be that I can’t clear these players until after the December meetings, possibly not until after the first of the year. You must simply sit in the boat. . . .
There is a November 1 deadline on Robinson,–you know that. I am undertaking to extend that date until January 1st so as to give me time to sign plenty of players and make one break on the complete story. Also, quite obviously it might not be good to sign Robinson with other and possibly better players unsigned.
The revelations and tone of this letter surprised Robinson’s widow, Rachel, forty years after the event. Rickey “was such a deliberate man,” she recalled in our conversation, “and this letter is so urgent. He must have been very nervous as he neared his goal. Maybe he was nervous that the owners would turn him down and having five people at the door instead of just one would have been more powerful.”
Events in the weeks after October 7 justified Rickey’s nervousness and forced him to deviate from the course stated in the Mann letter. Candidates in New York City’s upcoming November elections, most notably black Communist City Councilman Ben Davis, made baseball integration a major issue in the campaign. Mayor LaGuardia’s Democratic party also sought to exploit the issue. The Committee on Baseball had prepared a report outlining a modest, long-range strategy for bringing blacks into the game and describing the New York teams, because of the favorable political and racial climate in the city, as in a “choice position to undertake this pattern of integration.” LaGuardia wanted Rickey’s permission to make a pre-election announcement that, as a result of the committee’s work, “baseball would shortly begin signing Negro players.”
Rickey, a committee member, had long since subverted the panel to his own purposes. By mid-October, however, the committee had become “an election football.” Again unwilling to risk the appearance of succumbing to political pressure and thereby surrendering what he viewed as his rightful role in history, Rickey asked LaGuardia to delay his comments. Rickey hurriedly contacted Robinson, who had joined a barnstorming team in New York en route to play winter ball inVenezuela, and dispatched him instead to Montreal. On October 23, 1945, with Rickey’s carefully laid plans scuttled, the Montreal Royals announced the signing of Robinson, and Robinson alone.
Mann’s article never appeared. Look, having lost its exclusive, published two strips of the Terrell pictures in its November 27, 1945 issue accompanying a brief summary of the Robinson story, which was by then old news. The unprocessed film and contact sheets were loaded into a box and nine years later shipped to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, where they remained, along with a picture of Jethroe, unpacked until April 1987.
This concludes Part Two of the three-part article. Part Three tomorrow!
Jules Tygiel and I collaborated on this story for SPORT magazine in June 1988. Subsequently it appeared in SABR’s The National Pastime, in several editions of Total Baseball, and in Jules’s Extra Bases: Reflections on Jackie Robinson, Race, and Baseball History. Despite this drumbeat of evidence, the legend surrounding Jackie Robinson’s signing has persisted. Jules and I believed that the real story was not only more interesting than the schoolboy version but also made Jackie’s pioneering mission even more heroic.
October 1945. As the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs faced off in the World Series, photographer Maurice Terrell arrived at an almost deserted minor-league park in San Diego, California, to carry out a top-secret assignment: to surreptitiously photograph three black baseball players.
Terrell shot hundreds of motion-picture frames of Jackie Robinson and the two other players. A few photos appeared in print but the existence of the additional images remained unknown for four decades. In April 1987, as Major League Baseball prepared a lavish commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Robinson’s debut, I unearthed a body of contact sheets and unprocessed film from a previously unopened carton donated in 1954 by Look magazine to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. This discovery triggered an investigation which led to startling revelations regarding Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and his signing of Jackie Robinson to shatter baseball’s longstanding color line; the relationship between these two historic figures; and the stubbornly controversial issue of black managers in baseball.
The popular “frontier” image of Jackie Robinson as a lone gunman facing down a hostile mob has always dominated the story of the integration of baseball. But new information related to the Terrell photos reveals that while Robinson was the linchpin in Branch Rickey’s strategy, in October 1945 Rickey intended to announce the signing of not just Jackie Robinson, but of several other Negro League stars. Political pressure, however, forced Rickey’s hand, thrusting Robinson alone into the spotlight. And in 1950, after only three years in the major leagues, Robinson pressed Rickey to consider him for a position as field manager or front-office executive, raising an issue with which the baseball establishment grappled long after.
