[dc]"S[/dc]urely God must have been with me when I picked Jackie," Branch Rickey said after he looked back at his unprecedented signing of Jackie Robinson to a baseball contract in 1947.
When Robinson died in 1972 of diabetes and hypertension, some white sports columnists wrote that his coming was no big thing and would have happened sooner or later. Others, more cynical, described Rickey's motive as greed. But the fact is that before Rickey no one had done it or even seriously proposed doing it. That's his legacy.
And I guess it's mine too since when I received a publisher's contract to write a biography of Rickey (Branch Rickey: A Biography) I knew I had to find out why so believing and trusting a Christian conservative and Republican supporter of Cold War policies would dare to change the game he revered forever. Very quickly I understood the central role his religious faith played. And for most of his post-Jackie life he peppered his speeches with references to the absence of fairness and justice for Black people and other minorities.
"Why is there an epidemic of racism in the world today"? he began a talk on one steamy summer day in the late fifties in Buffalo to stomping, cheering NAACP delegates. When visited by Rutgers University philosophy professor Houston Peterson in his suburban Pittsburgh home, he called out "Let's go to church." They then drove to a black church and when the 76-year-old Rickey entered, cane in hand, congregants stood and shouted "God Bless you, Mr. Rickey," while Peterson told me the minister shouted 'Amen.'"
I was born in Brooklyn. When I entered my early teenage years little mattered but baseball, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Ebbets Field
I was born in Brooklyn. When I entered my early teenage years little mattered but baseball, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Ebbets Field, which opened in 1913 and drew scores of unique and unusual fans like Hilda Chester ringing her cowbell (immortalized in SABR by Rob Edelman's first-rate portrait of her), a harebrained and annoying fan constantly yelling "Cooookie," for third baseman Lavagetto, and the atonal, amateurish Dodger Symphony, which paraded around the lower stands between innings. A few priests occasionally blessed the team, even though their prayers went unheeded for years and the Catholic Church pressured baseball in 1947 to ban Durocher for a year for his supposed immoral behavior.
Actually, we lived a myth, namely that Brooklyn was an ethnic paradise of mutually tolerant Irish, Jews, Italians, Scandinavians, Blacks. In reality, we lived separate lives but still it was a community of Dodger-obsessed fans who happily accepted Robinson's arrival if not their sons' infatuation with baseball. In Peter Levine's "Ellis Island to Ebbets Field,” he quotes Abraham Cahan, a Jewish immigrant from Russia and editor of the Yiddish language Jewish Daily Forward newspaper answering a question from a father complaining about his son playing ball. 'I want my boy to grow up to be a mensch, not a wild American runner," the father wrote. To which Cahan, an assimilationist and dedicated American patriot, replied: "Let us not raise the children that they should grow up foreigners in their own place."
Until then, Ebbets Field was my cathedral and passion for the Dodgers my faith. One thing about Rickey was that he understood the extraordinary hold the team had on its fans. When he was forced out by Walter O'Malley—he who kidnapped the team and fled to LA (Old joke: An armed Brooklyn man enters a bar and sees Hitler, Stalin and O'Malley: Who does he shoot?)—he wrote about his years in Brooklyn.
"They were wonderful years. A community of over three million people, proud, hurt, jealous, seeking geographical, social, emotional status as a city apart and alone and sufficient. One could not live for eight years in Brooklyn and not catch its spirit of devotion to its baseball club, such as no other city equaled. Call it loyalty and it was."
He was referring to a tradition where speed and technology could never quite supplant his ingrained nineteenth century deep-seated belief that baseball, and the profound city-loyalties it fostered, symbolized continuity in a world fractured by irreparable disruption and unforgivable high crimes. How, he once asked in a speech, can anyone explain the murders of one and a half million Jewish children by the Nazis and their allies?
In 1936, I saw my first Brooklyn Dodger game with my Hebrew school class, shepherded by our rabbi's brother, sadly a Yankee fan. Bucky Walters, a Philly third baseman converted into a pitcher with a windmill motion faced my favorite, Fred Frankhouse, the idol of Port Royal, Pennsylvania. After the game I broke loose from my classmates and planted myself near the door to the Dodger clubhouse and cornered Frankhouse for his autograph. He signed my scorecard and told me I was a nice boy. In 1989, when I read he had died I sent his family a sympathy card and audaciously signed it, "a loyal Brooklyn and Frankhouse fan since 1936."
