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Leadoff Man

Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy

by Jules Tygiel

(Oxford University Press, 344 pp., $16.95)

Much has happened since I had a late luncheon with Branch Rickey at Joe's Restaurant in the Borough Hall section of downtown Brooklyn, in March of 1945. After we had ordered and the waiter left, Rickey told me in strict confidence, "I don't know who he is, or where he is, but I'm going to put a Negro on the Brooklyn Dodgers."

I had been born white, and in Columbus, Mississippi. I had been raised in central Florida in the strictly segregated small town of Sanford--which a year later forced Rickey to hastily get Jackie Robinson out of town after he had barely arrived. I had little appetite when the food was served. Rickey had shaken me to my foundations. He shook all of baseball, and much of the country, seven months later, when it was announced that Montreal, the No. 1 team in the Dodgers' farm system, had signed Jackie Robinson--a Negro--to a contract. The die was cast. Rickey never turned back or wavered in his decision to "break the color line in baseball."

I was the radio announcer for the Dodgers, and had been since baseball broadcasting began in New York in 1939. I had the hottest microphone ever when Jackie Robinson came to Brooklyn in 1947. This was raw, uncertain history. By chance I was broadcasting with Mel Allen at Yankee Stadium in 1955when Elston Howard became the first black Yankee. It was routine. The battle had been fought and won.

The importance of Branch Rickey's decision, and the way Robinson carried it out, was well recorded as it occurred. Then, as baseball became completely integrated, it was taken for granted that black athletes would play with and against whites. Integration in schools and colleges followed the pivotal 1954 Supreme Court decision banning discrimination in education. Football teams in the deep South soon became as black as they were white. Winning, not color, was the new yardstick.

President Truman in 1948 directed that the armed forces end discrimination, but civilian life remained segregated. The 1954 Supreme Court decision changed all that. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus detonated the first major explosion when he defied the integration order in Little Rock in 1957 and forced President Eisenhower to send in federal troops. Martin Luther King Jr. began leading marches in Alabama which brought forth hostile police who used force, dogs, and water hoses. In 1963 Alabama Governor George Wallace personally tried to bar black students from the University at Tuscaloosa. The most violent reaction to allowing black students to enroll atwhite institutions was at the University of Mississippi at Oxford in 1962, when James Meredith tried to enter and Governor Ross Barnett demanded he be repelled. Riots erupted, and people died. President Kennedy had to send in federal troops, federalize the Mississippi National Guard, and keep U.S. marshals at the school to protect Meredith. Rickey had made his move sixteen years before.

The battle over civil rights continues today, but it is now fought by laws and by votes. There is no violence in the streets. There never has been physical protest in sports about blacks invading white territory--thanks largely to Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. Rickey planned carefully, moved carefully, brought his patient intelligence to bear on the overall problem, and had the judgment to select Jackie Robinson as the man to do it. Keep in mind the courage of these two men. Rickey was the one man in all of baseball who decided to break the unwritten law that had kept the game for whites only. He alone decided, then did it, and acted with consummate calculation to make it succeed. One man went against an entire institution.

Rickey's selection of Robinson was primarily spiritual. He accepted his scouts' evaluation of Robinson's physical abilities. Rickey never saw Robinson until Jackie was brought into his office. Then, in a three-hour meeting, Rickey decided Robinson was the man spiritually to "for three years ... three years ... not answer back. ... Take what came. ... Turn the other cheek. ... For this is the only way it can be done ... , For three years." And Robinson did it.

Rickey died in 1965, Robinson in 1972. In 1983 there are about as many black baseball and pro football players as white, and in basketball there are more blacks than whites. Many of the star athletes are black. Big league baseball has been able to expand from sixteen to twenty-six teams largely because of the number of black players.

It is fitting that what Rickey and Robinson set in motion be remembered and preserved. There have been many books on the subject. In 1981 there was the expensive Broadway musical called The First, which closed after thirty-seven performances, not because of lack of story material or staging but lack of music.

Now we have Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel, professor of history at San Francisco State University. A scholar, he spent five years in the widest, deepest researching I know anything about--traveled, interviewed, visited, read, compiled. He began, as he should have, with Negro baseball in the United States. Organized--that is, white--baseball was isolated from the Negro Leagues. Robinson's crossing over into white baseball began the end of the black leagues. This is a story few white people know anything about. Much of it was news to me. I lived and worked on the white side of the street.

The word for this book is synthesis. Tygiel has traced and woven together all the strands of this modern revolution, one with drastic effects for all concerned. He has given us the historic perspective on the Negro players and their lives in their unorganized leagues. Obviously his main character is Jackie Robinson, over and above Rickey, which I think is a misplaced emphasis. Analyze it any way you wish, Rickey remains the fundamental element. Without Rickey we might never have heard of Robinson. Without Rickey, baseball would not have been integrated for years. Period.

