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"Trouble Ahead, Trouble Ahead!': Reflections on An Upcoming Diamond Anniversary, August 28, 1945 - corrected version

[The following blog was posted before the shocking death on Jackie Robinson Day, celebrated on August 28 in 2020,  of Chadwick Boesman, 43, who starred as Robinson in "42" the acclaimed 2013 film that made Boseman a star. He had suffered from colon cancer for four years, a disease that he kept private all this time. His memory will be indelible.

 

Brooklyn Dodger fans have called to my attention that I missed one pennant-winning team prior to Robinson's rookie season of 1947, the first pennant of 1916. So have made the change in the tex below. Otherwise it stands as originally posted.]

 

 

This Friday August 28 marks the 75th anniversary - the diamond jubilee if you will - of the first meeting of Jack Roosevelt Robinson with Wesley Branch Rickey.  It was held in Rickey's Brooklyn Dodgers office at 215 Montague Street not far from the Brooklyn Borough Hall. 

 
The encounter between these two Type-A personalities has been the subject of much historical writing as well as the impressive 2013 film "42" starring Harrison Ford as Rickey and Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.  

 
It is an evergreen story - how an unusual partnership was forged between the fiercely proud talented all-around Black athlete and the shrewd but genuinely religious and paternal White executive.  Together they vowed to break the poorly named "gentleman's agreement" that had blocked African-Americans from playing Major League Baseball since the late 19th century.

 
By 1947 Robinson was a Brooklyn Dodger star on his way to a Rookie of the Year title and the Dodgers were headed to the World Series for only the fourth time in their history. Though they lost a tough seven-game Series to the Yankees, Robinson rose to stardom not only in the baseball world but throughout American national culture.  He was voted the second most popular entertainer after Bing Crosby. 

 
It is not coincidental that a year later President Harry Truman issued an executive order desegregating the Armed Forces. And in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court issued an unanimous decision, ruling that public school segregation was unconstitutional.  

 
It is good that Malor League Baseball recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the first prominent Negro league by the pioneer black baseball organizer Rube Foster.  But I think the courageous first move to integrate white baseball 25 years later needs remembrance as well. 

 
The road to Robinson's eventual success was not a smooth one.  But Rickey stood squarely behind "The Young Man from the West," as he was dubbed in secret front office code before the announcement of his signing was made public two months later.

 

In "My Own Story," Robinson's 1948 autobiography, he described what it was like to be analyzed and dissected by Branch Rickey. "His piercing eyes roared over me with such meticulous care, I almost felt naked." Once the battle for integration was joined, Robinson would describe Rickey as like "a piece of mobile armor," ready to defend him from any and all attacks.   

 
Rickey was both a spellbinding and folksy story-teller.  Robinson grew solace from one of Rickey's favorite tales about an old couple in rural Scioto County in southern Ohio where Rickey was born, regularly visited, and is buried..  

 
They were traveling for the first time on a railway car through the hills of their home county.   They looked out the window and as the train headed towards a steep curve, the husband cried, "Trouble ahead! Trouble ahead!"  

 
The couple thought the train would fall off the rails and crash.  But it didn't and life went on and the change to faster transportation was accepted. 

 

"Trouble ahead! Trouble ahead!" was a frequent mantra of Rickey's whenever a problem arose. The crisis was usually averted by good strategy and basic courage.

 
Rickey enjoyed Robinson in Brooklyn for only four seasons.  He lost a power struggle to co-owner Walter O'Malley after the 1950 season, and he started at the bottom with the young Pittsburgh Pirates.   

 
I think that part of the reason that Rickey is not remembered for his successful integration strategy is that the subsequent years of his baseball career were not marked by success. 

Also once the black power movmenet erupted in the 1960s, Rickey's motivation was too often seen as mainly economic.

 

Rickey's Pirates finished in or near the basement in during his five years at the helm in Pittsburgh  But it should be noted that Rickey signed the core of the future 1960 World Series champions, including Roberto Clemente, Elroy Face, Dick Groat, and Bill Mazeroski. 

 
In the late 1950s, Rickey's attempt at leading the Continental League, a third major league, to compete with the existing two leagues also failed.  It did lead to expansion of each existing league to ten teams, but it was not the outcome Rickey desired.  He was old enough to remember the ten-team National League of the 1890s that only increased the number of second division teams. 

 
I do like to think that in the great beyond Rickey is smiling at the Toronto Blue Jays for this short season playing in Buffalo.   It is the only one of the eight original CL franchises - Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Houston, Minny-St.Paul, New York, and Toronto - never to get a team.  Unfortunately because of the huge role of TV markets in today's baseball, Buffalo is not likely to get a full season team.  

 

Although the Continental League folded in the summer of 1960, Rickey's comment to a reporter when he started the league a year earlier still resonates.  There he was at the age of 77 and plagued by a serious heart condition. Asked by a reporter to name his greatest thrill in baseball. he replied, "It hasn't happened yet." 

 
It's that kind of spirit of adventure and optimism about the future that drew Jackie Robinson and so many other players, friends, and family into his admiring orbit. It's the kind of spirit that we need desperately in all aspects of our society in the year 2020. 

 
So please think of the great adventure that Robinson and Rickey started upon 75 years ago this Friday August 28.  And as September nears and a fraught school year is upon us, it's especially wise to take it easy but take it!  

 

Next time more on the unfolding MLB baseball season and I hope I can write some praise of the Orioles' hitting prospect with the striking name of Ryan Mountcastle.  He made his MLB debut last weekend and held his own and looks like he could be an offensive presence of the future.   

 

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Still Aglow from My Third Chautauqua Experience

It's a wonderful feeling in life when one's expectations are exceeded.  Such was my experience last week when I taught for the third time a Baseball and American Culture class in the Special Studies department of the Chautauqua Institution.