The story of these revelations began with the discovery of the Terrell photographs. The photos show a youthful, muscular Robinson in a battered cap and baggy uniform fielding from his position at shortstop, batting with a black catcher crouched behind him, trapping a third black player in a rundown between third and home, and sprinting along the basepaths more like a former track star than a baseball player. All three players wore uniforms emblazoned with the name “Royals.” A woman with her back to the action is the only figure visible amid the vacant stands. The contact sheets are dated October 7, 1945.
The photos were perplexing. The momentous announcement of Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Montreal Royals took place on October 23, 1945. Before that date his recruitment had been a tightly guarded secret. Why, then, had a Look photographer taken such an interest in Robinson two weeks earlier? Where had the pictures been taken? And why was Robinson already wearing a Royals uniform?
I called Jules Tygiel, the author of Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, to see if he could shed some light on the photos. Tygiel knew nothing about them, but he did have in his files a 1945 manuscript by newsman Arthur Mann, who frequently wrote for Look. The article, drafted with Rickey’s cooperation, had been intended to announce the Robinson signing but had never been published. The pictures, Jules and I concluded, were to have accompanied Mann’s article; we decided to find out the story behind the photo session.
The clandestine nature of the photo session did not surprise us. From the moment he had arrived in Brooklyn in 1942, determined to end baseball’s Jim Crow traditions, Rickey had feared that premature disclosure of his intentions might doom his bold design. No blacks had appeared in the major leagues since 1884 when two brothers, Welday and Moses Fleetwood Walker, had played for Toledo in the American Association. [In recent years an earlier African American major leaguer has been identified: William Edward White, a one-game first baseman for Providence of the National League in 1879.] Not since the 1890s had black players appeared on a minor-league team. During the ensuing half-century all-black teams and leagues featuring legendary figures like pitcher Satchel Paige and catcher Josh Gibson had performed on the periphery of Organized Baseball.
Baseball executives, led by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, had strictly policed the color line, barring blacks from both major and minor leagues. Rickey therefore moved slowly and secretly to explore the issue and cover up his attempts to scout black players during his first three years in Brooklyn. He informed the Dodger owners of his plans but took few others into his confidence.
In the spring of 1945, as Rickey prepared to accelerate his scouting efforts, advocates of integration, emboldened by the impending end of World War II and the recent death of Commissioner Landis, escalated their campaign to desegregate baseball. OnApril 6, 1945, black sportswriter Joe Bostic appeared at the Dodgers’ Bear Mountain training camp with Negro League stars Terris McDuffie and Dave “Showboat” Thomas and forced Rickey to hold tryouts for the two players. Ten days later black journalist Wendell Smith, white sportswriter Dave Egan, and Boston city councilman Isidore Muchnick engineered an unsuccessful ninety-minute audition with the Red Sox for Robinson, then a shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs; second baseman Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars; and outfielder Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes. In response to these events the major leagues announced the formation of a Committee on Baseball Integration. (Reflecting Organized Baseball’s true intentions on the matter, the group never met.)
In the face of this heightened activity, Rickey created an elaborate smokescreen to obscure his scouting of black players. In May 1945 he announced the formation of a new franchise, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, and a new Negro League, the United States League. Rickey then dispatched his best talent hunters to observe black ballplayers, ostensibly for the Brown Dodgers, but in reality for the Brooklyn National League club.
A handwritten memorandum in the Rickey Papers at the Library of Congress offers a rare glimpse of Rickey’s emphasis on secrecy in his instructions to Dodger scouts. The document, signed “Chas. D. Clark” and accompanied by a Negro National League schedule for April-May 1945, is headlined “Job Analysis,” and defines the following “Duties: under supervision of management of club”:
1. To establish contact (silent) with all clubs (local or general).
2. To gain knowledge and [sic] abilities of all players.
3. To report all possible material (players).
4. Prepare weekly reports of activities.
5. Keep composite report of outstanding players . . . To travel and cover player whenever management so desire.
Clark’s “Approch” [sic] was to “Visit game and loose [sic] self in stands; Keep statistical report (speed, power, agility, ability, fielding, batting, etc.) by score card”; and “Leave immediately after game.”
