“Mr. Rickey, if I could just rub this color off me, I’d be as good as any man.’’
Those tearful words were spoken by Charles Thomas, the lone African-American player on coach Branch Rickey’s 1903 Ohio Wesleyan college baseball team. Thomas had been denied lodging on a trip to South Bend, Indiana.
Thomas’ words both haunted and inspired Rickey, who would become the driving force behind breaking organized baseball’s color barrier.
“It was a lingering sin in his mind,’’ said Branch Barrett Rickey, the 72-year-old grandson of baseball’s great innovator.
In August 1945, Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, took the first step toward correcting that sin when he agreed to sign Jackie Robinson, a Negro League All-Star, to a minor- league contract. On April 15, 1947, Robinson became the first African-American player in the modern history of baseball.
Nearly 70 years later, Robinson’s debut in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform remains a defining moment not only in baseball history but in the nation’s civil rights movement.
Rickey was on a mission to end the “gentlemen’s agreement” that kept black players out of baseball. “This is a plot, this is a plan,’’ his grandson said. “He recognized who the enemy was. The enemy was us. It was our own biases.’’
Branch Barrett Rickey is president of the Pacific Coast League in Round Rock, Texas.
When he was growing up, he said, he would listen to his grandfather recount the story of Robinson’s ascent to the Dodgers as the family sat around a big table at their farm in Pittsburgh, where Rickey moved after becoming general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1950.
Rickey told the family that he met Robinson for the first time in August 1945 at the Dodgers’ office on Montague Street in Brooklyn. That was before Robinson was signed to play for Montreal in the International League, where he hit .349 with 40 stolen bases in 1946.
Rickey confidant Clyde Sukeforth also was at the meeting and years later detailed some of the events to Rickey’s grandson.
Robinson was unaware of what Rickey had in mind. “He comes to discuss the possibility of what he thinks is a contract with a Negro League team in Brooklyn and gets the shock of his life that he’s being considered for a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers,’’ Branch Barrett Rickey said.
The meeting then centered on Robinson’s need to comport himself for the inevitable tribulations that would come for the first black player. “He does everything he can to provoke Jackie,’’ Rickey said of his grandfather. ‘Finally, he does provoke him. In dress clothes, he simulates sliding into him with spikes on and he gets right up in his face and says, ‘What would you do?’
‘Jackie said, ‘Mr. Rickey, do you want a player who’s afraid to fight back?’ And that’s the pivotal moment of the whole interview because he was trying to make his point to Jackie that he needed an athlete with guts enough not to fight back.’’
OPENING DAY, 1947
Though Robinson’s historic arrival to the majors captured the attention of players, Dodgers and opponents alike, it did not make much of a splash in the newspapers of the day. The big news in Brooklyn was that manager Leo Durocher had been suspended for a year, leaving Rickey scrambling to find a replacement. Sukeforth took the reins as the Dodgers hosted the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field.
Robinson, playing first base, recorded the first putout of the game as Boston’s Dick Culler grounded out to third. Robinson grounded to third in his first at-bat in the first, flied out to left in the third, grounded into a double play in the fifth, reached on an error and scored in the seventh and left the game for a defensive replacement in the ninth.
Durocher was the lead to Arthur Daley’s notes in The New York Times the next day. Robinson’s debut was in the fifth item. “The muscular Negro minds his own business and shrewdly makes no effort to push himself,” Daley wrote in words that were acceptable in that time period. “He speaks quietly and intelligently when spoken to and already has made a strong impression.”
Daley continued with a quote from Robinson: “ ‘I was nervous in the first play of my first game at Ebbets Field,’ he said with his ready grin, ‘but nothing has bothered me since.’ ”
Daley quoted an anonymous Dodger saying that having Robinson on the team “was a little strange, just like anything else that is new. We just don’t know how to act with him. But he will be accepted in time.”
Added Daley, “And that seems to be the general opinion.”
But it wasn’t.
Robinson would be tested many times, especially in the early part of his 10-year career with the Dodgers.
Carl Erskine, 90, Robinson’s teammate from 1948-56, recalled hearing about the 1947 game in Philadelphia in which Phillies manager Ben Chapman led relentless, nasty racial heckling of Robinson and had his pitchers throw at him.
“Mr. Rickey wanted a guy who was tough enough to fight” but “he coached him enough not to fight,” Erskine said. “Mr. Rickey called segregation a bully.’’
Eventually, the Phillies decided that antagonizing Robinson made him a tougher out. Chapman and Robinson later posed for a well-publicized photo in which they held the same bat but never touched flesh.
There were many other taunts at many other ballparks. While Robinson absorbed them in public, Rickey’s family attempted to shield him from bags of disturbing mail.
