JACKIE ROBINSON

Number 42. Does that have any special meaning for you, or is it just another number? Baseball fans, civil rights advocates, and students of history will recognize it as the uniform number worn by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It should be noted that that uniform number has two other major significances:

1. It is the only number to have been retired by every major league baseball team (in 1997); and
2. as has been customary since 2004, every year on April 15 on what is known as “Jackie Robinson Day,” every player wears that number on his uniform in tribute to Jackie Robinson in recognition of the anniversary of his debut in the major leagues in 1947.  On that historic date Jackie became the first African American to play in the major leagues since the 1880s. Any team not playing a game on April 15 will celebrate on the 16th.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Jackie’s debut and the Dodgers’ and MLB’s celebrations will feature a few changes, such as:

  1. Regardless of their team colors all teams’ # 42 jerseys will be in “Dodger Blue.”
  2. The Dodgers are planning to mark the date with various additional ceremonies, events, and fund-raisers at various venues such as John Muir High School in Pasadena, which Jackie attended in the 1930s.
  3. The first 40,000 fans attending the Dodgers-Reds game on April 15th will receive special commemorative gifts.
  4. There will be additional commemorative ceremonies at this year’s All-Star game on July 19, which will be hosted by the Dodgers and which coincides with Rachel Robinson’s 100th birthday.

In order to put this in its proper perspective one must realize the racial situation in 1947. Life was radically different, a reality that few of us who live in the PC era can appreciate.  Much has changed in the intervening 75 years.

For example:

1. Segregation was the law of the land. “Jim Crow” was alive and well.
The “Brown” Supreme Court decision integrating public schools would not come until 1954.
2. Even though many AAs had distinguished themselves during WWII the armed forces would not be integrated until 1948.
3. A disproportionate percentage of MLB players were from the South and espoused all the values, attitudes and experiences of the region regarding AAs.  Most of them had never played ball with an AA.  Many had rarely even associated with one as peers.
4. The prevailing attitude among players, sportswriters, and fans was that AAs were not good enough and did not have the “temperament” to succeed in MLB.

Very few of us lived through that era, and consequently, we cannot imagine the circumstances Jackie had to overcome.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia.  His parents chose his middle name in honor of President Teddy Roosevelt, who had recently died.  He was the youngest of five children.  One of his older brothers, Mack, would later earn some notoriety by winning the silver medal in the 100 meter dash in the 1936 Olympics, (the Games held in Berlin at which Jesse Owens embarrassed Adolph Hitler and the Nazis by winning four gold medals).

Jackie’s parents were sharecroppers and barely scraping by, so in 1920 they moved to Pasadena, California seeking a better life.  In high school and college Jackie excelled in five sports – baseball, basketball, football, track and tennis.  Basically, he was an all-around athlete who excelled in any sport he tried.  At UCLA he became the school’s first athlete to “letter” in four sports (all of the above except tennis).  One of his teammates on the 1939 UCLA football team was the future actor, Woody Strode.  Ironically, statistically, at least, baseball was his worst sport of the four.

In 1941 Jackie left UCLA just shy of graduating to play semi-pro football, but in early 1942 he was drafted and stationed at Fort Riley in Texas.  He applied for admission to OCS. Initially, his application was rejected as few blacks were accepted at the time, but following a personal appeal from Joe Louis, the reigning heavyweight boxing champ, he was accepted.

Jackie’s tenure in the army was marred by one unfortunate incident in which his fiery temperament got him in trouble.  While riding on an Army bus one day the driver told him to move to the back.  Jackie refused.  As a result he was nearly court-martialed for insubordination and other “trumped up” offenses.  A conviction would have changed the course of his life and, possibly, the country’s as well, but he was acquitted.

In 1945 Jackie signed to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Unbeknownst to him, Branch Rickey, President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was looking for a Negro to break the major leagues’ “color barrier,” which had been in place since the 1880s.  He had compiled a list of the best players in the Negro leagues and was evaluating them for suitability.  There were many players better than Jackie, notably Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, but due to age, temperament and other factors, they were all eliminated in favor of Jackie.