Tygiel traces the coming into the big leagues of Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays, etc. He gives full credit to young Bill Veeck at Cleveland for integrating the American League with Larry Doby late in the 1947 season--considerably after Rickey had broken the ice. (By then Robinson had become not only a splendid performer but also the biggest gate attraction since Babe Ruth.) Once Veeck made his move, however, the rest of the way was smooth. It was only a matter of orderly time before big league baseball was completely white and black, and Negro baseball finished.

Baseball's Great Experiment is an impressive synthesis of American history. It is well written, and because the integration of American society is still going on, it doesn't read like history. This is by far the most comprehensive single book on the subject. It's hard to write a complicated work without errors getting into the first edition. I know. Tygiel needed a better editor who was conversant with big league baseball. How he allowed himself, or was allowed, to refer frequently to J. G. Taylor Spink, thelate Hall of Fame publisher of The Sporting News, as "Tom" Spink is a wonder. He has the first black big league umpire, Emmett Ashford, being brought up in the National League when in fact it was the American. He has Joe Medwick spiking Jackie Robinson when it didn't happen. This is not to be picky--it's a matter of sharper editing.

Now--this I want to say. The unsung hero of 1947 was manager Burt Shotton. Tygiel accepts Shotton as the writers wrote about him, and they gave Shotton a poor image. Most writers cared little for him, knew little about him, and two writers who covered the Dodgers--Dick Young of The Daily News and Harold Rosenthal of The Herald Tribune--hated him. They gave him the public business, and freely said they wanted him fired.

Leo Durocher was the manager in the spring of 1947. Durocher stemmed a threatened rebellion by some of the Dodgers. Stopped it cold. He would have fought for Robinson with everyounce of his strength. No question. But Durocher was abruptly suspended by Commissioner Happy Chandler just before the season started. The Dodgers--and Robinson--played their first two games in 1947 without a manager. Rickey offered the job to Joe McCarthy, who had quit Larry MacPhail and the Yankees. McCarthy promptly turned it down. Rickey sent for Shotton, who was in retirement in Bartow, Florida. They were longtime friends. Shotton, 63, had sworn never to wear a baseball uniform again. He didn't, which meant he had to remain out of sight in the dugout. He wasn't colorful. He wasn't loud. He wasn't a pop-off guy. He was a sound baseball man, unafraid and steady as a rock. Above all he was Rickey's man--and he supported Robinson completely. 

All this old man did was settle the most upset baseball team in history. Shotton laid his strong hands on this first integrated clubhouse, first integrated dugout, and brought order and cohesion. He had a pitifully shaky pitching staff, which he nursed carefully. What Shotton did in 1947 was win the pennant, and nearly win the World Series from the Yankees. That's all.

Baseball's Great Experiment gives us the first in-depth, fully rounded picture of the successful integration of major league baseball, which set an immediate pattern for other sports. The athletic world never needed federal intervention. In fact, Rickey and Robinson wiped out a lot of Jim Crow laws. This book should be required reading for whites and especially for blacks. We take athletic integration today for granted. It didn't come easily, especially for Robinson and his black compatriots. And not for Rickey. The title of the book could well have been They Paid The Price.

The man who paid the biggest price was, of course, Robinson. Rickey might have paid a higher price. He didn't know how destructive breaking the color line might be to the Brooklyn franchise. Would the surging waves of black fans drive away white fans? How many black players on the team would be acceptable? How upset would the Dodger players be when Robinson joined the team? After all, this was a pennant contending ball club that had tied the Cardinals the year before and lost the playoff. Suppose the first black player failed? What then? Would Rickey's drastic and unprecedented bombshell wreck the Dodgers and damage both major leagues? Rickey didn't, couldn't, know. However, he was willing to pay whatever it might cost. He set his face, he planned carefully, he acted. His price became less and less as Robinson succeeded on and off the field, as Shotton settled the Dodgers, and as attendance soared to record heights. The winning of the 1947 pennant ended any doubts. Rickey had done it.

Jackie Robinson and his bride Rachel started paying the price at once, even before Jackie had reached the 1946 spring training camp at Daytona Beach, Florida. Shortly after their marriage in Los Angeles, the Robinsons flew to New Orleans, where they changed planes for Jacksonville and then Davtona Beach. Rachel had never been in the South. Suddenly she and Jackie encountered Jim Crow in full force. They were bumped from the plane at Pensacola, Florida, so that two white passengers might come aboard. They took a bus and were ordered to sit in the last row, although more comfortable seats in the front were available. They had to enter restaurants by the back door, and went hungry rather than accept the indignity. There were no clean places to sleep. Jackie had to make it on the hotly competitive playing field. Rachel had to suffer in the stands, hearing the taunts and profanities.

Rickey demanded that Jackie turn the other cheek, and do it for three years. Rickey said later that Jackie turned the other cheek so often he finally had no other cheek to turn--both were beatenoff. Jackie paid the price. He blazed the trail. Day after day, game after game, year after year, Robinson paid. The title of the last book Jackie wrote, shortly before his death, is I Never Had It Made.

Red Barber was, with Mel Allen, the first broadcaster to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1978. A broadcaster for the major leagues for thirty-three years, he is the author most recently of 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball (Doubleday).

By Red Barber