“My grandmother was at home receiving hate mail which she systematically kept her husband from finding out about,’’ Branch Barrett Rickey said.
SOCIAL CHANGE AND PENNANTS
Though the plight of black players such as Thomas served as motivation for Rickey, he also believed that black players could help the Dodgers win, his grandson said.
Before the end of World War II, Rickey, a part-owner, brought the idea to the Dodgers’ other owners: Walter O’Malley, John L. Smith and James Mulvey. “He says to those three partners, we’re going to make Brooklyn a better club. He did not argue to them that he is going to address a social ill,’’ Rickey’s grandson said.
In 1946, baseball owners voted 15-1 against “allowing Negroes to come to the major leagues,’’ the grandson said.
His grandfather? “He defied it.”
The stakes now were even higher for Branch Rickey.
“He knew he was on the precipice of a disaster,’’ the grandson said. “This could be an experiment that could end up setting the cause back 20 years more. He’s headed for the edge of the world to sail right off unless it goes right.”
It went right. In 1947, the Dodgers won their first National League pennant since 1941 and Robinson was voted Rookie of the Year. Rickey later signed Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, among other black players, and the Dodgers won pennants in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956. In 1955, Brooklyn earned its only World Series championship, beating the Yankees.
Thanks to Robinson and Rickey, baseball awakened to other young African-American stars such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks as well as Negro League veteran Larry Doby, who broke the American League color barrier on July 5, 1947, as a member of the Cleveland Indians.
Mays, 85, said he still was in high school when Robinson made his debut.
“The three great hitters I knew about from the headlines in Birmingham were [Joe] DiMaggio, [Ted] Williams and [Stan] Musial,” Mays told Newsday correspondent Art Spander this past week at the San Francisco Giants’ training camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Then Jackie came along. The Big Three became the Big Four.”
Until Jackie, Mays said, he could hope to play only in the Negro Leagues. “But Jackie and then Larry Doby — people forget him — made it and changed everything.”
Rickey, who died in 1965, never sought acclaim for bringing a black player to the majors, his grandson said.
“My grandfather did not believe he deserved credit for righting a wrong,’’ Rickey said. “Everybody knows it was Jackie’s impeccable character and Jackie’s resiliency and Jackie’s extraordinary ability to overcome his own desire to fight back. My grandfather didn’t break the barrier; he shattered the myth that blacks were not capable, competent, able.’’
No less important to Rickey was that Thomas, his once-forlorn college player, went on to become one of the first black dentists in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
n Jackie Robinson retired after the 1956 season rather than accept a trade to the New York Giants. His career numbers over 1,382 major games: .311 batting average, 137 home runs, 54 triples, 197 stolen bases.
n Robinson had been an advocate for civil rights long before joining the Dodgers — as an Army lieutenant in 1944, he refused to move to the back of a bus and was court-martialed — and continued after his baseball days.
n Jackie Robinson’s daughter Sharon Robinson, 67, said he “was not someone who accepted the injustice, but what he showed is how much strength of character he had to realize that in order to change — whether it was baseball, our schools or whatever we had to do and where to get people opportunity in this country — it required him not to strike back with words or fists. His strategic ballplaying, his aggressive ballplaying, that’s how he lashed out.”
n Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He was the first African-American player so honored. Rickey was inducted in 1967.
n Robinson, who died in 1972, remained close with Rickey. “They communicated via letters and phone,’’ Sharon Robinson said. “It was timing and opportunity that put these two men together. My dad was a very humble man. I think he would be quite amazed that his legacy has not only survived but has grown and developed.’’
n The Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops basketball team plays its home games in Branch Rickey Arena, opened in 1976.
Seeing that Sunday is Academy Awards night, five movies about Jackie Robinson:
THE JACKIE ROBINSON STORY
Jackie Robinson as himself
Minor Watson as Branch Rickey
THE COURT MARTIAL OF JACKIE ROBINSON
Andre Braugher as Jackie Robinson
SOUL OF THE GAME
Blair Underwood as Jackie Robinson
Edward Herrmann as Branch Rickey
Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson
Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey
JACKIE ROBINSON I KEN BURNS AMERCA
Jamie Foxx as Jackie Robinson
Roosevelt Jackson, at 99 the oldest living player from the Negro Leagues, said playing in the majors seemed like an illusion until Jackie Robinson came along.
“I went to look for the rainbow and the more I went, the more it stayed away from me,’’ he said last week from Buena Vista, Georgia. “It seems that was just the way of life. For me, the grandson of slaves, that Jackie signed with a major league club, I’m still grateful and proud of it today.’’