Clark’s directions, however, contain one major breach in Rickey’s elaborate security precautions. According to his later accounts, Rickey had told most Dodger scouts that they were evaluating talent for a new “Brown Dodger” franchise. But Clark’s first “Objective” was “To Cover Negro teams for possible major league talent.” Had Rickey confided in Clark, a figure so obscure as to escape prior mention in the voluminous Robinson literature? Dodger superscout and Rickey confidante Clyde Sukeforth had no recollection of Clark when Jules spoke with him, raising the possibility that Clark was not part of the Dodger family, but perhaps someone connected with black baseball. Had Clark himself interpreted his instructions in this manner?
Whatever the answer, Rickey successfully diverted attention from his true motives. Nonetheless, mounting interest in the integration issue threatened Rickey’s careful planning. In the summer of 1945 Rickey constructed yet another facade. The Dodger president took into his confidence Dan Dodson, a New York University sociologist who chaired Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s Committee on Unity, and requested that Dodson form a Committee on Baseball ostensibly to study the possibility of integration. In reality, the committee would provide the illusion of action while Rickey quietly completed his own preparations. “This was one of the toughest decisions I ever had to make while in office,” Dodson later confessed. “The major purpose I could see for the committee was that it was a stall for time. . . . Yet had Mr. Rickey not delivered . . . I would have been totally discredited.”
Thus by late August, even as Rickey’s extensive scouting reports had led him to focus on Jackie Robinson as his standard bearer, few people in or out of the Dodger organization suspected that a breakthrough was imminent. On August 28 Rickey and Robinson held their historic meeting at the Dodgers’ Montague Street offices in downtown Brooklyn. Robinson signed an agreement to accept a contract with the Montreal Royals, the top Dodger affiliate, by November 1.
Rickey, still concerned with secrecy, impressed upon Robinson the need to maintain silence. Robinson could tell the momentous news to his family and fiancee, but no one else. For the conspiratorial Rickey, keeping the news sheltered while continuing arrangements required further subterfuge. Rumors about Robinson’s visit had already spread through the world of black baseball. To stifle speculation Rickey “leaked” an adulterated version of the incident to black sportswriter Wendell Smith. Smith, who had recommended Robinson to Rickey and advised Rickey on the integration project, doubtless knew the true story behind the meeting. On September 8, however, he reported in the Pittsburgh Courier that the “sensational shortstop” and “colorful major-league dynamo” had met behind “closed doors. . . . The nature of the conference has not been revealed,” Smith continued. Rickey claimed that he and Robinson had assessed “the organization of Negro baseball,” but Smith noted that “it does not seem logical [Rickey] should call in a rookie player to discuss the future organization of Negro baseball.” He closed with the tantalizing thought that “it appears that the Brooklyn boss has a plan on his mind that extends further than just the future of Negro baseball as an organization.” The subterfuge succeeded. Neither black nor white reporters pursued the issue.
Rickey, always sensitive to criticism by New York sports reporters and understanding the historic significance of his actions, also wanted to be sure that his version of the integration breakthrough and his role in it be accurately portrayed. To guarantee this he persuaded Arthur Mann, his close friend and later a Dodger employee, to write a 3,000-word manuscript to be published simultaneously with the announcement of the signing.
On Jackie Robinson Day, this concludes Part One of the three-part article. Part Two tomorrow!
It is the greatest of baseball stories because it is greater than baseball itself: Jackie Robinson’s combination of courage, tenacity, and conviction in the face of unparalleled pressures. He bore the twin burdens of hope and hatred with a dignity and strength that became legendary. His story ascends to the level of myth, like George Washington and the cherry tree or Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, but right now, as we approach the annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day at America’s ballfields, there is still time to appreciate the man as he was rather than as the revered figure the nation needs him to be. Best to recall him not as a martyr, not as a savior, not as a sociocultural icon, but as a great baseball player, one whose fiery competitive spirit finds its equal in Cooperstown only in the person of his fellow Georgian and spiritual opposite, Ty Cobb. His presence in the Hall of Fame adds to the stature of the institution and the game.