By the next year or so, with money I had earned as a delivery boy for a delicatessen and a Garment Center company, and regularly fortified with a sandwich and banana provided by my mother who had somehow begun to understand what baseball meant to me, I took the subway to Ebbets Field and sat alone in the bleachers.
I've never forgotten certain special players now ancient history like Gene Hermanski, the first Dodger to welcome Robinson and whose photo appears with Rickey on the cover of my hardcover book and who tried unsuccessfully to get all the players to wear Robinson's number 42 because of threats against his life; slugger and Hall of Famer Joe Medwick who came from the Cardinals in a trade pushed by cheapskate Cardinal owner Sam Breadon and executed by cheapskate Cardinal GM Branch Rickey and was promptly accidentally beamed by Cardinal pitcher Bob Bowman; third baseman Joe Stripp, dubbed without imagination by a sportswriter "Jersey Joe" because he came from New Jersey and whose major contribution was being traded for four players for Durocher; catcher Babe Phelps who was afraid to fly and preferred trains and buses; Luis Olmo, the team's first Puerto Rican position player; Ralph Branca, who surrendered the infamous homerun to the Giant's Bobby Thomson in 1951 (the Giants stole the Dodger catcher's signal by telescope, as the Wall Street Journal reported a half century later), and was an early supporter of Jackie Robinson; Canadian outfielder Goody Rosen and Brooklyn-born pitcher Harry Eisenstat, my favorite Jewish players (there weren't many but Branca later revealed he had a Jewish mother) and Chris Hartje, an obscure backup catcher in 1939, who hit a double before leaving baseball forever, drafted into the Army preparing for WWII.
To keep up on all their doings I was a voracious reader of two gossip, scandal-drenched and loud-mouthed tabloids, the NY Daily News owned by the New Deal & FDR- hating Joseph Medill Patterson, and the other Hearst's Daily Mirror, sketchy and shallow, which- featured Walter Winchell, who I admired until he became Joe McCarthy's ugly echo. Both papers though were blessed with opinionated columnists, as did the Brooklyn Eagle, which to its everlasting credit hired Walt Whitman for a two-year stint as its editor in 1846.
When the Dodgers won the pennant for the first time in 20 years in 1941, the Eagle spread a 12 pt."WE WIN" across Page One and Peewee Rosen and I played hooky to cheer on the players as they were driven by in open cars in downtown Brooklyn.
And then there was the Daily Worker, perpetually blind to Stalin's monstrous crimes while falsely claiming that its Party and sports writers had played an important role in persuading Rickey to sign Robinson. That Rickey, an inveterate anti-Communist and Cold Warrior paid any attention to Communists is not believable and there is no evidence that he ever listened to them. Then, too, he would never have accepted what a non-Communist writer, the late leftist Jules Tygiel, erroneously wrote, namely that the Party and especially the Daily Worker "had played a major role in elevating the issue of baseball's racial policies to the level of public consciousness," a deeply flawed conclusion with little or no supporting confirmation.
In my opinion, the best article on the subject disputing Tygiel's inaccurate judgment remains Henry D. Fetter's definitive study, "The Party Line and the Color Line: The American Communist Party and the Daily Worker and Jackie Robinson," which puts the alleged contribution of the Communists to rest. In truth, as I also found long before, was that Rickey's faith-driven dream and Robinson's great courage led the way to the historic end of racial segregation in baseball.
My baseball. A bucolic game, endless and timeless. Slow, unchangeable and reactionary even as it struggles nowadays to absorb the challenge of analytics and sabermetrics. I know: It's excessively commercial, subservient to corporate control, silent about pointless American wars and gravely harmed by an inexcusable imbalance between the haves and have-nots. I know, I know. But it's still baseball, my baseball. And now, it's my Mets too.
* Murray Polner. Branch Rickey. A Biography (Atheneum, 1982 and NAL 1983; updated, MacFarland, 2007)