Rickey knew the first AA player would have to “turn the other cheek” to a great deal of verbal, physical and emotional abuse.  Otherwise, it might be many more years before the next one got a chance.  When he told Jackie this, Jackie was shocked and replied: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey’s famous reply was that he was seeking a Negro “with guts enough not to fight back.”

To make a long story short, Rickey signed Jackie.  He played for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers AAA minor league affiliate in the International League, in 1946.  He “tore up” the league, winning the MVP award.  The next year he made his debut in the major leagues.

To me, his debut was one of the most significant events not only in baseball history, but also in the country’s history.  There was tremendous resistance not only from other Dodgers, but from players on other teams as well.

Again, it is very hard for us to appreciate the level of abuse to which Jackie was subjected. Breaking into the major leagues is hard enough, physically. The added mental and emotional pressures Jackie and other AAs had to overcome was mind-boggling. Jackie had to endure a tremendous amount of prejudice and abuse both on and off the field (name calling, spiking, “beanings,” separate lodgings and restaurants on the road, etc.  Eventually, other AAs would join him in the majors. They had to overcome many of the same obstacles.  Some were unable to survive, but many more did.

Luckily, Dodger management was behind Jackie 100%.  When some Dodgers players threatened to quit, strike or demand a trade, the team’s manager, Leo Durocher, a fiery, no nonsense person himself, nipped the rebellion in the bud.  He declared: “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f****** zebra.  I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.”  Players on other teams also threatened to strike, but MLB Commissioner “Happy” Chandler quelled that rebellion quickly as well.

CONCLUSION

Rickey chose well with Jackie.  In baseball parlance, he “knocked it out of the park.”  Attendance soared and not just in Brooklyn but in every other city as well. Black people came in droves to see their hero, Jackie Robinson, play.  In those days, attendance was the primary source of ball clubs’ revenue, so Jackie made money for everyone.

Not only did Jackie “take” all the abuse without incident, he starred on the field and became an integral part of one of the most storied teams in baseball history, the “Boys of Summer.”  In a ten-year period from 1947-1956 that team dominated the National League.

It won six pennants, lost another in a playoff and lost another by one game.

Among Jackie’s many MLB accomplishments:

1. Rookie of the year in 1947 (the first one).
2. National League MVP in 1949.
3. Appeared in six World Series.
4. World champion in 1955.
5. First ballot hall of famer in 1962.
6. Member of the MLB All-Century team.

Jackie was extremely versatile,  Although he came up as a second baseman, he also played first, third and the outfield.  Many times, he was among the league leaders in fielding at his position.  He was one of the best “clutch” players I have ever observed.  He could beat you with the bat, the glove or on the bases.  I have never seen a better baserunner or a tougher competitor.  When on base, he would drive the opposing pitcher crazy with his antics.  He was always a threat to steal a base.  I saw him steal home in the 1955 World Series.  When caught in a rundown he often escaped, which, generally, was a rarity.  His aggressive style of play was unique for the 1940s and 1950s.

As an example of his extremely competitive nature, one story will suffice.  In the decisive third game of the 1951 playoff with the NY Giants, when the Giants’ Bobby Thompson hit the pennant-winning home (dubbed: “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”) all the Dodgers left the field immediately with their heads down in defeat.  All except for Jackie.  He watched and made sure that Thompson touched all the bases on his home run trot.  He would not accept defeat until Thompson had completed his circuit.

Jackie retired from baseball after the 1956 season worn down by age and diabetes, but he did not retire from life.  For example, he became very active in the civil rights movement; he became the first black to serve as vp of a major corporation (Chock Full O’Nuts); he went into broadcasting; and he acted in a movie of his own life story.

Ultimately, however, his fierce competitiveness could not overcome ill health.  Jackie died on October 24, 1972 at the relatively young age of 53 from complications of heart disease and diabetes.  I’m sure that all the stress he had to endure on the playing field also contributed to his early demise.

Jackie’s legacy, however, lives on.  There are countless statues, schools, parks and roads named in his honor.  Moreover, every time a black or other minority takes the field in the major leagues, the NFL or the NBA, he owes a debt to the pioneer who made it all possible.

