Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball
Rodale Books, 2014
304 pp., $25.99
Michael R. Stevens
The Integration of Baseball
The final weekend of March hit hard in West Michigan, with the temperature in the mid-teens on Palm Sunday morning, and a snow flurry punctuating our neighborhood Easter-egg hunt. With Michigan State making an unlikely run to the Final Four, and the Pistons and Red Wings clogging up the sports radio airwaves at night, it was hard to remember the 'Boys of Late Winter' at work in Florida and Arizona, in the heat (both drizzly and dry) and sunshine, meteorological realities exiled from our northern climes. In short, I cried out "Bring the boys and the sunshine back north!" And indeed, once again, Opening Day (this year contiguous with Easter Sunday) arrived with fair and promising weather, albeit this year with a touch of sadness as the first pitch of the season was thrown at Wrigley. Yes, boy wonder GM Theo Epstein's great experiment with the Cubs is reputedly ready to reap a harvest, and the arrival of over-achieving manager Joe Maddon from Tampa has the Northsiders all astir. But the sadness lingers, because, for the first time in six decades, the Cubs begin a season without the dignified presence of their living emblem, the great Ernie Banks, who passed away earlier this year. When the shy young Texan arrived in Chicago in September of 1953, he represented the very middle of the long and arduous integration process in baseball—he came in 6 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Dodgers, and 6 years before the Red Sox brought in Pumpsie Green, so that finally every big-league club was onboard. It seems fitting that Ernie was quietly in the midst of this culture-shaking process, proving himself with his performance (two MVP awards, over 500 home runs) and with his love for the game ("Let's play two!") in a tough and at times racially conflicted city. So long and thank you, Mr. Cub.
But the good-byes for historic Chicago ballplayers were redoubled this spring, and echoed across the Southside as well, as Banks' death was followed soon after by the passing of Minnie Minoso, who became the first black player for a Chicago team more than four years prior to Banks, when he took the field for the White Sox in 1949. This great Cuban star (and the burgeoning presence of Cuban players in the big leagues will play a decisive role in my predictions for this year!) is perhaps best-known as the only player to see action in five decades (he was brought back for a publicity stunt in 1980, long after his retirement). But this nine-time all-star had a solid career, with just under 2000 hits and over 1000 runs and RBI's in his career. And so all of Chicago mourns the loss of its baseball pioneers, but perhaps these seeds, long dormant, will sprout up in the eternally deferred dream, the 'All Chicago, L-Train Series' for which Minnie and Ernie would have longed!
Before we get to belated prognostications for the 2015 season (those will come in the second installment of this report), a few more words on the inexhaustibly stirring topic of the integration of baseball. Roger Kahn is a venerable journalist and writer of perhaps baseball's consummate elegy, his award-winning 1972 volume The Boys of Summer, telling the inside story of the early-50s Dodgers, whom he covered as a young reporter. His latest book, Rickey and Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball (Rodale, 2014), is a deeply personal, and at times scathing, archaeology of baseball's greatest hour. Kahn, a lifelong Brooklynite, is now in his mid-eighties but apparently as sharp as ever.
The book is a quirky collection of anecdotes and evidence, including a number of verbatim transcriptions of columns and editorials from the 'Golden Age' of New York newspapers—indeed, the theme of journalistic scruples seems at times central. I got the feeling that this book was Kahn's chance, at last, to 'set the record straight.' Though he only covered the Dodgers for a few years as a beat writer, Kahn's work with the New York Tribune in the early '50s was formative, and his tone here is often elegiac: "In memory I cherish the Tribune and my gifted, cultured colleagues in the sports department. Al Laney, once an assistant to James Joyce. Ed Gilligan, who led me to the novels of Thomas Hardy. The warm, delightful Red Smith, who liked to call his widely popular column 'my daily spelling lesson.' The Trib as more than just a newspaper I worked for. It was my university."
But generally speaking, the 'fourth estate' of journalism was, in Kahn's estimation, the foremost opponent to the breaking of the color line in baseball. Part of this was the harshness of the New York Daily News and its tandem of Jimmy Powers and Dick Young. For both of these writers, the attack on Branch Rickey was predicated on his penury regarding the control of vast numbers of minor leaguers, a system Rickey pioneered with the Cardinals of the 1930s: "Some called the farm systems 'chain gangs,' and one columnist, Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News, almost drove Rickey out of baseball in 1950. Powers was a resolute reactionary and a closet anti-Semite—in short, an unappetizing character—but he championed the salary rights of individual ballplayers with enduring passion… . [This] seemed to blind Powers to the nobility of Rickey's highest calling: integration. Thus Rickey's crusade in Brooklyn proceeded without the support of New York's most popular newspaper." Even more savage and persistent were the attacks of Young, especially regarding Rickey's salary negotiations with Dodger players. During the 1948 negotiations with young and ill-fated pitcher Ralph Branca, Young chose a perverse metaphor: "This morning Ralph Branca will enter the gas chamber for a second exposure to Branch Rickey's oratorical fumes."