 

Chautauqua is an adult education and vibrant cultural mecca in the southwestern corner of New York State near the Pennsylvania border. It was founded shortly after the Civil War as a retreat for Methodist Sunday school teachers. (Am amazed that Branch Rickey evidently never came to Chautauqua though he was probably so busy with baseball and his Delta Tau Delta fraternal activities to come there.) 

 
There's nothing like teaching and talking about what you love in front of students who appreciate your interests and genuinely want to learn more.  I've long believed that a teacher always learns as much from students as they learn from him or her.

 

I felt good about talking about the rich if complicated history of baseball - from the late 19th century labor battles between John Montgomery Ward and Albert Spalding to the rise of the great management leaders Ban Johnson and his replacement as lord high commissioner Landis. And the pioneers Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and the later labor wars surrounding Marvin Miller and Bowie Kuhn and Bud Selig.

 

But the happiest moments for me in teaching are always the unique responses of the students.  Here are some examples:

 

**During the opening session everyone introduces themselves. One woman from western Michigan described how she fell in love with Sandy Koufax when he was a bonus baby starting out with the Brooklyn Dodgers. There was something about seeing him struggle on TV that made her a lifelong fan.

 
As an adult she made pilgrimages to LA to follow him live.  She framed a photo of him and his onetime Brooklyn teammate Sal Maglie and placed it on her bedroom wall. Her husband wasn't too impressed - soon he was an ex-husband. (I don't do justice to her timing in telling this story.)

 

**Another priceless moment was a student writing down from my typed notes the words on an Irish towel that one of my first undergraduate students gave me as a present over a half-century ago: 

 

"Baseball (as explained to a foreign visitor).

YOU HAVE TWO SIDES ONE OUT IN THE FIELD AND ONE IN.

 

EACH MAN THAT'S ON THE SIDE THAT'S IN GOES OUT AND WHEN HE' OUT HE COMES IN AND THE NEXT MAN GOES IN UNTIL HE'S OUT.

 

WHEN THREE MEN ARE OUT THE SIDE THAT'S OUT COMES IN AND THE SIDE THAT'S BEEN IN GOES OUT OAND TRIES TO GET THOSE COMING IN OUT.

 

SOMETIMES YOU GOT MEN STILL IN AND NOT OUT.

 

WHEN BOTH SIDES HAVE BEEN IN AND OUT NINE TIMES INCLUDING THE NOT OUTS

THAT'S THE END OF THE GAME (EMPHASIS ADDED)."

 

**Then there was the moving sight at my last class when 15 students stood up to watch on my little laptop with a weak sound system Buster Keaton's baseball pantomime from "The Cameraman," his last great silent film. Buster had hauled his equipment to Yankee Stadium looking for a story but had read the schedule wrong. NO GAME TODAY appears on the screen.

 
So Buster takes the opportunity to walk to the mound and imitate the pitcher and catcher and umpire and other players on the diamond.  It's a classic clip of just a little over three minutes before a policeman chases him away. 

 
I felt it was particularly appropriate to show some baseball comedy in my class because it was Comedy Week at Chautauqua. It was an event co-sponsored by the newly-established National Comedy Center in nearby Jamestown NY - the hometown of Lucille Ball who, by the way, has recently been honored with a more accurate and artful sculpture. 

 
One of the great highlights of Comedy Week was the Smothers Brothers coming out of retirement to commemorate their law suit against CBS for kicking them off the air nearly 50 years ago. "I'm still pissed" were Tommy's first words to the appreciative audience.

 

Both he and younger brother Dick looked in amazingly good shape for people in their early eighties. They contributed a witty opening skit before discussing their careers with moderator NPR's David Bianculli.  A good selection of skits from their heyday were shown. 

 

It was announced that the Smothers archives will be going to the Jamestown center. The organization already has the papers of George Carlin and Richard Pryor and several other comedians. (By the way, I had to share the classic Carlin skit on "Baseball and Football" with my class.)

 
A panel on Ernie Kovacs, the great comic creator of early TV, was very informative and included trenchant commentary by "The King of Rant" Lewis Black and masterful veteran comic writer Alan Zweibel.  Sirius radio host Ron Bennington and Bianculli also contributed very helpfully to the evening at the Jamestown center. 

 

Also very valuable was a discussion of the legacy of Robin Williams that featured Lew Black again and Williams' longtime manager David Steinberg (not the Canadian-born comedian). During the question period Steinberg confirmed that Jonathan Winters had been a big influence on Williams during their "Mork and Mindy" days.  (Yes, I did share with students a few YouTube selections of Winters' crusty baseball characters.) 

 

I planned my Chautauqua gig this year around two musical performances that didn't disappoint. The first was John Corigliano's 1991 opera "The Ghost of Versailles" with a libretto by William Hoffman. 

 

"Ghosts" is a free-wheeling time-traveling exploration of what would have happened if doomed Marie Antoinette had been saved by "The Marriage of Figaro" creator Beaumarchais.  Happily, the fit-looking 80-year-old Corigliano was on hand to take some deserved bows at the end from the cheering throng at Chautauqua's impressive outdoor Amphitheater.   

 
Last but not least, I saw the Chautauqua Symphony's performance of two pieces that promised to and indeed stirred my Russian-American blood, Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony and Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. 

 

Both pieces have melodies that are reminscent of pop songs - a "La Vie En Rose" descending melody in the first movement of the Prokofiev - and a haunting six-note melody in the adagio late in the Rachmaninoff that I am still humming as I conclude this blog. (I think Chet Baker may have recorded it at one time but I am not sure about that.)

 
Looks like there will be some great pennant race baseball building in the last weeks of the season.  More on that in the next blog.  For now, always remember:

Take it easy but take it!

 

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