[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.