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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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On Mike Piazza, "Angels in the Outfield", Gabriel Faure, and Shirley Knight & The Solace of Baseball, Movies, and Music In A Time of Unease

The enforced isolation of sheltering in space has allowed me to taste many dishes these days from the worlds of baseball and music and movies. Here's a rundown of some highlights and recommendations for the next week or so.

 

On Fri aft Apr 24, MLBTV replayed the Mets' thrilling 3-2 victory over the Braves on Sep 21, 2001, the first game in NYC after the 9/11 bombings.  I attended the game and thrilled to the Seventh Inning Stretch rendition of "New York, New York" with Liza Minnelli singing and leading a kick line with various members of the police and fire departments and other uniformed personnel. 

 
I was way up in right field that night so could see the show much better on TV today. Liza was really hyped up to put on a great show despite problems with the PA system.

 

She always reminded people that the song was written for her, not Frank Sinatra though his version is almost always played.  In fact, for many years the Yankees only played Liza's version of "New York, New York" when the team lost.  They have stopped that indignity but now don't ever play her rendition.

 

When you watch the "All Time Games" on MLBTV, you realize how every game has turning points and chances for redemption. Earlier in the game, Mike Piazza had been unable to catch a throw at home plate from right field, allowing hustling Chipper Jones to score the first run of the game from first base.  

 

In mid-game Piazza also stranded a runner at third with two out by grounding out to third.  But he rose to the occasion in the bottom of the 8th with a game-changing two-run home run off New York-born Steve Karsay.

 

There was no over-the-top celebration of the homer by either Piazza or his teammates.  They were happy, of course, but I sensed a feeling that it was a statement of affirmation after such a jarring blow to the city delivered by the suicide bombers.

 

Hearing "New York, New York" again and watching the happy ending, I was yet swept by the bittersweet feeling that it will be a long time before we can experience the joy of watching in capacity crowds.  Not forever - we can't think that way - but it will be a long time. And wisely so until the scientists and sensible public health officials get a better grip on the problem.


So let's take some solace in watching some old baseball movies. Mark down this Tuesday April 28 at 1p when TCM shows the original "Angels in the Outfield" from 1951. It is directed crisply by Clarence Brown (1890-1987), who holds the unenviable record of the most Oscar nominations without a win at six.  

 
"Angels" stars Paul Douglas as the crusty beleaguered manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Janet Leigh plays a newspaper reporter specializing in society stories who tries to civilize him.  Keenan Wynn, 13 years before his memorable turn as Bat Guano in "Dr. Strangelove," plays a cynical sportswriter. 

  

The title comes from a little girl who roots so hard for the Pirates that she imagines angels in the outfield helping them. And whatdya know? They are real. The ever-cheery and bubbling Spring Byington plays a nun who helps facilitate the miracle. 

 
I can envision many hard-boiled sophisticated baseball fans running away from the TV before the film is even shown.  I say give it a try.  In my first seeing, I found it not as sentimental as it sounds.  

 

Even if not buying into the movie, fans can enjoy the baseball sequences filmed at Pittsburgh's Forbes Field. Look for cameo appearances by Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ralph Kiner wearing #4, and Bing Crosby, who owned a share of the Pirates at the time.  

Sam Narron plays a rival Philadelphia coach - Narron was one of eight Narrons from a baseball family in North Carolina that played professional baseball. 

 

Paul Douglas is one of my favorite actors.  He delivers athletic portrayals naturally because he briefly played pro football in the pre-NFL days and was a sports announcer for many years.  He had also been convincing as Ray Milland's catcher in the charming "It Happens Every Spring" released in 1949 ( that film was written by Valentine Davies who the year before had created "Miracle on 34th Street" with Edmund Gwenn as Santa Claus and young Natalie Wood). 

 

On the musical front, if you tune into wqxr.org on line or 105.9 FM, this Sunday night Apr 26 at 10p, the piano music of Gabriel Faure (1845-1921) will be highlighted in David Dubal's absorbing "Reflections from the Piano" series. It is a repeat of the Wed at 10p show.

 

Faure's melodies always are inviting and many of his harmonies are haunting. Oddly, some of his gently dissonant notes somehow reminded me of the much later jazz great Thelonious Monk (1917-1982).  There will be a second Faure show on W Apr 29 at 10p, repeated on Su.

 

Remember, too, that during the daytime Th Apr 30 will be Eve Arden Day on TCM. Unfortunately, they are not showing "Anatomy of A Murder" in which she plays James Stewart's secretary.  It would have been timely since on April 29 Duke Ellington, who wrote the music for the film, would be 121.

 

They are showing films I've never seen - "Unfaithful" at 10a, "Comrade X" from the critical period of 1939-40 at 2p, and the classic "Mildred Pierce" at 345p. The last one at 6p is the so-so filming of her classic radio-TV "Our Miss Brooks". It does have the novelty feature of

direction by "Grandpa" Al Lewis of Munster fame. 

 

Sorry to end on a somber note but it was an eerie coincidence that actress Shirley Knight passed away last week on April 21nd on the same night that TCM was showing "The Group," based on Mary McCarthy's incisive novel about Vassar's Class of 1933 and their first years in the real world.

 

Knight gave an outstanding performance as she always did.  I had forgotten that she had created the role on both Broadway and Hollywood of Reenie in William Inge's achingly beautiful play, "The Dark At The Top of the Stairs."  

 

She always provided a seemingly placid but deeply emotional coloration to all her roles. In some ways she  reminded me of Sissy Spacek before Sissy Spacek came on the scene.  Shirley Knight was 83 and she died at the home of her daughter Caitlin Hopkins who chairs the theatre program at Texas State U in San Marcos.  

 

That's all for now.  Always remember:  Take it easy but take it (even if you have to wear a mask a lot of the time.) 

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