Tak­ing a Bat to Prej­u­dice

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook -

Like many New York­ers leav­ing home for work on April 15, 1947, he wore a suit, tie and camel-hair over­coat as he headed for the sub­way. To his wife he said, “Just in case you have trou­ble pick­ing me out, I’ll be wear­ing num­ber 42.”

No one had trou­ble spot­ting the black man in the Dodgers’ white home uni­form when he trot­ted out to play first base at Eb­bets Field. Sud­denly, only 399, not 400, ma­jor league play­ers were white. Which is why 42 is the only num­ber per­ma­nently re­tired by ev­ery team.

Jackie Robin­son’s high school teach­ers sug­gested a ca­reer in gar­den­ing. Robin­son’s brother Mack had fin­ished sec­ond to Jesse Owens in the 200-me­ter dash at the 1936 Ber­lin Olympics. Whites who won medals found ca­reers opened for them. Mack, writes Jonathan Eig in “Open­ing Day: The Story of Jackie Robin­son’s First Sea­son,” wore his Olympic jacket as a Pasadena, Calif., street sweeper, while Owens found him­self rac­ing against horses at county fairs, “one small step re­moved from a cir­cus act.”

To ap­pre­ci­ate how far the na­tion has come, pro­pelled by what be­gan 60 years ago to­day, con­sider not the in­vec­tives that Robin­son heard from op­po­nents’ dugouts and fans but the way he had been praised. “Dusky Jack Robin­son,” as the Los An­ge­les Times called him, alert­ing read­ers to the race of UCLA’s four-sport star, ran with a foot­ball “like it was a wa­ter­melon and the guy who owned it was af­ter him with a shot­gun.”

That cringe-in­duc­ing fact is from Eig’s min­dopen­ing book, an ac­count of a 28-year-old man “filled with fear and fury” and ter­ri­bly alone. It in­cludes unfamiliar de­tails about familiar episodes. There is Lt. Robin­son’s 1944 re­fusal, 11 years be­fore Rosa Parks, to move to the back of a bus at Fort Hood, Tex. And short­stop Pee Wee Reese, a Ken­tuck­ian who un­til 1947 had never shaken hands with a black per­son, cross­ing the in­field to put a hand on Robin­son’s shoul­der when Cincin­nati fans were be­ing abu­sive.

But Eig is es­pe­cially in­for­ma­tive about the dy­nam­ics among the Dodgers, who, like many teams, had a South­ern tinge. The most pop­u­lar player was nick­named Dixie (Walker) and one of the best pitch­ers was the grand­son of a Con­fed­er­ate sol­dier. The Dodgers’ ra­dio broad­cast- er, Red Bar­ber, a Mis­sis­sip­pian, con­sid­ered re­sign­ing, then thought bet­ter. Ra­dio pre­sented Robin­son as television cam­eras could not have — as, Eig shrewdly writes, “all ac­tion,” un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated by vis­ual dif­fer­ences from his team­mates.

Af­ter the open­ing two games against the Bos­ton Braves, the Dodgers played the Gi­ants at the Polo Grounds in Har­lem. The pres­i­dent of the Na­tional League, fear­ing ex­ces­sive en­thu­si­asm, sug­gested that Robin­son should de­velop a sprained an­kle. He did not, and the crowds were large, dressed as if for church — men in suits and hats, women in dresses — and deco­rous. Soon a com­men­ta­tor wrote, “Like plas­tics and peni­cillin, it seems like Jackie is here to stay.”

The Dodgers were not. Eb­bets Field’s turn­stiles clicked 1.8 mil­lion times in 1947, more than they ever had be­fore or would again. But in 1947, in a Long Is­land potato field, Le­vit­town was founded, of­fer­ing mass-pro­duced, low-cost hous­ing em­blem­atic of post­war subur­ban­iza­tion. Dodger fans were mov­ing east on the is­land. Af­ter the 1957 sea­son, the Dodgers moved west.

Only 25,623 fans went to the game on April 15, 1947 — 4,000 fewer than on Open­ing Day 1946 and 6,000 fewer than the ball­park’s ca­pac­ity. Per­haps some white fans were wary of be­ing with so many blacks. Usu­ally blacks were no more than 10 per­cent of Dodger crowds, but on this day they may have been 60 per­cent.

By 1956, Robin­son’s last sea­son, he had lost his sec­ond-base po­si­tion to Jim Gil­liam, a black man. Robin­son died of di­a­betes-re­lated ill­nesses in 1972, at 53, the same age Babe Ruth was when he died. Ruth re­shaped base­ball; Robin­son’s life still re­ver­ber­ates through all of Amer­i­can life. As Martin Luther King Jr., who was 18 in 1947, was to say, Robin­son was “a sitin­ner be­fore sit-ins, a free­dom rider be­fore free- dom rides.”

“Robin­son,” writes Eig, “showed black Amer­i­cans what was pos­si­ble. He showed white Amer­i­cans what was in­evitable.” By the end of the 1947 sea­son, Amer­ica’s fu­ture was un­fold­ing by democ­racy’s dia­lec­tic of im­prove­ment. Robin­son changed sen­si­bil­i­ties, which led to changed laws, which in turn ac­cel­er­ated changes in sen­si­bil­i­ties.

Jack Roo­sevelt Robin­son’s mid­dle name was homage to the pres­i­dent who said “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Robin­son’s deeds spoke loudly. His stick weighed 34 ounces, which was enough.


From left, Brook­lyn Dodgers Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robin­son and Preacher Roe em­brace at Yan­kee Sta­dium af­ter win­ning Game 3 of the 1952 World Se­ries.

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