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thoughts on rickey and robinson

Entry of May 14, 2009
“Some Thoughts On Rickey and Robinson and The Intriguing Musings Of ‘If’ History”

Last night I passed up TV baseball watching (just as well because Andy Pettitte of the Yankees dominated the Jays for six innings and the Orioles couldn’t hold off the Rays). I opted instead for dinner witha dear friend coming into town from DC for a job interview.

The story of the unique and courageous partnership of executive-owner Branch Rickey and race pioneer-player Jackie Robinson is one that never grows old. My friend Alan did his college thesis on the Robinson story over 30 years ago and we became friends because of it, and there is something new to learn about the saga virtually every day.

I told Alan that last month before speaking to a faculty seminar at Touro Law school on Long Island, I met Richard Robinson, a handyman on the campus who had been a great high school athlete and later a player in the Negro Leagues. Signed by George Sisler, Rickey’s revered scout and the Hall of Fame first baseman whom Rickey had converted from pitcher, R. Robinson was invited to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1949 spring training camp in Vero Beach. He was greeted by Jackie Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella who made the Dodgers in 1948, pitcher Don Newcombe who would make it in 1949, and two other Afro-American players who didn’t stick, pitcher Dan Bankhead and infielder-outfielder Jim Pendleton.

Sadly, before Richard Robinson had a chance to show his wares, someone in the Brooklyn organization told him, “We have too many niggers here already.” It certainly wasn’t one of the people closest to Branch Rickey though the executive was facing great pressure not to sign too many players of color. Richard Robinson returned to his home town of Huntington, Long Island and became a pioneer in his own way, the first black police sergeant, but he never had a chance to see how far he might have risen in baseball.

1949 turned out to be the season when Horace Stoneham, owner of the New York Giants, enthusiastically dove into the market for Afro-American players, promoting to the big leagues in July outfielder Monte Irvin and infielder-outfielder Hank Thompson. Coming along in May 1951 would be the incomparable Willie Mays. As an experienced baseball businessman (who too many historians have not treated seriously because he was an alcoholic), Stoneham thought to himself, “Why should the Dodgers corner the market on the good black players?” Stoneham later admitted that he had thought of signing Irvin before World War II. “I said it was too soon. I wish I had been braver.” By 1949 with the success of Robinson and Campanella assured, Stoneham acted and Branch Rickey was happy that he had another partner in the integration movement. It enabled the fierce local Giant-Dodger rivalry to take on an added component, more color if you will.

Unfortunately, Rickey was not around to enjoy first-hand the intra-city battles of the 1950s because he was bought out by Walter O’Malley after the 1950 season. The death in July 1950 of Pfizer Chemical millionaire John L. Smith, the quiet but important third partner in the Brooklyn ownership group, assured O’Malley’s triumph. O’Malley had wooed Mary Louise “Mae” Smith, the chemist’s wife and now widow, and Rickey’s goose was cooked (though he left Brooklyn with a good price for his stake in the team).

I love questions of “If-History” and Alan and I, who are well versed in the actual story, kicked around a few of them at dinner last night. What if John L. Smith lived? Rickey would not likely have been exiled to Pittsburgh. And if Rickey had stayed in Brooklyn, might not Jackie Robinson have stayed on perhaps as manager after he retired? And backtracking a bit what if Jackie Robinson had not succeeded and not made the major leagues? That is the most unlikely speculation of all because Robinson embodied an unconquerable will to win. He never would have allowed himself to “grow accustomed to the emotions of continuous defeat,” to quote one of Rickey’s favorite expressions.

The juiciest of “If History” questions we batted around last night was: What if baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis had not died in November 1944 but lived on and was faced with the contract of Jack Roosevelt Robinson placed on his desk by Wesley Branch Rickey sometime late in 1945? It is one that I will address in an upcoming post.

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