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Patrick Walsh-Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

Jackie Robinson and the Question of “Why?”

My daughter’s bedtime story has always been a vignette recounted extempore by daddy. Lately, her frequent request has been to hear more about Jackie Robinson.

It’s good timing. As she finishes first grade, her moral sense has developed as noticeably as her reading and arithmetic; the kid’s on alert for injustice, though she often confronts the misdeeds and ignorance of the past with incredulity.

A child’s “why?”–the greatest question we ever ask–often requires a lot of explanation. And when you’re doing the explaining, you see how it’s hard for a child to get her mind around the notion that some people were not allowed to play a game (and the so-called National Pastime) simply because of their skin color.

When I told my daughter that 70 years ago, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson jogged out onto the Ebbets Field diamond with his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, she asked me why it was so important. I had to explain that for 60 years prior, African-Americans had been kept out of the Major Leagues.

“Why?” again, only this time with a vengeance.

To keep our pre-slumber installment a manageable size, I sometimes have to condense, so I said that there’s a lot of ugliness in the world, past and present, but Jackie Robinson’s story gives us hope because it’s filled with so many surprising examples of people who changed their views for the better.

These are some of the stories I tell my daughter.

Born the son of a Georgia sharecropper and the youngest of five, Jack Roosevelt Robinson nevertheless attended UCLA where he became the first student to earn a varsity letter in four different sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. He set a national record in the long jump.

When Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager, was a young man, he managed the baseball team at Ohio Wesleyan University. One time, when they were playing Notre Dame at South Bend, Indiana, Rickey took his team to check in at a hotel. Rickey’s best player was his catcher and good friend, Charles Thomas, who was black. When Thomas went to sign the hotel register, the clerk wouldn’t let him, saying we don’t allow blacks to sign in. Rickey asked the clerk if the player could simply stay in Rickey’s room without signing the register. The clerk grudgingly agreed. After Rickey had gotten his team settled in for the night, he went to his room and found Thomas sobbing, saying, “It’s my skin, my skin–if only I could make it white.” Rickey said he never forgot the sound of his friend sobbing and he resolved to do something about it one day. He did. And he and Thomas remained lifelong friends; Thomas eventually became a dentist in Albuquerque, New Mexico and whenever Rickey went there he’d have dinner with him.

Before Jackie debuted in Brooklyn, Branch Rickey had him play a season with the Montreal Royals, the minor league club one level below the Dodgers. Rickey wanted to be sure about Robinson’s playing skills, but he also thought Robinson would have an easier time entering organized white baseball in Canada, a country which, compared to America, had virtually no racial problems. Maybe it was easier, but resistance began in Jackie’s own dugout. The Royals manager, Clay Hopper, had been born in Mississippi and begged Rickey not to make him manage a black player, asking Rickey at one point: “Do you really think a nigger’s a human being?”

Jackie played his first game for Montreal at Jersey City on April 18, 1946. Technically, this game broke the Color Ban; the Negro Leagues were every bit as organized and professional as the Major Leagues, but now Robinson was a pro in organized white baseball. He got four hits, stole two bases, and scored two runs by making the opposing pitcher balk. His superb hitting, fielding, and baserunning helped the Royals win their league championship and then the Minor League World Series. And Clay Hopper now dubbed Robinson “a great ballplayer,” giving his unqualified recommendation that Robinson be promoted to the Dodgers for the 1947 season.

After enduring terrible psychological abuse in the minors, Jackie faced worse at the Big League level–and even before the season began. In spring training, Fred “Dixie” Walker, Eddie Stanky, and Bobby Bragan–three Dodgers all from Alabama–drew up a secret petition saying that they’d rather be traded than forced to play with a black teammate.

I’ll let legendary Dodgers radio announcer Red Barber recount the reaction to the petition by Brooklyn’s manager:

    [Leo] Durocher heard about that petition and he called a meeting and he really laid down the law. He said, in effect, well you know what you can do with that petition and also when Mr. Rickey gets here tomorrow, if some of you fellas don’t want to play with him [Robinson] Mr. Rickey will take care of it because he’s coming, he can play ball, and more than that, there are more black players coming after him, and you fellas better shape up.”