In 1947 Jackie Robinson’s exploits earned for him the first Rookie of the Year, at the advanced baseball age of twenty-eight, and now the award bears his name. In 1949 he won a batting title, was named the National League MVP, and played in the second of his six World Series. But tucked beneath the mementos of that year are items that recall the political realities that made Robinson a standard bearer for integration, before his major league career and after it.
Some twenty-five years ago, during a research visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I came upon a forlorn uncatalogued box that Look magazine had shipped to the National Baseball Library in 1954. Inside it were strips of photographic contact sheets, including those displayed in flipbook style here: http://exhibits.baseballhalloffame.org/baseball_enlists/d20.htm. The photos showed a very youthful Robinson and two other black players going through batting and baserunning drills. The players were wearing uniforms that read “Royals.” The sheets were dated October 7, 1945, a full two weeks before the announcement of Robinson’s signing to play with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers Triple A farm team. I was perplexed. Over the next few weeks, with the help of historian Jules Tygiel and a visit to the Library of Congress to research the newly available Branch Rickey papers, I was able to piece the story together.
Rickey had met with Robinson in the Dodger offices on Montague Street in August 1945, ostensibly to discuss his playing in a new Negro League for a team that Rickey had announced in May, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. But what Rickey really had in mind as his scouts fanned out across the nation to contact several black players was to find the men who would integrate his major league Dodgers, thus fulfilling his lifelong conviction that segregation was morally wrong and giving his team an enduring competitive and economic edge.
Rickey knew the value of manipulating the press and public opinion, and wanted to insure that his motives behind the signing were clearly depicted. So he asked writer Arthur Mann, a close friend (and later a Rickey employee) to write a long piece for Look magazine titled “The Negro and Baseball: The National Game Faces a Racial Challenge Long Ignored.” The photographs were meant to accompany the article, which was to be held until the signings were to be announced–after the major league meetings in December 1945, or even later. The “Royals” name that had thrown me a curve was not that of the Montreal Royals but the Kansas City Royals, a barnstorming team run by Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer that Robinson was playing for in California. Look photographer Maurice Terrell was stationed high in the empty grandstand at San Diego’s Lane Stadium, snapping shots of Robinson and his fellow Royals, who were unaware of the photographer’s presence.
The secrecy of the Mahatma’s plan was near perfect. The manuscript, with Rickey’s annotations in the margin, were revealed in the previously closed Rickey papers in Washington. Mann makes it clear that Rickey had never planned for one black man to deal with all the problems alone; he had meant to announce the simultaneous signing of several others. Don Newcombe and Sam Jethroe were supposed to have been Robinson’s teammates at Montreal, and Roy Partlow, John Wright, and Roy Campanella were to have been assigned to another farm club.
But during the 1945 World Series Rickey wrote Mann and told him not to go through with publication of the article. “There is more involved in the situation than I had contemplated.” What he meant was that the integration of baseball was becoming a divisive and public issue in New York City politics, and Rickey no longer had time to execute his master plan. In order to deter the Communist Party or Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia from taking the credit for pushing baseball to integrate, after all Rickey’s years of work behind the scenes, he had to rush the signing of Robinson, and Robinson alone. The grand plan–several players signed at once, the Look magazine scoop and accompanying photographs–dissolved. Rickey had Robinson, and that was all. Luckily for us, it proved more than enough.
After his retirement from baseball following the 1956 campaign, Robinson continued his advocacy of racial justice and integration, for which he had become a potent symbol. Senator John F. Kennedy sought his support in the 1960 Presidential campaign, but Robinson backed Richard Nixon instead, which came as a disappointment to the liberal community but was consistent with who Jackie Robinson was and where he came from. Proud of his race, his community, his family, he asked nothing more of government than he asked of baseball: neither sympathy nor entitlement, but equal opportunity and a level playing field.
In the days to come Our Game will continue to honor Robinson by serializing the above-referenced article on which my dear departed friend Jules Tygiel and I collaborated for SPORT Magazine in June 1988.
“My fondest baseball memory,” the correspondent began, “occurred late in the evening on September 23, 1957, when Hank Aaron’s 11th inning home run gave the Braves a 4–2 win over the Cardinals and secured Milwaukee its first pennant. I was 23 years old and sat in the upper deck….”
