Saturday, April 14, 2007

Breaking the Truth Barrier: 60th Anniversary of the Integration of Major League Baseball

April 14, 2007

Op-Ed Contributor

Breaking the Truth Barrier

New York Times

TUESDAY, April 15, 1947, dawned wet and cold. But the eager crowd at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn didn’t care. Before the game, 15 photographers hovered around the Brooklyn Dodgers’ new first baseman. “I’ll be No. 42,” he had joked to his wife that morning. “Just in case you have trouble picking me out.”

Jackie Robinson was, of course, easy to spot. When he first crossed the white lines, his one small step was a giant leap, shattering baseball’s longstanding color barrier. But as baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day tomorrow — a day that should also be celebrated across America, not just in ballparks — it’s worth stripping away some of the myths that surround Robinson’s first game and his pioneering first season.

The most obvious myth about Robinson’s debut is the idea that he was a complete failure that day. Although he went hitless (robbed once by a diving shortstop and possibly another time by an umpire’s call), he vividly demonstrated the speed and skills that would make him the Dodgers’ catalyst for the next decade, doing whatever it took to transform his team into a winner.

With a runner on first in the seventh and Brooklyn trailing the Boston Braves 3-2, Robinson laid down a perfect bunt; his speed forced Boston’s Earl Torgenson to hurry his throw, and the ball glanced off Robinson’s shoulder, ricocheting toward the outfield. Suddenly the Dodgers had second and third. When Pete Reiser slammed a double, Robinson sprinted home with the go-ahead run in what became a 5-3 win.

A more significant misperception is the notion that all Americans in 1947 treated this as a historic day. The black press covered the game like a new Emancipation Proclamation — The Baltimore Afro-American devoted seven articles, seven photographs, an editorial and a cartoon to it — but the white-run newspapers played the event down.

Many in the establishment were skeptical about Robinson’s chances and about integration in general, believing blacks weren’t smart or skilled enough for baseball; others simply believed their readers felt that way and did not want to read about Robinson.

The New York papers paid more attention than most, but on Opening Day the coverage was largely about whom the Dodgers would hire as their new manager. (Leo Durocher had just been suspended for the year on a gambling accusation; Burt Shotton would take over.) The Washington Post devoted one paragraph to Robinson’s first game, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, two, The Baltimore Sun, three.

As a result, many whites did not initially appreciate how momentous that game was. By the fall, of course, Robinson had changed everyone’s minds. Time magazine put him on its cover and The Sporting News, which had long maintained a public segregationist stance and had doubted Robinson’s chances in the spring, named him its rookie of the year.

The most famous myth about Robinson’s rookie year is said to have transpired not on Opening Day but later that spring in Cincinnati. In this story — perpetuated most recently in a statue outside the ballpark of the Brooklyn Cyclones in Coney Island — Reds fans were brutally heckling Robinson when the shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, walked across the infield to put his arm around the first baseman. Reese’s interracial solidarity won over fans and ballplayers alike, especially since he was a Southerner himself, from across the river in Louisville.

It’s a wonderful folk tale, but likely only half-true. Robinson didn’t mention the incident in an autobiography published after his rookie year. And in a 1952 magazine interview and his 1960 book, “Wait Till Next Year,” he placed it in 1948, in Boston, by which point he had switched to second base. This makes far more sense: Reese was apparently responding to Braves players taunting him for having a black as a double-play partner. (In addition, the pitcher Carl Erskine has said he witnessed the moment, and he didn’t join Brooklyn until 1948.)

While Reese was crucial to Robinson’s acceptance in that first season — he even invited Robinson and the prominent black journalist Wendell Smith to join him and other whites on a golf course — the myth of the embrace has overshadowed a true story, one that also showed unexpected chivalry.

It occurred a week after Robinson’s debut: the Dodgers played three games against the Philadelphia Phillies, who spewed so much racist vitriol — including aiming bats machine-gun-style at Robinson — that it drove him to the brink of abandoning the “noble experiment” in pacifism for a full-out attack. But the Dodgers’ second baseman, Eddie Stanky — an Alabama native and a man who knew that Robinson would one day claim his job — stepped up to support him, challenging the Phils by shouting, as one version has it: “Why don’t you guys go to work on somebody who can fight back? There isn’t one of you has the guts of a louse.”

It may not be a pretty story — and Stanky’s full quotation was probably far more profane — but it has the advantage of being true. The man who signed Robinson, Branch Rickey, often said it was the Phillies’ trial-by-insult that truly united the Dodgers as a team in 1947, when they came within a game of winning the World Series.

Heroes, from George Washington to Jackie Robinson, and their admirers are better served when truth replaces legend, when nuance and texture are allowed to complicate the storyline. Still, even Robinson, who knew better than most about cold realities, understood the occasional need for stories that transcend facts, that loom larger than life.

After that hitless Opening Day he wrote in a column for The Pittsburgh Courier: “Whenever I hear my wife read fairy tales to my little boy, I’ll listen. I know now that dreams do come true.”

Stuart Miller is the author of “The 100 Greatest Days in New York Sports.”

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