June 27th, 2013
I was delighted to speak yesterday at the site of the Brooklyn Dodger offices at 215 Montague Street. Chevrolet sponsored a four-stop baseball tour for media types who would be driven (or themselves drive) an electric-powered Chevy Volt to each site after the starting point of the MLB Fan Cave. Not knowing that I would be speaking outdoors in full sun for the second stop on the trail, I had prepared a 15-minute talk that stayed in my pocket. Sunstroke made for poor public relations, I figured. I winged it, but this is the talk I would have offered. Portions of it are based on an article that Jules Tygiel and I published in SPORT Magazine in June 1988.
It happened right here, on Montague Street. This is where the national pastime at last began to live up to its name.
The team is gone, the building is gone—even the address is gone, as is the bank that presented the plaque—but the echoes linger, and the spirit remains. Here, on August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson, shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs, first met Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After a dramatic, challenging interview that has become the stuff of legend, the two signed an agreement that would begin to remove from baseball its historic stain. Each year Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 to mark the anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, but here we stand on no less hallowed ground.
Today little is left of the city that was, let alone its favorite game. In New York the only constant through four centuries has been relentless, roaring change—hills flattened, ponds filled, streams diverted, buildings demolished, neighborhoods dismantled, all in the name of progress. Shea Stadium and the House That Ruth Built are gone, as are Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds, and several other sites of big-league games. A baseball-history tourist in New York must walk in four dimensions rather than three, the fourth being that of memory–aided by stories and statistics and nostalgic collectibles. Because it is harder to collect buildings than baseball cards, however, few edifices remain that might bear mute testimony to the game that was.
Baseball is a game of ghostly presences, always just one step away from revival. MLB’s Fan Cave, the hippest of baseball landmarks (which marked the first stop on today’s tour), sits one block away from the old Grand Central Hotel site, where on February 2, 1876 the National League was founded. Walking distance from where we stand, at the corner of Clinton and Livingston Streets—No. 133—is an improbable survivor of baseball’s earliest days, the clubhouse of the Brooklyn Excelsiors, the most famous team in the land in 1860.
But let’s focus on 215 Montague Street. A ten-story structure, tall for the 19th century, stood here until the 1960s, when it was replaced by a four-story building, since anchored by a succession of banks. The Dodgers’ office was located on the fourth floor. It housed all the executives, major league and minor league, and their staffs. Fans who wanted to purchase advance tickets could buy them here. The Dodgers started using this location in 1938, and when Branch Rickey came along four years later this building would begin to take on national significance, if at first secretly.
Rickey, who had long wished to integrate baseball, knew that St. Louis, where he had been the general manager for decades, was an impossible venue for his great experiment. “St. Louis never permitted Negro patrons in the grandstand,” Rickey once wrote.
Robinson’s appearance here on August 28 was by no means the first step Rickey had taken toward fulfilling his vision of an integrated national pastime. And Rickey knew that Sam Jethroe or Monte Irvin, not Robinson, was the most talented player in the Negro Leagues at that time. So why did Rickey choose him? Strength of character and a collegiate background have been the conventional explanations, but behind the scenes there was more at work.
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. 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 recent death of Commissioner Landis, escalated their campaign to desegregate baseball. On April 6, black sportswriter Joe Bostic appeared at the Dodgers’ 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 engineered an unsuccessful audition with the Red Sox for Robinson and two other black athletes.
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. He named fabled Negro Leagues star Oscar Charleston as the club’s manager and undercover scout. 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.
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 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 into the spotlight all alone.
The agreement that Jackie Robinson signed right here on August 28, 1945 was a tightly guarded secret. It bound him to the Brooklyn organization but stipulated that he was to be signed to a player’s contract with the top farm club at Montreal before November 1. Rickey impressed upon Robinson the need to maintain silence. He could tell the momentous news to his family and fiancee, but no one else.
After his meeting with Rickey, Robinson 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.
Rickey worked with publicist Arthur Mann to pen an article for Look Magazine, timed to release at the time of Robinson’s signing with Montreal. It never ran, but I located it in the Rickey papers at the Library of Congress. “The Negro and Baseball,” as it was titled, departs radically from the common picture of the Robinson legend. “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.
At the same time, Rickey decided to postpone publication of the Look article. 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.
In a mad scramble to sign Robinson before the November 1 deadline and before he departed to the Caribbean for a barnstorming trip, the Montreal Royals secured his signature on a contract on October 23. Newcombe, Campanella, John Wright, and Roy Partlow all joined the Dodger organization the following spring. Jethroe became a victim of the “deliberate speed” of baseball integration and did not reach the majors until 1950.
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 supporter and opponent alike, attracting the responsibility, the scorn and ultimately the acclaim for his historic achievement.
For Rickey the signing was the culmination of a decades-old dream. For Robinson, there would be triumph and tragedy ahead, but his breaking of the color bar started right here.