That correspondent was Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig. The memory he submitted to MLB’s new Baseball Memory Lab project (http://mlb.mlb.com/memorylab/index.jsp) went on to take the form of a bookend, with another game from October 10, 1982. On that date the Brewers captured the flag and, for him and all the club’s fans, brought Milwaukee baseball back full circle. See the Commissioner’s full narrative at [http://mlb.mlb.com/memorylab/memories/selig.jsp].
Don’t miss Mark Newman’s story about the Memory Lab launch at [http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120403&content_id=27887666&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb]. As the nephew of Cubs’ infielder Johnny Goryl, Mark is himself, like the Commissioner, an early contributor to Memory Lab:
I love Baseball largely because of my uncle, Johnny Goryl, and I see three of his baseball cards on my bulletin board as I compose this memory here at the MLB.com HQ. A utility infielder, “Gentleman John” broke in with the Cubs in 1957, going on to play six seasons including the last three with the Twins. He managed 14 seasons in the Minors, and took over as Twins manager in 1980, fired by Cal Griffith in 1981 while given little payroll to work with…. I have a million memories in the game, been to so many major events like Ripken 2131 and Big Mac 62 and Touch ‘Em All Joe, worked no-hitters and am a Hall of Fame voter, but what matters most to me in Baseball is honoring Uncle Johnny. [See Mark’s full narrative at: http://mlb.mlb.com/memorylab/memories/index.jsp?transactionId=7900
Baseball Memory Lab is a collaboration of MLB’s Origins Committee, which I chair, and MLB.com. Focusing on the intersection of personal history and baseball, this new forum initially will spotlight two aspects of the game’s history—the origins and evolution of baseball and fan-submitted memories and recollections. How does the work of the Origins Committee unite with the highly personal histories of fans and families? Baseball’s history begins not with Abner Doubleday or Alexander Cartwright but with last night’s game, and all of us at MLB believe that knowing a thing or two about our game’s past increases the pleasure of the present moment.
Indeed, it may not be too much to think about baseball’s history as its thirty-first franchise, a storehouse of fun, fact, and lore that enriches us individually, enlarges our circle of friends, and produces a shared heritage, across the generations, of extraordinary breadth. The long-term mission of Baseball Memory Lab is to unite the official and unofficial histories of the game by joining formal accounts (historical research, box scores, records, editorial coverage, and multimedia) with informal accounts by fans, resulting in a more far-reaching narrative of the game. In building a scrapbook of baseball memories, we are not only recording American history, we are making it.
Early Baseball Milestones will tell the story of major events across baseball’s historic timeline, dating as far back as 2500 B.C. The project commenced with Project Protoball, which Origins Committee panelist Larry McCray founded in 2004, and has since expanded through research finds by a number of early baseball enthusiasts. Now featured within Baseball Memory Lab, it continues as a living, breathing chronicle with highly interesting subsets (see, for example, the timeline for African American ball play at
or the chronology of military involvement in the game’s development, at
For the wonkish (myself included), Early Baseball Milestones is a source of unending delight. For the ordinary fan (myself included), the broadest focus of the Baseball Memory Lab mission is to build a new community through its gathered memories and collaborative discussions. Fans will be able to share their personal reflections and photos, tagging them by favorite game, player, team, ballpark, and/or region, ultimately creating the most comprehensive portal housing baseball memories. My colleagues at Major League Baseball Advanced Media plan to extend the surrounding content for each submission, tying it to a boxscore, play by play, photos and videos, as available, as we have done for the Commissioner’s personal contribution, cited above. Each fan’s submission, after review, will become a permanent exhibit on BaseballMemoryLab.com, and may attract posted comment from fans with parallel experiences.
We are still in the early stages of collecting memories and adding assets (photos, audio, video, etc.) to them. We also are working on other features and content libraries that will be great additions to the site. Please share a memory of yours and connect with other vanguard fans at BaseballMemoryLab.com. Before long we will have an archive of fan memories that will make good reading today and for historians will be a goldmine fifty years after.