The Gospel Truth

Me and Jackie

April 4, 2013
6 Comments

OK the title is more of a teaser.

I never did have a bone fide relationship with Jackie Roosevelt Robinson.

But I did meet him once when I was 11 years old and I got his autograph to boot.

I remember the Dodgers were playing the Reds and Johnny Podres was pitching.  He won the game 4-0, a harbinger of what he would do in the October Classic.

But that one brief moment did produce an array of great personal stories that I would like to share, partly in anticipation of seeing the new movie 42 about his reintroducing black players into the major leagues.

The film opens on April 12th and stars Harrison Ford, as the sometimes sanctimonious Branch Rickey, who could also be penurious at times and a line-up as obscure as the 2013 New York Mets’ array of nobodies.

Hans Solo and Jackie talk

I say reintroduce blacks into baseball because in truth he was not the first black baseball player.

NBC Today host, Gene Shalit picked up on that immediately when I was his guest on the early morning show, May 9, 1974 concerning my accredited baseball history at Maryville College.

I believe that honor of the first black player belongs to the Walker brothers, Moses and later Welday.

Moses Walker was the catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 in the American Association.

He then played in the minor leagues until 1889 after professional baseball erected a color barrier that stood for nearly 60 years.

After leaving baseball, Walker became a businessman and unsurprisingly  an advocate of Black nationalism.

Moses Fleetwood Walker.jpg

Like Jackie got into racial politics

Walker made his Major League first appearance was on May 1 against the Louisville Eclipse.

In his debut, he went hitless and had four errors. In 42 games, (an omen) Walker had a batting average of .263.

His brother, Welday Walker, later joined him on the team, playing in six games.

Moses Walker was not much of a hitter but was known for having a rocket for an arm.

Oddly enough my guest speaker for that first course in February 1973 was James Cool Papa Bell, a future Hall of Famer, who was relatively obscure when he came to my class for $50 and cab fare.

Bell would be enshrined in Cooperstown the year after appearing at my class.

I can still seem him standing there in front of 17 female students and two male walk-ons, one of whom became and still is my plumber and the other a life-long friend and my discount broker at the bank.

Bell was so neatly dressed… like a banker or even a lawyer,  in a blue-striped suit I could not resist saying to him, Mr Bell you look so ‘cool!’

He told the class that he had scouted Jackie when he was a member of the Kansas City Monarch of the Negro League and found him wanting as a shortstop.

Thumbs down on Jackie

Oh he could play baseball, but defensively his range was modest and his arm too weak for shortstop.

I think Bell recommended against signing him, an honest assessment, given Jackie’s success at every position the infield…except shortstop.

When Robinson came to the Dodgers in 1947 they had to play him at first base, a position he was very unfamiliar with.

His footwork was terrible and it nearly got him seriously injured.

This led to rumors, some of which may have been true, that players were deliberately trying to spike him, especially on his Achilles tendon, which could have been career-ending.

Waist-up portrait of black batter in his mid-thirties, in Brooklyn Dodgers uniform number 42, at end of swing with bat over left shoulder, looking at where a hit ball would be

Had the black fire

Joe Garagiola, the personality-plus catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals had several run ins with Robinson.

From what I read about these incidents they stemmed from the strong competitiveness of both players and not any deep-seated racial prejudice.

Joe had suffered his own brand of ethnic prejudice and accepted it as part of a baptism under fire that virtually every rookie went through.

I don’t believe Robinson totally understood that or Joe Garagiola for that matter.

Joe told me that himself during an afternoon interview session I did with him in 1974 for an article that never got published.

My father had simply called the NBC studios in New York and arranged the interview for me.

I spent the afternoon with him as he taped five episodes of TV game show that was in its beginning stages.

One of the engineers quipped that Joe had shot down more pilots than the Luftwaffe– the Nazi airforce in WW II.

Joe Garagiola 1951.png

Risked his career for Jackie

During the intermissions, I not only got to watch him change his pants four times but listen to him as he talked about Yogi, his St. Louis youth, baseball humor and of course Jackie.