So, tomorrow, while watching your favorite team in action take a moment to appreciate the special achievement of one Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

Advertisement

OPENING DAY

Today is April 7, and after a long winter of cold, rain, economic turmoil, war, COVID issues, and a lock-out by the owners, today will mark the start of the 2022 baseball season, aka OPENING DAY. Finally! This is the latest OD in many years, and for a while it appeared as though the season would be delayed considerably further, but finally the adults in the room hammered out a deal. Some fans blamed the players for the delay; others blamed the owners; still others blamed both sides. Most fans just wanted a settlement and baseball. As we know sports are a healthy diversion, especially in times such as now.

Twelve teams will commence playing today; others will begin tomorrow. And, of course “Mother Nature” may force further delays. As I write this, I am aware of two games that have already been postponed due to inclement weather. Typically, many early season (and late season) games are played in weather more suitable for football. Why? We know why – M O N E Y. If MLB persists in playing games in March, April and November why doesn’t it mandate domed stadiums in cold weather locales? Probably, too logical for the Lords of Baseball.

In some years MLB has scheduled “pre-opening” games before the official OD. The initial “pre-opener” was played in 1999 in Monterey, Mexico. Other “pre-openers” have been played in San Juan, Sydney and, most recently, in Tokyo. Opening in these distant locales may be inconvenient for the players, but MLB does it to broaden the exposure and appeal of the game. Indeed, MLB rosters are chock full of players from countries such as the Caribbean, Central America, South America and Asia. According to MLB 28% of MLB players are foreign-born.

MLB does not consider these “pre-openers” to mark the official start of the season. It has always considered OD to be the first date when a full slate of games was scheduled. Got it?

For many years, MLB had scheduled the very first game of the season in Cincinnati, usually on the first Monday in April, with a full slate of games the next day. This was in recognition of the fact that the Reds were the first professional baseball team. In fact, the Reds are the only team that has always been scheduled to play its first game at home. There have only been three years when they opened on the road – 1966, when the home opener was rained out,1990 when the season was delayed due to a lockout, and this year again due to a lockout. The team was formed in 1869 as the Red Stockings. It has undergone various name changes and is now known as the “Reds.” Incidentally, for you trivia buffs, they went 65-0 that first year, the only perfect season in baseball history.

The National League was organized in 1876, and the American League in 1901. For many years there were 16 teams – eight teams in each league, all in the northeast, with no team being located west of St. Louis. With the advent of air travel in the late 1950s it became feasible to add franchises in other sectors of the country. Presently, there are 30 teams – 15 in each league.

This year the Cleveland Indians will be known as the “Guardians.” This continues the ill-advised trend, in my view, to eliminate “inoffensive” and “insensitive names,” which are objectionable to a small but vocal group of people. I think this is a bigge r issue with the “woke” crowd than with indigenous people, but these are the times in which we live.

Despite the often inclement weather, OD holds a special meaning. Mention those words to any sports fan, and, immediately, he knows what it means and to which sport it pertains. Not football, not basketball, not hockey. OD means that another season of Major League Baseball is beginning. Baseball fans look forward to OD every year. Local newspapers step up their coverage of the local team in anticipation. Many of them even print a daily countdown of the number of days remaining until OD. In addition, OD occurs in the Spring, a season that symbolizes a new beginning and one which most people anticipate every year.

Most fans will acknowledge that baseball is no longer the most popular sport. In fact, according to TV ratings, betting interest and most fan polls, football has superseded baseball. Perhaps, basketball has as well, particularly among younger fans. However, baseball, which has been played in the US in some form since the 1840s, is part of the social fabric of America.

Most men remember their first game of “catch” with their father or their first baseball game. For most boys it is a “rite of passage” as uniquely American as the flag. In fact, I have a more detailed recall of a World Series game I saw with my father in 1956 than I do of ballgames I saw last year.

Every fan is optimistic on OD. Every team starts with the same 0-0 record. None has lost a game yet. Every team still has a chance to make the playoffs, and as we have seen in recent years, once you make the playoffs anything can happen. For example, in 2016 the Chicago Cubs won it all for the first time since 1908. Think about that for a minute. That means that no present Cubs fan, and virtually none of their fathers, were even born the previous time the Cubs had won. In 2017 the Houston Astros won their first WS after having languished near the bottom of the league for many years. Unlike other sports, very often the team with the best regular season record does not win the World Series or even get there. Several wild card teams have actually won the World Series, most recently, the Washington Nationals, in 2019.

