SPORT magazine: Jackie Robinson finds his voice five years into a historical career

This story first appeared in SPORT magazine's October 1951 edition. It was Jackie Robinson’s fifth season in major league baseball. This story is being republished to celebrate the 75th anniversary Robinson's debut on April 15, 1947. This story has been condensed to save space and clarity.

JACK ROOSEVELT ROBINSONThe Brooklyn Dodgers' record-breaking invasion of organized baseball was made wearing an armor of humility. He found it unnatural and chafed constantly, and at times, it dragged ruthlessly into his flesh and spirit. Jackie was unable to express his true combativeness in the armor he had been given by Branch Rickey. He was allowed to use his bat, glove, flying feet and bat to vent it. Robinson could only appreciate his unresponsiveness to the humiliation. His humility, which he displayed so diligently — or rigidly, might be a better word — was not something that came naturally to him. Robinson's fire and enthusiasm is unmatched by any other man. Jackie had more reserve than any other white baseball player. He needed it. And just like he pounds a base-hit to get it, so he was able to control his emotions to ensure his success. Jackie Robinson broke into the National League five years ago. Five years full of incredible feats, endless honors, and the great second-baseman for the Dodgers has been able placate fewer and less people. Robinson today is, for the first time in baseball history, his own man.

Jackie has managed to free himself from the chains slowly but with purpose. In 1949, he was involved in a dispute with umpires. He was then forced by Commissioner A. B. Chandler offered an apology to Cal Hubbard, the umpire, during the World Series. He put an end to his feuding with Leo Durocher in 1950 and the matter was openly discussed. He claimed that certain National League umpires had formed a heckling group against him, and they were trying to provoke him. Ford Frick, the President of National League, invited him to be investigated. He argued with Frank Dascoli for many minutes during an exhibition game in Asheville, North Carolina this spring. Bean balls were thrown at his head, and those of his teammates during their interboro battles with the Giants. He laid down a bunt in one game to force Sal Maglie, the Giants' pitcher, to field the ball at the first base line. Jackie acknowledged that “I did it deliberately” to stop the league from beanballing. I'll accept the suspension and the fine, but it must be stopped. “If the umpires are unable to stop it, Mr. Frick should take over.

Robinson stated, “Last Sunday, Larry Jansen hit on me with a pitch. It's still there. Maglie had already thrown one to me. I resolved to do what was necessary to protect myself as well as the others. I was determined to create enough disturbance to bring the matter to a head.

While watching the game at Ebbets Field from her usual seat, Jackie's spouse, Rachel, who has made invaluable contributions to her husband’s pioneering career in baseball, was acutely aware of the tension. She was attentive to her husband's comments, just as she was from the beginning. As Jackie bumped Maglie's head, a man sitting near her said that “there's a guy growing bigheaded.” Rachel made the same comment to her husband as she drove back to St. Albans on Long Island later that night. Robinson has proven that he doesn't recognize limitations on him that restrict his ability to play. This is a comment that has been repeated numerous times over the past months. This comment has been repeated in dressing rooms and bars as well on planes and trains. It is also heard among fans. Jackie has been my friend since the beginning. I have witnessed his aggressiveness grow stronger. …

Jackie Robinson will never again be seen in the armor of humility. The real Jackie Robinson is here, with his wraps on. Are you wondering if Robinson is truly big-headed? Do you think he has a “god complex”, as one reader suggested following the Maglie incident or have we simply seen Robinson move from natural stage to natural stage during the evolution of his great experiment with baseball?

There have been many stories about the cold, calculated fury and insolence of Eddie Stanky, Enos Slaughter's emotional combativeness, and the profane, goading insolence that Leo Durocher displayed. They have largely been praises because these men's personalities reflect that aggressive quality that elevates them above other equal or greater abilities.

Robinson was undoubtedly a great baseball player. However, he was forced into playing under some of the most difficult circumstances. To understand what it was like for him to be able to play baseball “in a mask”, as Bill Reeder put it in his book about Jackie. Jackie anticipated roughhousing, abuse, roughhousing in hotels, animosity and crank notes from his opponents, as well some animosity from his team. What happens to an emotional man who cannot let his emotions go?

