Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More Jackie Robinson

I've done a lot of research into Jackie Robinson's career, especially his first season. Somebody beat me to writing a book about it (Opening Day by Jonathan Eig). But I wanted to share with you the dramatic story of the signing of Robinson by Dodgers' GM Branch Rickey. This is an oft-told tale but some fans may not know it.

Imagine the scene. Robinson and Rickey are in the Dodgers' office in Brooklyn.  Rickey asks if Robinson knows why he's there. Robinson tells him what the scout who brought him there said: that Rickey is starting a new Negro league team.

“That’s what he was supposed to tell you,” Rickey says. “The truth is, I’ve sent for you because I’m interested in you as a candidate for the Brooklyn National League Club. I think you can play in the major leagues. How do you feel about it?”

Robinson is stunned speechless.

“Do you think you can play?” Rickey asks.

“Yes,” says Robinson, finally.

Rickey reveals that he had been investigating Robinson for a long time. He knew that Robinson had grown up poor near Los Angeles and had starred in four sports at UCLA. He knew that Robinson had been an officer in the U.S. Army at a time when few blacks were allowed to become officers. He probably even knew that Robinson had been wrongly accused of disrespecting a superior officer in an incident stemming from Jackie’s refusal to move to the back of an Army bus. And that Robinson had successfully fought all the charges against him and was honorably discharged from the Army.

Rickey seemed to know everything. And he admired Robinson for always standing up for himself. But now what he wanted to know was whether Robinson could withstand the pressure of breaking the color line.

Rickey warns Robinson about what he would face. Pitches thrown at his head. Racial insults from fans and opposing players. Base runners sliding with spikes high. Umpires calling close plays against him. Maybe even death threats.

To everything, Robinson says he can handle it.

Then Rickey insists on a commitment from Robinson: no fighting back. No matter what happens, no matter what names he is called, Robinson is supposed to respond with silence.

But Robinson was not known for turning the other cheek when confronted with a challenge. “Are you looking for someone who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?” he asks, his voice rising.

“I’m looking for someone with guts enough not to fight back!” Rickey replies.

Rickey believed that if Robinson could remain quiet for three years, it would be long enough for the rest of the league to see that blacks and whites could play alongside each other without race getting in the way.

Just three years—that’s all Rickey is asking for.

Robinson thinks about it, then agrees to Rickey’s terms. He signs the contract with the Dodgers that day and begins preparing to enter a firestorm.

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