Jackie Robinson’s first season: A glimpse into the joy and despair

Editor's note – This article, “If You Were Jackie Robinson,” was originally published in September 1947 in SPORT Magazine. It was Jackie Robinson’s first season in major league baseball. It is being published here in celebration of the 75th anniversary Robinson made his debut on April 15. It has been edited for clarity and increased space.

It was Saturday night in Sports­man's Park, St. Louis, where the prosaic practice of playing major­ league baseball games in the after­noon sunlight has become as obsolete as the horse and buggy since the dis­covery that an outdoor sports arena can be lighted as well as your living room.

The Brooklyn Dodgers versus the St. Louis Cardinals participated in a one-sided National League Game. The world champions scored seven runs while the Brooklyn Bums scored none.

The Dodgers were still trying vainly to add to their small total of three singles in the sixth inning, and to reach second base.

Harry (The Cat), a 1946 World Series winner, was having a blast on the Cardinals' mound. He soft-balled the Dodgers every inning, screwballing after inning.

Jackie Robinson was the one out at the plate when he stepped up to the plate in the sixth. He swung hard and topped a bounding baseball between the mounds and first base. Brecheen was true to his nickname and was on the rubber in no time. He fielded the ball in a straight line towards the bag.

Instead of throwing the ball to Stan Musial, Brecheen circled back to the base line and half-crouched with Robinson to tag him out.

This was the first “incident” openly on the field during the scarcely started, unfinished and perhaps brilliant major-league career. It also marked the first Black player to ever play for a major-league team in modern baseball history.

What would Jackie Robinson have done if you were you?

If you were human, as this young man is intelligently, you would probably have reacted the same way as he did. But perhaps less restraint. Brecheen quietly observed that he had accepted the tag and stopped dead. If you do it again, I'll put you on the seat of my pants.”

Robinson struck out to begin the ninth inning of the fourth consecutive losing game for the Bruins, just five days later at Mr. Wrigley’s beautiful Chicago ballpark. And none of them seemed happy about it.

With one out, Robinson stole second after he had annoyed big Bill Lee, the handsome veteran right­hander from Plaquemine, Louisiana, no little by his feints off first base. Lee tried several times to catch Jackie, who had sprinted safely into second base. The bag was covered by Len Merullo (Cub shortstop).

Jackie was able to slide between Merullo’s legs and escape injury. They were almost entangled with Merullo astride the prostrate Dodger first baseman. Merullo appeared to kick Robinson as he lifted his right leg. Robinson made a quick retaliatory move with his left hand.

The situation was fraught with tension, as nearly 20,000 people watched the action from the stands, as well as players and fans of both teams.

The game continued without incident, with both boys standing on their own feet.

Jackie Robinson would you have been able keep your head straight if you were you?

Many baseball players and observers believe that Robinson's entry into the major leagues was dynamite. These incidents, like the ones mentioned above, are evidence that an explosion is likely. Their fears have been heightened by the hiring of Larry Doby (another Black star) by Cleveland.

Branch Rickey, part owner and president of the Brooklyn club and the man who signed Robinson to a Montreal contract, and later brought him over to the Dodgers does not believe that. Although frankly recognizing the problems con­fronting Robinson — and his teammates as well — Rickey has spoken only of Jackie's ability to play baseball. He expressed his total conviction that Robinson is now an elite major-league player and will continue to improve.

“No one could say,” remarked Rickey, “that that boy ­hasn't done a remarkable job in playing a position he never had played before. He will develop a level of confidence that he didn't have at the beginning. He will be more assertive. He will manage the bases to the extent he can.

All observers, except the most prejudiced, are aware of Robinson's abilities — his speed, lightning reflexes and all-round skill as a player. Therefore, but for the one obvious reason, it would not have to be dis­cussed any differently from the way in which the talents of the Musials, the Walkers, the Blackwells, the Mizes, the Fellers, et al., are discussed.

Robinson, the man? Robinson, the man, who is thrust into the spotlight by circumstances and who still walks alone must be the same fellow.

Jackie Robinson would make a stop at all the hotels visited by the Dodgers if he were there, except for the Hotel Chase in St. Louis and the Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia.

The team would then detach in these cities and form groups of three to four members of the team. They would ride together to the hotel in taxicabs. You would travel alone to the hotel unless you or Wendell Smith (sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Courier) had made arrangements. Smith travels with the club throughout the National League circuit, in fact.

In St. Louis, it would be the De Luxe Hotel, a hostelry operated ex­clusively for a Black clientele.

Jackie said that Jackie has seen some good things. “It was nice for Hank Greenberg that he spoke to me once when I pulled up to first base at Forbes Field, Pittsburgh. He told me, “You're doing great.” ‘Keep your chin up.' Jackie added, “Mr. Greenberg is a fine gentleman.”

Another incident occurred on the club's first Western trip when the Dodgers reached Wrigley Field, Chi­cago. Great curiosity about Robinson was shown by reporters and photog­raphers, especially the latter, who swarmed around Robinson in and out of the dugout with constant requests for him to pose for pictures.

