As a teenager, I enjoyed the 50-cent bleacher seats at Ebbets Field on many Saturdays, rooting for my home team with a passion like the millions of fans in Brooklyn. With no air conditioning and the windows open in the summer months, it was usual to hear Red Barber announcing the game on the radio as you walked past any house or apartment with doors open to get cooler air.
Growing up, I had to face Giants and Yankees fans on days when Brooklyn lost, and I just waited for the time when I could give it to them back. Worse luck, my father was a Giants fan who smiled confidently that his team would beat all. In addition, the constant failure of “Dem Bums” to win the pennant in the National League was like a plague visited upon us who, at the end of the season, had to announce “Wait ’til next year!”
When Robinson came to the Dodgers, fans knew they were getting a great player. What many of us did not fully realize was the impact that the first non-white player would have on the major leagues.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE to see him? If you arrived at beautiful Ebbets early to see infield practice (no longer done) suddenly there he was, black as pitch, in his white flannel uniform throwing and working first base and second base, clearly standing out wearing his number 42. The crowd was big and loud as we anticipated that Robinson would come to bat soon. When he did, the roar got louder as the fans encouraged him to get the big hit as he batted from the right side. Even manager Leo Durocher stood at the top step of the dugout clapping his hands to encourage him. We had no idea of the pressure he was under.
When he drew a walk, Robinson began to show his greatness. He danced toward second base, taunting the pitcher that he would steal. The crowd was into it, urging him to go. Suddenly, with blinding speed, he was off to second base sliding in with spikes high. The ball, thrown to catch him, was off the mark into center field and Robinson got up and sped to third. Spectators patted one another on the back.
It got even better. When the pitcher wound up to throw to the next batter, Robinson raced three-quarters the way to home, taking the pitcher’s mind off the batter. “Go Jackie go!” the crowd screamed. The pitcher threw the ball over the catcher’s head and Jackie danced home. We all knew Jackie would bring us the pennant.
WHAT WE DIDN’T know is that the crowds were not the same in opposing ballparks. When he went to St. Louis and Cincinnati, every epithet in the book was spat at him. Somehow this didn’t make it to the New York papers. Again, to us he was a great ballplayer, and Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ president and general manager, had brought us a winner. What we should have realized was that Rickey had taken it upon himself not only to change baseball but to show the equality of black and white. No one could have imagined that the skills of Robinson would force even naysayers and racists to finally admire him.
You also have to give credit to the Dodgers fans who stood behind him for the 10 yearsRobinson played – not just because of his color but because he was one of the great players and human beings of our time. His imprint stays with me always. I feel fortunate that I was there when the first black man entered major-league baseball and changed our world forever. Few will ever forget the scene of one black player among a sea of white uniforms and faces, and the crowd chanting “Go Jackie!”
(The writer is chairman of the Richmond County Democratic Party. Robinson first appeared in the Dodgers line-up on this date in 1947.)