Jackie Robinson’s Signing: The Real Story, Part Two

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!

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