Sunday, April 15, 2007

Thanks, Jackie And All His Fellow Pioneers

The great Yogi Berra once said upon receiving an honor, "Thanks for making this necessary."

Today, Jackie Robinson was honored by Major League Baseball as it said thank-you. Not just to a brave pioneer, but to all those who 60 years ago combined like minds and an uncommon courage to help expunge Jim Crow from their playing fields.

Jackie and Rachel Robinson and an equally magnificent supporting cast gave this nation a peek at what was possible and helped start another, more transcendent, revolution called the Civil Rights era.

So, thank you, Branch Rickey for making today a necessary occasion in which major-league players wore No.42 just as Jackie Robinson did on April 15, 1947, when he debuted with your Brooklyn Dodgers. The Phillies and Astros, to a man, would have been among them were it not for the rains that washed away their game.

Not only did you defy many of your fellow club owners by bringing a black man to the majors, Mr. Rickey, you defied an era.

"Our country, our culture, sadly, was way back in the dark ages in 1947," reminded Branch Rickey III, president of the Pacific Coast League and grandson of the late Dodgers owner.

"Our cultural misunderstandings and our prejudices were so much more extreme then, and civil rights was not even a phrase," he continued. "The idea of a black breaking into baseball was going to be opposed broadly.

"It was going to be a question of whether my grandfather could survive with his reputation intact."

Branch Rickey, history shows, did survive. It also strongly suggests that neither Rickey nor Robinson could have done so alone.

Fortunately, they did not have to.

So, thank-you, too, Happy Chandler, because when some players threatened a boycott if Robinson played, you, then the commissioner of baseball, threatened to show the conspirators the door. Even more ominously, you vowed to close it to them forever.

Boycott, dead on arrival.

Archive photo of Jackie Robinson. Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Photos by Charles Fox

Stan Musial? As the centerpiece of the 1947 St. Louis Cardinals, you let one of the game's more rebellious clubs know that you would play because integration was not something that you - Stan the Man - would stoop to try to stop.

Then there was you, Bill Veeck, the Cleveland Indians owner who integrated the American League on July 5, 1947, by purchasing the contract of the talented Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles.

Like Branch Rickey, you proved time and again that your brilliant baseball mind was not limited to marketing and promotion advances - though the exploding scoreboard does remain a marvel.
Your plot to buy the Phillies in 1942 and fill the roster with the Negro Leagues all-stars may have been foiled by then-commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis years before. But no one could stop you from closely following Rickey's lead.

Once done, you, Bill Veeck, knew that the less-heralded Doby was, in many ways, in an even more thankless position than Robinson. For the junior circuit was far more reluctant to integrate than its National League counterpart. And often the only commiseration Larry Doby could find came from family, his friend Jackie Robinson - and you.

You sensed when Doby was at his loneliest and you swooped in, sharing your love of jazz, your enthusiasm - and your vision of what could be.
Other gestures, no matter how small, were also like nectar to the pioneers.

Dodgers shortstop and unquestioned team leader Pee Wee Reese (right, with Jackie Robinson and Preacher Roe, following Game 3 victory over the Yankees in the 1952 World Series _ Associated Press), you quelled palpable unrest in Cincinnati when Robinson made his first appearance there.

The Queen City, after all, considered you, a son of neighboring Kentucky, one of its own, and your presence counted in that gateway to the South. So when you walked over to Robinson during pregame practice and draped an arm around the hectored and shaken rookie's shoulders, you quieted a crowd that bordered on a mob. And the photos of your doing so - transmitted around the world - were etched indelibly in sports history.

Joe Gordon? With one sentence - "Hey kid, want to have a catch?" - you let Larry Doby, your new Indians teammate, know that the daily rituals of a game not only might include him, but would.

Decades later, Doby would get emotional recalling the relief he felt when he heard this one simple, universal baseball paean come from your lips. For, until it did, Larry Doby said he honestly did not know if he'd ever be able to play if he were not even permitted to warm up.

And you, Ted Williams? Your gift in 1947 was a welcoming handshake extended to Doby the first time your Red Sox met his Indians.

Larry Doby, of course, knew of your fame. Who in baseball did not know The Splendid Splinter? But to know that you knew of him - and appreciated his presence - and welcomed him to your league meant the world to Larry Doby.

At that moment, a fellow major-leaguer felt like a peer. And that peer eventually went on to
become your fellow Hall of Famer - just as did Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese, Mr. Rickey, Bill Veeck - and Jackie Robinson.

This was the confluence of talent, goodwill and generosity that made April 15, 1947, and what it launched vital. As vital as today's nationwide celebrations - and thank-yous - were necessary.


M said...

A moving tribute on the occasion of a great celebration. Beautiful writing. Now I need to go find a tissue.

Anthony said...

Nicely done, Claire. I did a post on Saturday.

I enjoyed the ESPN telecast Sunday night, but not so much for the game. Frankly, I could have done with less of the game and more of Rachel, Frank and Henry. Those stories need to be re-told as much as possible.

Joe said...

