ONE MAN, ALONE

ONE MAN, ALONE

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

One Man, Alone

Branch Rickey was one of baseball’s most innovative executives, a visionary who used farm systems to develop future players and introduced batting helmets to protect hitters from bean balls.

Those were dramatic steps, but nothing compared to the one he took in 1945 when he signed Jackie Robinson for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

What made this such a big deal was that Robinson, a former four-sport star at UCLA and Army lieutenant, happened to be African-American, and Rickey had decided he would be the man to integrate baseball.

For a century, from the time Alexander Cartwright first came up with a plan for a new pastime until the end of World War II, the sport had been an all-white operation. Blacks need not apply.

And then Rickey had this idea.

If blacks could fight a war for their country, then they could be allowed to play organized baseball. He quietly sent scouts to the Negro Leagues looking for prospects. He needed a special player, one who not only had the talent to play major-league baseball, but could endure the most severe treatment imaginable.

This move would be the beginning of a great sociological revolution, one Robinson was not at all sure about. He was not particularly interested in being a trailblazer. What he wanted was a job so that he could earn enough money to get married.

Robinson had been playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs when Rickey summoned him to Brooklyn. They sat in the Dodgers office and talked about details of a contract.

Suddenly, Rickey lashed out at Robinson, using every vile racial epithet he could think of, every word he thought a black player—the first black player—could expect to hear on the field. It was a test to see how much Robinson could take.

Finally, Robinson shot back.

“Mr. Rickey,” he said, “do you want someone who’s afraid to fight back?”

“No,” replied Rickey, “I want someone with the guts not to fight back.”

After a year playing minor-league ball in Montreal, Robinson was promoted. On opening day of the 1947 season, he was in the Dodgers line-up, batting second and playing first base. Not all his teammates were thrilled with the situation. Some Southern players, including outfielder Dixie Walker and pitcher Hugh Casey, led an attempted revolt, complete with petitions, in spring training. Dodgers management crushed it.

Eddie Stanky, a native of Mobile, Alabama, would bat ahead of Robinson in the line-up and play alongside him at second base. He made it clear that this was not his choice.

“I want you to know something,” he told Robinson on the eve of the opener. “You’re on this ball club and as far as I’m concerned that makes you one of twenty-five players on my team. But before I play with you, I want you to know how I feel about it. I want you to know I don’t like it. I want you to know I don’t like you.”

As expected, every place the Dodgers played, abuse rained down on Robinson. It was vile and ugly, the most horrible treatment imaginable.

It followed Robinson from city to city. In St. Louis, the Cardinals threatened to strike rather than play against a team with a black man on it. In Cincinnati, there were death threats. In Philadelphia, the bench jockeys unleashed a tirade of curses that went beyond anything Robinson had ever heard.

He went out on the field and took it all, took it silently, often standing, hands on hips, hearing it all, trying not to hear it all.

After about a month, the abuse became just too much. Finally, one Dodger couldn’t take it anymore and shouted into the Phillies dugout.

“Listen, you yellow-bellied SOBs, why don’t you yell at somebody who can answer back?”

The defender was Stanky, the man who had told Robinson off before the season started.

Robinson was thrown at routinely, sent sprawling on a daily basis. In the first two months of the season, he was hit by pitches six times, as many times as any National League player had been hit the entire previous season.

Still, he pressed on, becoming rookie of the year as the Dodgers won the pennant. In the off-season, Stanky was traded and Brooklyn moved Robinson to second base, to play alongside Pee Wee Reese, another Southerner, who had grown up in Louisville, Kentucky.

Robinson was still under orders from Rickey not to respond to the curses and insults, and he held up his part of the bargain. It was no easy task for this proud black man. The abuse was every bit as constant as it had been in his rookie season. He remained a target—a lonely, helpless target.

One day in Cincinnati, the abuse became particularly ugly. Robinson stood at his position, trying to look impassive, but his head was down, his shoulder sagging. The Dodgers were changing pitchers when a teammate walked over and put his arm over Robinson’s shoulder, a silent but eloquent statement that he was not alone in this fight.

When Robinson looked up, the man standing next to him was Reese. They both broke into wide grins, the shortstop from Kentucky and the black second baseman from California. That simple gesture was a turning point. The message was that they were in this thing together and they would come out of it the same way—together.

Hal Bock

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