Bench-jockeying is an integral part of baseball. The man who gives it expects it back. Jackie was unable to give but could only receive at the beginning. In tight flag races, in spurts and on poor plays, by umpires, in all the little troubling moments that make up the 154 games in every season. Sometimes a man has to let out steam or burst. Robinson didn't have a safety valve. He had no outlet.

Before you judge the man, consider these facts. Robinson did a great job pacing the Dodgers and winning their flags in 1947, 1949 and 1949. In the latter year, he also won the most valuable player award. Jackie couldn't be content with his success on the field. It was far beyond what Rickey had hoped for. There was a bitterness in his heart about being held back by strict rules and regulations that made him feel ill. This not only caused him to be unable to function mentally but also physically.

Mel Jones, Jackie’s Montreal General Manager, was the first person to discover about it. Robinson once came into Robinson's office and stated, “Nobody knows what this season is like.”

Mrs. Robinson was a registered nurse who knows the limits of self-discipline and how it can affect a man's body. She only revealed what pain her husband and Jackie went through during the seasons Jackie wore his armor.

She said that Jack became very worried after his first season of baseball. I understood that nobody could just go along with Jack week after week, month after month, without feeling his emotions. Like Jack, I understood what Mr. Rickey was advising and I agreed. However, I expected my husband's freedom at home. Understanding his problem, which was also mine, I would have been open to an outburst at my home. I asked him if he would speak when he was alone. Jack was less talkative than usual when faced with a problem.

Mrs. Robinson stated that Jack couldn't eat and would toss in his sleep at night. Finally, I recommended that Jack consult a doctor. She warned him that if Jack didn't stop going to the ballpark, he would have a nervous breakdown. Jack refused to quit. Within two days, Jack was back playing the same way he had before, but with the same problems.”…

THE RESTRICTIONS When he began, he was expected to lead a bizarre baseball career. This would have been unusual enough because of his skin color. Robinson was required to follow a code of conduct before he even stepped foot on the field. Rickey sent his advance man to ensure that he appeared at the right place and had plans in place to manage the natural-and sometimes bestial-forces.

The churches, social organizations and civic leaders set up committees. These clubs were called “how to manage Robinson” clubs. Each committee prepared its own list with do's and dont's for Jackie. He was responsible for his conduct on and off the pitch and would be supervised every day. Before he ever batted a baseball or fielded one, his deportment got more attention than that given to Princess Elizabeth.

He couldn't endorse breakfast foods, or lend his name in newspaper articles or magazine stories that could boost a player’s reputation and income. He arrived at the ball park in secret and left the exact same way. As much as the criticisms from the fans and the stands were to be avoided, so was adulation. Jackie was considered a symbol rather than a ballplayer who tried to make it work. …

It was a great campaign that served a huge purpose. There was an unnatural attempt to dampen the enthusiasm of millions of people who identified themselves with Robinson. …

For those who have not been on the Dodgers' road, it might be hard to grasp, but for those who have seen Robinson leave and enter the ball parks around the circuit, they know how much of an influence he has had on many.

In Chicago, Jackie Robinson is the ultimate example of an objective observer. They treat him with nothing less that adoration. This is a term that can only be used to describe the deity. This is not intended to be sacrilegious in any way. It is an acknowledgment of the things as they really are and what Robinson has become to be.

Dodgers use a private bus to travel from their downtown hotel to Wrigley Field. The bus is parked in a side street. The bus arrives at the ballpark with literally thousands of people waiting. However, it becomes almost impossible to navigate the few hundred feet between the exit and the waiting vehicle because of the sheer volume of people.

Each Dodger is a hero, of course. Those who have come into contact with Robinson assume certain aspects of Jackie. Don Newcombe (Jackie's Black teammate) also get their fair share, but Robinson gets the real adoration. The crowd is overcome with joy when they see Jackie and then crushes themselves into an immobile mass to his side.

They call his name in a unique way that no other player is able to. They beg him to sign their autographs or shake his hand. Jackie is unhurried, polite, friendly, cooperative as they touch his clothes. He has never lost sight of the meaning of the game to him, what it means to him now and what it will mean for his people. Robinson did not seek to be a reformer despite his pioneering efforts.

