April 14th, 2012
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.