Storin: Jackie Robinson movie brings back memories

storapse@aol.comApril 25, 2013 

The movie "42" brought back dozens of memories that go well beyond the historic baseball year of 1947 when Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in the major leagues.

I was a college student, ushering at newly built Miami Stadium the first time I saw Robinson play in the spring of 1950. Vero Beach was the training site for Brooklyn in those days, but they played a dozen games in Miami.

There was a section down the right field line designated for the "colored" patrons, and I was assigned there for several games.

Robinson was in his fourth year and well established as one of the game's best players. As you can imagine, the blacks turned out in great numbers and it was standing room only for most games.

After a few games, with a large number of empty seats elsewhere in the 13,500-seat stadium, the black section was expanded to include areas behind first base. Money talked in baseball, even way back then.

It's hard to believe, but a few years later the stadium was still segregated and black players were not allowed to stay at the downtown hotel that housed the Dodgers.

In my early years as a sports writer I recall going to a black neighborhood called "Overtown" to interview Dodgers stars such as Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.

A great deal of the movie "42" is devoted to the despicable treatment the rookie Robinson got from players, fans, opposing managers and even some of his own teammates.

As the movie points out, Robinson had been carefully chosen for this breakthrough moment in baseball history by the president of the Dodgers, Branch Rickey. More established players Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were passed over and neither accepted Robinson in this role.

Red Barber, the legendary baseball announcer who became a good friend during his retirement years in Miami, was a great admirer of Rickey.

But Red admitted he was initially not in favor of a Negro playing for the Dodgers. Segregation was still flourishing in the South and Barber's entire heredity and environment was of the Deep South.

"We always treated Negroes with the utmost respect and warmth," he once told me. "But there was a line drawn and that line was always there."

Barber said Rickey understood this and Red felt that was why he was one of the few people Rickey told of his plan to break baseball's unwritten code prohibiting a team from signing a black player. Red was a beloved member of the Dodger organization and he was being tested.

"When Rickey took me into his confidence in March 1945," Barber recalled in his book The Broadcasters, "I went straight home and told my wife I was quitting at Brooklyn. I wanted no part of that."

But Barber did some inner searching.

"I had to face the fact that my job in 1945 was the best baseball announcing job in all creation. Economics has a relentless way of being the hidden persuader," he wrote.

In making the decision not to quit, Barber said that he recalled the advice once given to him by baseball's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis:

"Don't manage, don't play, don't umpire and don't root when you are behind the mike. REPORT." (This is a policy that is foreign to home town announcers these days, Atlanta being a prime example).

Barber followed the credo of Landis throughout Robinson's career.

As he did with others, he made no reference to nationality or race. Not once during his play-by-play did he mention that Robinson was a Negro, who broke the color line.

This was accurately depicted in the movie scenes of Barber's broadcasts. Unfortunately the actor playing the Old Redhead wasn't up to the task.

But then again, who could be?

POSTSCRIPT: Robinson was 28 -- a bit old for a rookie -- when he broke the color barrier. He played 10 years, and when his skills were diminished by diabetes, he retired. Jackie's .311 lifetime batting average was better than any of his Dodgers teammates. He died at age 53 following a heart attack.

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service