During our chat he told me a story about Jackie and how Joe had nearly ruined his career trying to protect Robinson at first base.

Contrary to rumors that he was out to get Robinson, Joe tried to avoid stepping on his vulnerable ankle.

In doing so he tripped over the base and dislocated his shoulder.

He missed about half of the season, playing just 77 games.  His once high .350 average sank to .257 at season’s end.

I saw the scars to prove his point.

This brings me neatly back to my relationship with jackie Robinson.

My dad had taken me to a game with the Reds in June of 1955 and when we got to our box seats on the first base side just past the Brooklyn dugout, who would be standing directly in front of us, leaning against the fence but Jackie with his back to the crowd.

I waited my turn and when it arrived as he signed I told him with all the courage I could muster, I hope you do today what you did last night, Jackie!

He simply shrugged his broad shoulders and responded: I hope I don’t have to do it like that again!.

I was clueless as to what he could have meant.

Let me explain what I had witnessed on TV the prior evening.

Picture this a little Puerto Rican lefty for the St. Louis Cardinals, named Luis Arroyo had pitched his team into the bottom of the 9th inning with a 4-3 lead.

Jackie took him downtown

The voice of the Dodgers, then and 58 years later still at it, Vince Scully informed us that no lefty had won a complete game in Ebbets Field in..I forget how long he said…but a considerable span of time.

The date was June 6th, a rare Monday night game.

Well with one out and the tying run on, Jackie digs in at the plate.

With two strikes, he sends a shot over the left field wall, maybe 375 feet away and wins the game for Brooklyn in the most dramatic fashion.

I am happy, the fans are jubilant and he doesn’t want to do that again?

My research discovered years later that this had all revolved around baseball politics.

I knew there was no crying in baseball but politics?

As #42  will dramatize Rickey was the one who signed Jackie and gave him a chance at fame and fortune that had been denied to members of race since Chicago White Stocking great Cap Anson told baseball in 1884 he would not play with those….

By 1955 Rickey had left Brooklyn.  Walter O’Malley owned the team and his new manager was Walter Alston.

The Rickey people had never gotten along with the O’Malley clan.

In the aforementioned incident of Jackie’s heroics, manager Alston had ordered Robinson to bunt.

I didn’t remember any of that so intense was the game at that point.

Robinson balked at having to do that.

He wanted end it there and now.

After two haphazard attempts to bunt, Jackie won the game.

Alston fined him $50.

I was not surprised that Jackie did what he did, even if it cost him money.

He had what I have called the black fire in my short monograph, entitled, A Fan’s Memoir: The Brooklyn Dodgers, 1953-57.

It was his inner rage that made him the ball players he became.

I still have a boatload of copies if anyone is interested.  Just write me @ bbprof@sbcglobal.net.

I have seen that kind of determination in only one other athlete and that was Bob Gibson.

The white bigots did everything they could to taunt, humiliate him and make him quit.

He almost suffered a nervous breakdown so great was the pressure.

Rickey had put even more pressure on Robinson when he answered his question about fighting back with the sardonic remark:

No, Jackie I want someone strong enough…NOT to fight back!

His fellow teammates both helped and hindered his historical path.

Some Southerners just could not go against their culture or their bigotry.

Rickey quietly cleaned them out.

Dodger Captain, Pee Wee Reese from the border state of Kentucky, was instrumental in getting Jackie through some of his ordeal.

He tried to keep the rookie loose.

When his life was threatened before a spring training game in Alabama, Reese suggested everyone wear #42 to confuse the assassin.

Now all major leaguers wear #42 on a given day each year.

All teams have or will have retired #42 when Mario Rivera finally retired in the Fall.

When Reese entered the HOF in 1984, they put a reference to his efforts on his plaque.

Linked together forever

Jackie Robinson hit an impressive .297 with a dozen home runs.  He was elected Major League Baseball’s first Rookie of the Year Award, which is now named after him.

The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown inducted him 1961.

Two years later he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

There is so much more I can write about Me and Jackie but I will let the movie provide the physical form for my many words.

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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at bbprof@sbcglobal.net

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