Many fans, and even some reporters, place undue emphasis on the opener forgetting or ignoring the fact that the season consists of 162 games. Over the course of a baseball season even the best teams will lose approximately 60 games. To many fans, a win OD means the season will be outstanding; a loss means the team “stinks.”

Down through the years, OD has produced some memorable events, such as:

1. In 1907, the NY Giants, forerunner of the San Francisco Giants, forfeited the opener after rowdy fans began throwing snowballs at the players and umpires. There were not enough police on hand to restore order, so the umpires forfeited the game to the visiting Phillies.
2. In 1910 President Taft became the first President to throw out the “first ball.” In 1950 President Truman threw out the “first pitch” twice, as a righty and a lefty. Over the years nearly every president has done so, and the practice has evolved from a perfunctory toss from the stands to a more elaborate ceremonial toss from the mound. Will we see President Biden follow tradition this year? Your guess is as good as mine, but I doubt it. Can you imagine him doing the “wave?”
3. In 1940, Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, known as “Rapid Robert” because of his high velocity fast ball, threw the only OD day no-hitter in baseball history. As an aside, there were no radar guns in Feller’s day, so one day some officials attempted to “time” his fastball by having him throw a pitch against a speeding motorcycle.
4. In 1947 Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on OD becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues since the 19th Century.
5. In 1975 Frank Robinson became the first African American to manage in the Major Leagues. Later, he became the first AA manager to be “fired.”
6. In 1996, John McSherry, an umpire, suffered a fatal heart attack near home plate.
7. Early in the 20th Century teams would, on occasion, open with a doubleheader. Doubleheaders used to be quite common, particularly on Sundays and holidays. Now, they are rare, and when they do occur it is usually the result of adding an extra game to make up for a rain-out. The reason? Money, of course.
8. In 1946 Boston Braves fans attending the game got an unpleasant surprise. It seems that the Braves’ management had had the stands freshly painted, and the paint had not completely dried. Many fans got red paint all over their clothes. The embarrassed management issued a public apology and paid the fans’ cleaning bills.
9. Tom Seaver started the most openers – 16. Walter Johnson pitched the most OD shutouts – nine, including a 1-0 victory in which he pitched 15 innings. No chance of that happening today.
10. In 1974 Henry Aaron clouted his 714th homerun tying Babe Ruth’s all-time record for career homers.
11. In 1968 minor leaguer Greg Washburn became the only pitcher to appear in two OD games in the same year. (He won both 2-0).

12. Some of the individual OD records we may see broken today are most home runs (3), most hits (5) most RBIs (7) and most strikeouts (15). Maybe, we will see another no-hitter, although the way the game is played today any no-hitter would be a group effort.

CONCLUSION

As I said, weather is often an issue on OD, especially in the northern cities where it is not unusual to have cold, damp, rainy weather in early April that is more suitable to football than baseball. It reminds me of one of the major criticisms of baseball, that the season is too long. We all know the reason – tv money. The owners like it, because it makes them rich and less dependent on attendance for revenues. The players tolerate it, because it fuels their astronomic salaries. As for the fans, well, they will just have to grin and bear it.

Hall of Fame pitcher, Early Wynn summed up the essence of OD thusly: “An opener is not like any other game. You have that anxiety to get off to a good start, for yourself and for the team. You know that when you win the first one you can’t lose them all.” Joe DiMaggio, always looked forward to OD. He felt “you think something wonderful is going to happen.” Finally, I am reminded of that renowned philosopher Yogi Berra, who could turn a phrase with the best of them, who is reputed to have said: “A home opener is always exciting, no matter if it’s home or on the road.”

So, which teams will reach the World Series? Which team will win? Most of the “experts” that I have heard are predicting the Dodgers will defeat the Chicago White Sox. I think the Dodgers have the best team on paper, but, as we all know, the games are played on the field, not on paper. I think the TV networks would like to see a Dodgers-Yankees Series. I think that would generate the most interest and the highest TV ratings. They used to meet on what seemed like a regular basis back in the 1950s, but they have not met since 1981.

What is your favorite OD memory? Please share.

PLAY BALL!