It’s probably unreasonable to quibble with baseball’s celebration of the anniversary of the immortal Jackie Robinson’s debut. Burning with zeal it was refreshing for a change to have a lively baseball conversation about something other than spoiled rich guys wallowing in their riches.
But like so many issues too layered in emotion, it became a runaway locomotive that had trouble staying on the tracks. Robinson was very special. Every American school kid knows all that. But he was not alone in the struggle to free his game of bigotry let alone advance the cause of racial harmony in a troubled nation.
In the end, the deluge of panegyrics on the occasion of Jackie’s 60th reminds us that baseball people don’t do history particularly well, while the sports pages are not the best places to turn for responsible scholarship.
As for the players, they remain inscrutable. There was a stampede of grandstanders on every club seeking to wear Robby’s number 42 on the 15th of April, the hallowed day. But when dear old Buck O’Neil, the unofficial ambassador of black baseball, died last September only a couple of old-timers -- chiefly Reggie Jackson and Georgie Brett -- bothered to show up at his funeral. It could be argued that Curt Flood was even more sainted in baseball’s liberation struggles than Robinson. Yet when he died, a poll suggested a majority of the players had never heard of him.
The Twins’ Torii Hunter was dead right when he said the childish overdoing of the number 42 business only trivialized the point. And the various characters who are beating the drums to have Robinson’s birthday declared a national holiday are completely out of their tree. Great idea! We can have it right along side the national holiday honoring the birth of Abraham Lincoln.
Understandably, baseball is still hypersensitive about the role of race in its glorious tradition and even after 60 years the issue remains haunting. That partially explains the frenzied rush to lavishly overstate the meaning, implications, even the facts of the Robinson anniversary.
Along the way Jimmie Lee Solomon, who as senior vice-president of baseball operations is MLB’s highest ranking black official, gushed, ‘‘Baseball integrated long before the (public) schools and also before the armed forces.’’ In addition to being too general and sweeping to be even considered technically accurate such a declaration unwisely attempts to paste over the salient truth that the major league’s utterly banned black men from playing their mere game for 60 years.
That enduring disgrace has always been the story and it remains the story. All the rest of the stuff -- including the pious genuflecting to Robinson’s sainted memory that is now so much the rage -- remains contrition driven by a much deserved sense of guilt.
Jackie Robinson was a true pathfinder. Tapped by history to play a difficult role he rose bravely to the challenge. It was a role for which he was supremely qualified and for which he had been carefully schooled and groomed while being given the further protection of the right team from the right town. Branch Rickey, a colorful character who was equally brilliant and cagey, bold and opportunistic, visionary and cynic, was Robinson’s indispensable partner in the smashing of what had been infamously known as ‘‘the color line.’’ Rickey had principles but he also had many agendas. Like Robinson, he had the proper experience, the right mentality and the sufficient guts for the task. Their partnership was unique. None of this is disputable.
But they had lots of help. Much is made of the trials they endured and the hazards they negotiated and the risks they took and of the assorted characters who tried to thwart them. Not enough is made of all the people who helped; all the people without whom there would have been certain failure.
There were so many heroes and I most notably include the fans. Yes, there were catcalls and race-baiting taunts. You can still hear them, now and again, at your neighborhood ballpark. But overall the poor people of God rose to the occasion, as they most always do. The overwhelming majority of America’s baseball patrons distinguished themselves that summer of ’47 and continued to do so. They get much higher marks than the owners. Keep in mind that by 1953, six years after Robinson arrived, only six teams had integrated. In 1957, 10 years after the fact, three teams remained segregated; the Phillies, Tigers and, of course, your very own Red Sox.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the outrageous bigot who so long dominated baseball as commissioner, cleverly prevented integration for 25 years by preaching it would promote race riots in the stands. He couldn’t be responsible for the awful things that would happen, Landis moaned. The majority of the owners -- most of whom, admittedly, didn’t need to be convinced -- bought his claptrap.
When the Benswanger Family who owned the Pirates conspired to obtain such Homestead Gray’s stars as Messrs. Paige, Gibson, and Bell in the mid-1930s, Landis blocked them. When in 1942 Bill Veeck let it be known he planned to purchase and immediately integrate the Phillies, Landis made sure Veeck’s bid was spurned. Yes, this is the same Judge Landis who remains the revered legend fully canonized at Cooperstown and who, by the way, was named for a Civil War battlefield in Tennessee that holds a special place in Confederate lore.
Landis is one of the truly bad guys of this tale. His successor, Commissioner Albert ‘‘Happy’’ Chandler, is one of the truly good guys. Rickey gets all the credit. But his caper never gets off the ground without the courageous approval and steadfast support of this prototypical southern politician with the drawl thick as molasses.
When in March 1946, Rickey let it be known he intended to sign Robinson to a minor league contract, the owners -- in a desperate lather -- gathered at the Astoria Hotel in New York for a secret meeting where they voted 15 to 1 to block him. But Chandler put his foot down. Right on their necks.
Happy would later say: ‘‘Soon as that meeting was over, Rickey called me and we discussed it and I said to him simply, ‘I'’m gonna have to meet my Maker some day and He might ask me why I didn’t let this boy play and if I say it was because he was black, it might not be a satisfactory answer.’’’ No matter his language, tainted by the times, Happy Chandler was one of the heroes.
So was Pete Reiser. You hear much about Pee Wee Reese’s role in standing tall for Robinson. But Reiser was also heroic. Then an even bigger Dodger star than the Kentuckian Reese, Pistol Pete was also from a southern border state, Missouri. When some disgruntled southern-born Dodgers drafted a petition aimed at banning Robinson in March of ’47, it was Reiser who confronted their leaders and told them what they could do with their bloody petition.
And then there was George “Shotgun” Shuba, Robby’s teammate in Montreal in ’46. Shuba was on base when Jackie hit his first homer for the Royals. What happened when Jackie crossed home plate, you wonder? What happened was that Shotgun Shuba gleefully grabbed Robinson's hand then put his arm around him as they trotted to the dugout. The next day, the wire photo ran in newspapers around the world.
There were so many heroes. Leo Durocher, Robinson’s Dodger manager who came up huge. Ralph Branca, another noble teammate. Bobby Bragan, the Alabaman who came to see the light. Clay Hopper, his Royals manager and a gentleman from the old south whose handshake Robinson never forgot. Bill Veeck who was probably most responsible for Rickey making the move. Larry Doby! So much like Robby yet so different, he broke the ‘‘color line’’ in the American League just three months after Robinson’s debut yet remains relatively forgotten. Brooklyn itself! So diverse, cosmopolitan, and progressive, it was the perfect setting for the “experiment,” as they called it. Much easier than Cleveland, Veeck would observe.
There were so many heroes. What most bugged me in the well-intended but grossly simplistic celebrations of Robinson and Rickey that we’ve been witnessing is that too many of those heroes were overlooked.