He only wanted to be accepted into the team as a player, and Rickey believed in him right from the beginning. He did not whimper once when he was put under restrictions, and the opposition started to test his temper and courage. He would take whatever was offered to him. He started his career in organized baseball with a Mississippi manager who was anti-Black. In his first season with the Dodgers, he was confronted with threats of two strikes both literally and metaphorically. …

[Now,} it was only natural for Jackie to come to appreciate his own worth at the gate and want to tear away from the unnatural bonds that restricted him.

YOU CAN CHOOSEYou could be right or wrong at any time during the past season when Jackie finished his own emancipation. The Maglie incident at Ebbets Field may have been the closest thing to estimate when the last shackle was taken.

The incident was a reminder of the old Jackie, who played with a fence around him. There had been many signs of his new approach to the business where he makes his living, and there would be more after that. However, this one wrapped up Jackie into a tidy package for all to see.

Robinson was a pioneer. But he was not seeking to be identified in the role as a reformer. He felt the rush of Ebbets field last April was so important that he decided to go ahead, despite the risks to his reputation, his health, and the advice of his wife. I was able to understand his motivation for making himself the aggressor in the Beanballing Feud, which became the main theme of the Dodger-Giant series.

Jackie told me Maglie denied throwing at her.

“I suppose I'm to blame,” he stated.

“Everytime something happens, I grab a piece and read it. If Maglie didn’t throw at me then his catcher would have thought otherwise. After the bunt I went back to the plate and grabbed my bat. Westrum replied, “Sal wasn’t throwing at you.” We've been worn out. He was just brushing your back.

Robinson stated, “That's too fine of a distinction for me.” “This morning, I read Durocher's statement that it was a bushleague trick. It's a bush Durocher trick that made me do it. He was the one who taught it to me. It was right here, in this clubhouse. He used to tell us every single day, “If they throw one towards your head, do not say anything.” Push one down, and run right up his neck. Leo is an expert at this. He was right. He was correct the second time I batted.

Jackie and Mrs. Robinson drove home from the game to Long Island, where Jackie explained her point of view. She spoke of the bigger picture. I was able to repeat their conversation and she said that she tried to get Jack to see the bigger picture from the fans' perspective because they are unable to understand Jack's thoughts. They don’t realize that he is willing and able to risk injury in order to stop his beliefs being wrong. It seemed to them that he was trying to injure Maglie. They have no idea what his thoughts are.

She said that Jack might feel differently today about what happened. “I think that I understand his problem more than most. He doesn't have time to think when he's at the plate. He might think and do something completely different a few hours later.

I respect Mrs. Robinson for her unsurpassed contribution to Jackie's partnership. However, I knew she was wrong as Jackie had said so.

“I don't want the need to do it again, but I will if I have too,” he stated.

Jackie is free from any kind of restraint. He has done more than any other player and may feel even less. Jackie is more open than other players to voice their opinions. He had been so closed off for so many seasons that he was unable to speak his mind. Jackie is not afraid to use explosive quotes, even though much of it is incendiary. Durocher is the one he detests. He believed he was traded before this season began and he freely shared his thoughts with me. …

This is the unencumbered Robinson. Jackie is different from the rest because he, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella can't stay in the same St. Louis hotel due to the city's segregation rules.

The variance is over. Jackie believes that endorsements are possible now, even though he was unable to do so previously. He can make public appearances for free or for money if he so chooses, but he must first speak to the Brooklyn high-ups. He doesn't see any reason why he should be following a different course of conduct from the Joe DiMaggios. The Bob Fellers, Ted Williamses, and others. He does not require a license, but he accepts any restrictions.

Robby's bat is louder than all the others. In the clubhouse, there is no deference to his voice or his actions due to his delicate position. Robby is not fragile any more, physically, morally and spiritually. Rickey was able to take it. He kept his mouth shut for a while and kept his emotions inside. However, that time has now come to an abrupt halt. He isn't being challenged or given the right to be wrong by anyone.

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