Robinson's idea was, obviously, to avoid undue public attention. His preference was to have no pictures taken, but he re­alized that was not possible.

But with half a dozen cameramen … asking for re­peated poses at a time when Robin­son was supposed to be taking the field for pre-game practice, the thing became too thick even for a fellow who, by circumstances and instruc­tion, was practicing the utmost re­straint.

“Damn it!” exploded Jackie, slam­ming his glove down on the dugout bench and plopping himself down be­side it. “That's enough! “How can a man play ball?”

Pee Weere Reese was a brilliant young shortstop from Kentucky. He exclaimed, “Why can't they just leave him alone?” Let him play.

“Jackie felt good about that,” re­lated his friend, Smith, later. “It sort of seemed to him that he was ac­cepted as a ballplayer, which is what he wants to be and nothing else.”

Smith, incidentally, is a sort of un­official guide and companion for Rob­inson. He was engaged, Rickey re­vealed during the spring training junket into the Panama Canal Zone, to travel with Robinson, although Smith still works for his paper the same as any other sportswriter.

On the unpleasant side of Robin­son's early experiences as a Dodger was the well-publicized affair in which Ben Chapman, Alabaman and manager of the Philadelphia Phils, was the central figure.

Chapman said that he was simply riding Robinson as any other rookie player would. Ben said he had to take the same treatment him­self when he broke into the game.

Jackie said, “If that's the meaning of it,” and “it's all fine with me.” It's okay with me.

Later, when the Dodgers appeared in Philadelphia for a night game, local photographers and newspaper­men engineered a meeting between Robinson and Chapman, with the two posing together in front of the Phil­lie dugout in apparent good nature.

The good nature of a veteran baseball player, who is not to be named, was not apparent.

Robinson's attitude is split in Brooklyn. There can't be any gainsaying. Some have accepted him passively. Branch Rickey has placed Robinson on the club's roster — “so okay.”

Some have suffered no mental dis­turbance whatever about the unique move. One said: “He is a great ballplayer. If he can help this team win a pennant and that earns me a few thousand more, what kick do you have?”

Although this might be a somewhat mercenary view, it is not impossible to see the truth of a soft impeachment.

One other man, who indicated that he had reservations on this subject, commented with great fairness, candor, and said: “The guy, is a wizard. He is a true ball player.

As to some who remain tight­lipped at all times, it would require only a third-rate analyst to decide where they stand. Their state of mind may be best illustrated by the once-famous catch line used by the late Charley Mack, of the well­-known team of Moran and Mack.

“Even,” Mack used to say lugubri­ously, “if it wuz good, I wouldn' like it.”

The name of one player, generally recognized as unreconciled to the presence of Robinson on the Dodgers, was mentioned to this writer by Wen­dell Smith, who asked, somewhat wistfully, if the player in question had ever been asked about Jackie.

Smith replied, “Well, he's got a good mind.” Smith was told that such a question seemed obvious inapplicable. He can think and thinks. May­be he'll see it differently some day.”

Robinson was harmed by Rickey's policy of trying to keep Robinson out the limelight. Until almost mid-season Jackie had been denied the privilege of endorsing any prod­uct — a common and remunerative practice among prominent ballplay­ers and other athletes — nor was he allowed to appear on radio programs or have any sort of article appear un­der his name. …

One exception to radio was Jackie's appearance on “Information Please” in the early part of the year. All profits went to a Negro college fund.

A Brooklyn club spokesperson stated that Jackie could not refuse the request.

Jackie Robinson knows that he has to pay a high price for the privilege of playing in the major leagues. However, he believes it is well worth it.

Rickey did not make any misgivings and, if he did, he dispelled them. Before signing the boy to his first professional baseball contract, he said that he has no illusions. He made it clear, as only the extremely articulate Ma­hatma of Montague Street can, ex­actly what problems Robinson would have to face.

If you were Jackie Robinson, you might feel a little bit of loneliness every now and again. You might have a game or two of hearts with three other ballplayers on train rides who view you as a nice kid. You would mostly just stare out of the window.

Sometimes, you may share a hotel dining room table with another Brooklyner. You'd usually eat alone.

The games of hearts, and the in­frequent meals with a teammate, along with the conversation in the clubhouse, would make up most of your social contacts with the other Dodgers.

You would rather be with them than among them.

Jackie Robinson would love the compliments the newspapers made about her. Reading lines like this, which appeared in Ed Sullivan's New York Daily News column recently, would give you a special feeling. “Jackie Robinson won over Dixie Walker who now gives the star batting advice!” Stanky has been especially helpful in showing him how to bat batters.

If you were Jackie Robinson, you'd notice that every day there were few­er “incidents” — that every day, you were getting better breaks from the fans and the players and the press. You'd find that more and more radio announcers like Red Barber were go­ing out of their way to speak favor­ably about you over the air.

It would make you feel good to read news stories such as the signing of Larry Doby by the Cleveland Indians (another Black ace) and the additions of Henry Thompson and Willard Brown by the St. Louis Browns. The sweat you had put into making major league baseball accessible to minorities in your community was not wasted.

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