FYI - the Bill Veeck story about stocking the Phillies with Negro League stars has been soundly debunked as puffery on Veeck's part. I think the story actually ran in the Inquirer. There is a collection of Phillies stories in a book published by the Temple U Press that had the article in it.

David J. Fahey said...

Great commentary, certainly Jackie Robinson deserves tremendous credit and accolades for his courage and on-going strength to deal with, what I can imagine seemed like hell on many days. As you point out in today’s paper, all people are not bigoted and racist, even in 1947, and it was very good to read some of the examples of those who led with their goodness.

George Strachan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Roger Zepernick said...

[TEXT]When I read the first page of Claire Smith’s article I decided to write to you if you didn’t mention Larry Doby.
By the time I finished the inside page it was clear I had to write to you to thank you for the best presentation I have read in a sports section regarding Mr. Doby's presence in the American League in 1947.
Until the last couple of days I had also not realized the clear position taken by Ted Williams during those important days.
I was a 6 year old Cleveland fan in 1948 when the Indians won the World Series with Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. That must of had a positive impact on my generation, especially those of us from Northern Ohio.
Thanks so much for the very interesting article.

George Strachan said...

A great column today. I am too young to remember Jackie Robinson breaking into baseball but old enough to remember him at the tail end of his career.My Dad,a life long Giant's fan, only grudgingly accepted any Dodgers but the trade of Jackie to the Giants was a different story. This was more than just any Dodger. This was a “man's man,” the highest praise we gave in our house in the 50's. Fortunately we have broadened our respect to include accomplished women since then as well.
The story of Jackie and Branch Rickey is some times all you hear about the breaking of the color barrier and I was pleased to see you include others that were positive players in the battle.Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe Gordon and Pee Wee Reese showed greatness in ways not displayed in illustrious statistics but in character. A trait that I am sure they were proud to share with Jackie and Larry Doby.
It surely would have been ironic if Bill Veeck had been successful in his bid to integrate baseball by buying the Phillies considering their slowness to finally sign a black player, John Kennedy. Happily we can celebrate in 2007 the presence of Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard as leaders and players of unquestioned star quality.
It is refreshing to read a column that speaks so positively of athletes even though you had to go back a few decades to find them.Perhaps Jackie Robinson brought out the best in them.

James Boehm said...

Ma'me, I'm a 58 yr old life long Phillies fan and never knew of Bill Veeck's 1942 intentions. Your article was one of, if not the best I read concerning "Jackie Robinson" day. How ironic the Phillies didn't participate. As you well know, Phillies management during our youth was one of the more racist in the league. When the great Dick (don't call me Richie) Allen won Rookie of the Year honors in 1964 if memory serves me, he was one of two black players on the team. And, I always believed racism more than any other factor caused his departure. It was so bad in Philly Curt Flood refused to report.

Had Bill Veeck tried his great idea a decade later and pulled it off, my team would have added many more happier seasons to my childhood and, most likely, a few pennants! How would Josh Gibson look in red pinstripes? Dick Allen is still my favorite Phillie. I missed his 1966 season. Baseball news was slow to reach the Gulf of Tonkin but, his 1972 season validated my vision of his greatness. To this day I stand by the fact that no one could hit them further than #15. The parking lot attendant outside old Connie Mack stadium had a collection of Allen's home run balls that landed in his lot.

Joe Morgan mentioned that todays players aren't familiar with the old Jim Crow laws of the south. I'm not certain he's accurate. Certainly our Ryan Howard knows. I'd like to believe we've progressed as far as Joe intimated but have my doubts.

The excitment this season promised has been replaced by the usual Phillies collapse. I pray they can turn it around. Thanks for the great article.

Jim Jourdan said...

Your column today, April 16th, was a delight to read.

The Robinson story is indeed worth remembering…each year, each month, each day. It is impossible for me to fully comprehend the courage necessary to do what he did. His was a heroic story. One of accomplishment. Uplifting and good.

Why then do most journalists detail the ugliness Jackie encountered, and vomit a plethora of bigots to illustrate man’s inhumanity.

You looked for the bright lights. The positive. The good. I like your outlook.

Ed McGinn said...

Your column today citing white players who stepped up to help Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby when they were breaking in was a pleasure to read. The Pee Wee Reese incident has been well documented. However, it is a feel good story every time I read it.
I did not know about how Stan Musial, Joe Gordon and Ted Williams played a part until I read you column. Thanks for sharing.

John A. Schwartz said...

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your article about Jackie Robinson and all the support he had.
That article is the best baseball story I have ever read and I would say your best. It was a brief history lesson about Jackie and Larry Doby. When you started writing about Larry, it brought tears to my eyes. And that's hard to do to a 52 year old war vet.
I usually only read your football articles but now your my number one baseball writer. Keep up the good work. I'm looking forward to reading your articles this baseball season...they should hold me over until football starts.

NJ Bob said...

Claire - - I am just catching up on this blog. You are an amazing writer. Beyond amazing. Whoever encouraged you to write (you can write anything, I am convinced) did all of us a good turn. Thanks for helping me feel better about Musial, Williams and Veeck.
NJ Bob