April 17th, 2012

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

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.