I have not seen the new film about Jackie Robinson, “42.” Robinson actually played himself in the 1950 movie “The Jackie Robinson Story.” I saw that one. I tried to watch everything he did back then.
I was a 9-year-old kid when Robinson broke the color line in baseball. On April 15, 1947 when Branch Rickey decided for reasons — in part money, in part the need to compete in the National League, and in part maybe the kindness of his Christian heart — to bring Robinson to the big leagues, I had just fallen in love with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Don’t ask me why Brooklyn when I was a kid living in South Philadelphia. Affairs of the heart are never easy to explain, but this one lasted until Robinson died at age 53 blind and ravaged by diabetes.
I don’t think most kids that age understood the implications of Robinson becoming the first African-American to play in the big leagues. Sure, we were most certainly aware of the color line. I knew whites and blacks lived on different streets and were, on a social level, invisible to one another. As my obsession with the Dodgers grew deeper, I became alert to the great racial divide that not only separated the North and South, but also our own neighborhoods.
Back in those days, the Phillies played at Shibe Park, 21st and Lehigh streets. The Phillies became the darlings of the City by winning the pennant in 1950, but then slowly descended back into mediocrity. The biggest crowds at Shibe were when Robinson and the Dodgers came to town.
After Jackie was a huge success, the Dodgers quickly followed by bringing up other black players including Philadelphian Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Dan Bankhead. Some other teams like the Indians, Giants and Braves began bringing black players to the Major Leagues. Black fans all over in Philadelphia responded by coming out in droves to the park to see their stars in action. The Phillies would not add any black players to their roster until 10 years later, a fact that in retrospect doomed the team for a decade.
As the years went by, I saw many games at Shibe (later Connie Mack Stadium), most of them were when Brooklyn came to town. The atmosphere at the ballpark was much different than it is today. Then it was mostly a working-class crowd. There were no giveaways. Black and white fans coexisted peacefully. Philadelphia was racially divided, but not at the old ballpark.
Dodgers and Phillies fans ribbed one another good naturedly during the games. It was as if there were an understanding that racial hostilities stopped when you entered the ballpark. Baseball was divided into two eight-team leagues. As famed sportswriter Red Smith described them, the post-1950 Phillies were part of the “great middle class” of the National League, but still played the Dodgers tough.
It was impossible to take your eyes off Robinson during a game back then. He would do anything to win. When he got on base, he would lead away from the bag with his odd, pigeon-toed walk. Once on base, he would dance off of the base distracting the opposing pitcher while Dodgers’ fans cheered in anticipation.
The racial ugliness Robinson experienced away from the baseball diamond, such as the Benjamin Franklin Hotel refusing him admittance, was mostly unknown to me. There was no 24-hour sports coverage that would have helped me to understand the vicious response to Robinson’s pioneering effort to play major league baseball. I’m not saying there was easy acceptance around white street corners and barbershops in my neighborhood and others. The N-word was used routinely in describing Robinson and the other black players who were coming to the big leagues in increasing numbers. Jackie was no hero in the white community in which I lived. There was an unwritten quota system. No club, not even Rickey’s Dodgers, would field an all black team.
It took me years to realize the life lesson that Robinson taught me. When you root for a team, you fall in love with its players. At least I did. Skin color vanishes and in its place all one sees is his or her heroes, an extended family. It was a lesson I carried with me all of my life It has helped me to get over my own biases, understand the Civil Rights movement and what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to accomplish.
Robinson held his temper on the playing field, but answered back with his in-your-face style of play on the field. But maybe all that internalizing his feelings is what finally got Jackie. He aged quickly, grew fat and old before his time. Robinson quit baseball at the end of ’56 rather than face embarrassment after being traded to the rival Giants.
Even after baseball, Jackie remained in the eye of the storm. He was roundly criticized by both African-Americans and white liberals for supporting Richard Nixon for the presidency in 1960 against John F. Kennedy. Eventually Jackie felt uncomfortable among conservatives who felt that he was too outspoken on matters of race. He left the Republican Party and became a champion of the Civil Rights movement.
To me, Jackie Robinson was like a fire in the sky.
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