But it wasn’t the threat of getting a boot out of baseball from Leo the Lip that made things change among the Dodgers. It was seeing how well Jackie played, the horrible abuse he endured day after day, and how he wouldn’t be intimidated.

Once the Dodgers saw Jackie as a teammate, they saw him as a man.

During a game at Ebbets Field, the Phillies manager, Ben Chapman, continuously shouted viciously racist insults at Robinson. Eddie Stanky, who’d been one of the players to draft the petition against Robinson back in spring training, now stood up for his teammate, yelling back at Chapman, “Why don’t you pick on someone who can answer back?”

Fair play and humanity rose above prejudice in Eddie Stanky. It was a pivotal moment for all the Dodgers.

And then there was Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers Hall of Fame shortstop. Though Reese hailed from Kentucky (and, apropos his Bluegrass State origins, was also known as “the little colonel”), he had none of the racial prejudice of many of his fellow Southern teammates. Reese refused to sign the secret petition in spring training. When asked by a sportswriter if he was worried about Robinson taking his job at shortstop, Reese responded: “If he can take my job, he’s entitled to it.” To our modern ears, it’s difficult to hear just how courageous that reply was in 1947.


The greatest story about Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson concerns a gesture. It occurred on the first Dodgers road trip in Jackie’s rookie year. In mid-May, the Dodgers were playing the Reds at Crosley Field in Cincinnati–just across the river from Kentucky, Reese’s home state. The fans were showering slurs down on Robinson when Reese called “time!” Then he walked over to Robinson at first base, seemingly to talk strategy as infielders often do. As he talked with Robinson he put his arm around him–something players also do when they’re talking on the field. But Reese kept his arm around Robinson until the crowd quieted down. It sent a message loud and clear. Once more, Reese packed tremendous courage and decency into a simple gesture. 

Like he did in Montreal, Robinson tore it up in the Bigs. He led the league in stolen bases, led his team in home runs, and, most importantly, led the Dodgers to the National League pennant and the 1947 World Series. Jackie was voted Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News, the same publication which had opposed baseball’s integration just a few years prior.

At the end of the season, “Dixie” Walker said: “No other ballplayer on this club has done more to put the Dodgers up in the race as Robinson has. He is everything Branch Rickey said he was.” Later in his life, Walker told the baseball writer Roger Kahn that starting the petition and asking to be traded was “the stupidest thing he’d ever done.” Bobby Bragan was quickly and lastingly changed by the experience of being Robinson’s teammate. In a 2005 interview, he said, “After just one road trip, I saw the quality of Jackie the man and the player.” When Branch Rickey died in 1965, Bragan served as a pallbearer. With great humility, Bragan said he was there because “Branch Rickey made me a better man.”

Throughout its ballparks, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson’s historic debut. Certainly it’s a day worth celebrating but only because of 60 years of institutionalized bigotry . . . by Major League Baseball.

Speaking in Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary, the late Mario Cuomo, former New York governor and a professional baseball player himself (signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates), keenly observed the tragedy of the Color Ban and Major League Baseball’s subsequent sanctimony:

    Too late. It was a wonderful moment when it happened, but when I think of it, you know, it brings pain too. It was a great triumph and Branch Rickey, Branch Rickey was a great, great leader in the society but why, why did it take all those years? Why should it have been such a big event? Why weren’t we capable of better? How could you possibly say that they were less than we were? Didn’t we put that behind us in the Civil War? Why wasn’t the question settled?

“Why?” That’s the same question my daughter asks. When the answer seems unbearably arbitrary, intolerably cruel, we can turn to the stories of Jackie Robinson for hope.

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Patrick Walsh served four years as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. His articles and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers both here and abroad.
More at his Website:
He is a columnist and Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2017 Patrick Walsh
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine




May 2017

Volume 17 Issue 12

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