One Man’s Precocious Journey to the Big Leagues
Just finished watch the motion picture “42” the story of Jackie Robinson’s entry into major league baseball (2013). This was my second viewing and afterwards I decided to locate a biography to learn more of Jackie’s roots and journey (“An Integrated Life” by Schultz).
So what does this Post have to do with rock and roll? Again, absolutely nothing. But come on, it’s Spring and it’s all about Baseball (at least until “March Madness” fires up). Actually I stand corrected – I have thrown in a couple of ditties here to get in the spirit of the new upcoming season.
Very interesting to learn about Robinson’s early years predating his entry into Major League Baseball. The Schultz narrative devotes only about 50 or so pages to Robinson’s pre big league debut. Jackie Robinson was born in Georgia but left a very early age making his way with his mother to southern California; having been abandoned by his father.
From the beginning, Jackie was never one to quietly acquiesce to adversity. When confronted with overt or subtle racism, he reacted, often suffering the consequences – even in sunny California.
Campus Bound – UCLA
Jackie kicked off his athletic career enrolling and excelling at XX junior college. By the time he finished up his two year stint at XX he was attracting attention from several of the big colleges along the West Coast. He elected to go with UCLA in Los Angeles where racial attitudes, while not muted, were more ‘relaxed’.
Robinson’s legacy at UCLA included him becoming the school’s first four sport letter man; baseball, track, basketball and football. He led the conference in scoring in basketball, and was part of a three-man threat in football as a running back, leading UCLA to it’s first ever undefeated season.
In track and field, Jackie set records. Ironically, Jackie’s big school baseball debut was low-lighted by a meager .091 batting average! A school coach felt that had Robinson so elected to pursue basketball, that he would have been the best player in the nation.
After UCLA, war broke out with Germany and Japan. Robinson entered the U.S. Army as an enlisted man, blocked from obtaining an officer’s commission due to long-entrenched racial barriers. In typical Robinson fashion Jackie bucked the system, raising hell and protesting on his and other black soldiers – resulting in his becoming a Lieutenant.
Army life was never a smooth journey. Robinson was constantly confronted with racial prejudices from all quarters, including an incident on a public bus when he sat mid-way back in the bus with a young lady who was in fact black but appeared white to the bus driver. Jackie was ordered to the back – the customary designation for people of color all across the South and he refused. This occurred nearly a decade before Rosa Parks’ historic refusal to move to the back of a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
This resulted in a court martial trial, the outcome which appeared bleak with both civilian and military teaming up against him. Intercession from a senior office (white) who greatly admired the young officer resulted in an acquittal but left a lasting scar for Robinson.
Breaking Down the Barriers in the Big Leagues
Robinson’s pathway into the big time was not an overnight phenomenon. To really appreciate the dynamics of the story it is best to either read “An Integrated Life” and/or watch the motion picture “42”. The book pays special attention to Jackie’s post baseball activism as well as the trials beyond baseball.
That being said, it was very interesting for me to learn that black baseball players actually participated in the first professional U.S. organizations back in the late 1800’s, with more than two dozen black players actually playing on nearly all-white teams.
This came to an abrupt end as “Jim Crow” laws secured an ugly grasp first in the deep South, followed by a nation wide unspoken ban on any kind of integration, with sports being no exception.
Also, later on in the early 1940’s, Robinson was not the first black ball player to be considered for entry into the big league system. At least three teams considered and even provided try-outs for a few black ball players, but none of these meager attempts resulted in success. And there has always been debate whether the Major Leagues did indeed bring the first very best black player into the fraternity. This debate will always rage on but without a doubt, Robinson was no doubt the best prepared mentally and physically to take on the challenge.
Many site the incredibly talented Josh Gibson as the much more talented candidate, often compared to and considered possibly more gifted than even Babe Ruth. And Gibson himself felt very stung by not being the first to be tapped (as did Satchell Page who did get an invite into the majors not long after Robinson.)
Gibson struggle with mental anxiety to the point of being committed more than once for treatment, and a big league career was cut short. Both Gibson and Satchel Paige were inducted into the Hall in recognition of their exemplary outstanding overall professional careers.
(Three early Robinson Baseball Cards: L-to-R: Bowman Card 1949 – 1948 Leaf Card – 1956 Topps Card)
The Door is Open
Before Robinson completed his first season, the Cleveland Indians brought up center fielder Larry Doby in 1947 making him the American League’s first black player. Doby played for five professional teams up through 1959 when he retired. Catcher Roy Campanella would soon join Robinson in the Dodgers’ lineup (1948) and the rival New York Giants would add a pair of players in 1949, Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. The early black pioneer players left an admiral legacy, with Irvin, Capanella, Larry Doby, Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson all entering the Baseball Hall of Fame.
(L-to-R: 1952 Larry Doby – 1949 Campanella – 1953 Satchel Paige)
After the Dodgers
Jackie’s baseball career lasted for 10 years, since he had lost a little time in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, and had lost time in the U.S. Army. Plus his health was on the wain with a body weakened by severe diabetes.
Jackie spent his retirement years as an advocate and activist for black people in America, staring a bank to assist would-be black businessmen, renovating dilapidated brownstones in New York using entirely black tradesmen and making more than 1,600 such homes available to black families.
He campaigned for causes dear to his heart, and though drawing criticism from younger black activists and radicals, defended their right’s as vigorously as he would for the most trod upon person.
As I was nearing the end of “An Integrated Life”, I was curious as to why there was not a single mention of a moment in Jackie’s career when he was under intense racial fire from opposing teams and fans. But then, when I turned to the final chapter, there presented was a five-page narrative dedicated to that moment when Dodger short stop and team captain walked to first base where Jackie was positioned, placed an arm around Jackie’s shoulders and remained this way for several minutes to take somewhat of a silent but firm stand in support of his teammate.
The incident was not visibly documented by the press of the time; no photos exist, and no post-game commentary was provided for the historical record. But later on some who were present would recount the gesture and Jackie would recall it fondly in his memoirs.
Reese, who was southern born and raised, held Jackie in high esteem and the two would continue on through the years as friends.
That moment in time was captured the the statue shown below erected in 2005 at the ballpark of the single A Dodger minor league team, The Brooklyn Cyclones.
Jackie Robinson passed away from a massive heart attack fueled by his diabetes on October 24th, 1972 at the age of 53. He packed a lot of living and left a legacy for the ages – for all of us….
A Tune for the Times