Troubling enemies, indeed, both for Rickey as a person and for Rickey as the catalyst for the integration of the sport. Kahn never denies Rickey's love of getting and retaining money, both for the teams he worked for as general manager. (He built three different competitors as general manager: the Cardinals of the '30s and early '40s, the Dodgers of the late '40s and early '50s, and the Pirates of the late '50s and early '60s—a record of achievement unmatched by any other GM.) Kahn writes with some shock that "The magnitude of Rickey's compensation glitters like gold when matched against the salaries of the stars of his first Brooklyn championship team… . While Rickey was banking his $90,000 plus, the collective salary for the entire Dodgers' starting nine in 1947—the team that would win the National League pennant—came to $87,500. All by himself, Rickey outearned his entire ball club." So the sobriquets of Jimmy Powers for Rickey—"El Cheapo" and "the skinflint"—were rooted in reality. But they became a vast red herring for the most powerful members of the media, and Kahn calls the bluff: "What a distraction. Under Rickey, Jackie Robinson was integrating baseball and the country. Under Rickey, the greatest of all Brooklyn teams was coming together with Hall of Fame players at shortstop, second base, home plate and center field. The Boys of Summer had arrived! Yet the most popular paper in New York blew no triumphal trumpets. Blind to both panoramic happenings, the News kept its focus tightly on the ledger, even as a dismal bank clerk in a drab setting drawn by Dickens."
Yet Kahn locates unexpected and quiet heroes amidst the newspapermen with whom he shared hundreds of summer nights in the press boxes of the National League parks, and he lays overdue laurels on the head of Branch Rickey's greatest press ally: "Where, then, can we find a hard-driving press arising and demanding, time after time, year after year, the integration of baseball here and now? Militant and unflinching protests appeared consistently in only one place, the sports pages of the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party, USA. Who wrote most of those protest pieces and led the charge? A soft-spoken journalist from Brooklyn named Lester Rodney, who was born into a mercantile Jewish family. The Brooklyn Jewish-Negro connection never looked tighter." Denied entry into The Baseball Writers' Association, and hence into clubhouses and press boxes at first, Rodney nevertheless faithfully and vigorously reported on the game's not-so-secret racism. In August of 1936 he launched a headline: "OUTLAWED BY BASEBALL: THE CRIME OF THE BIG LEAGUES," which ran with this teaser: "The newspapers have carefully hushed it up! One of the most sordid stories in American sports! Though they win laurels for America in the Olympics—though they have proven themselves outstanding baseball stars—Negroes have been placed beyond the pale of the American and National Leagues." He followed a few days later with a call to fans across the nation: "Demand the end of Jim Crow baseball." It would take ten years for anyone to listen, but Lester Rodney's campaign proceeded undiminished through the turbulent years up to and including World War II.
Oddly, Kahn claims that for much of this same period, "During these years of stirring racial currents, Rickey, the would-be second Great Emancipator, was out to lunch," perhaps biding his time and certainly accruing his fortune. What changed? One key event was the death of baseball's czar, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, elected in the wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal (he banned the 'conspirators' from baseball for life) and hovering over all significant decisions (including the tacit one to ban black players) until his death in 1944. As Lester Rodney told Kahn at their final meeting in 2009, "At the Worker we prepared petitions to open the game to blacks. More than a million people signed them. Figuratively those petitions were dumped on Landis's desk. He was unmoved. The only end to his opposition to blacks in baseball was death. His own death. Within one year of Landis dying, our long campaign bore fruit. Rickey signed Jackie Robinson." Kahn marvels, as did Robinson, at the consistent witness for justice of the American Communist press. One of the touching vignettes surrounding the actual signing of Robinson to the Brooklyn club just at the start of the 1947 season (a year and a half after he'd signed the first deal to play in the organization) is when Kahn recalls the circulation of a memo from Rickey in the press box that Jackie had been signed from the Montreal minor league affiliate, to report to the big club immediately: "Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post stood up and slowly walked to a seat occupied by Lester Rodney of the Communist Daily Worker. Intensely and sincerely Cannon said, 'Congratulations.' " Jimmy Cannon, not to be confused with Kahn's nemesis Jimmy Powers, turns out to be another of the quiet heroes of a frenetically paced New York newspaper environment. After a supposed player's strike among National League teams (and even some of the Dodgers) was put down by National League president Ford Frick, Cannon, whom Kahn describes as a "self-educated Irishman from Greenwich Village, [who] drew on Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway—and of course himself—for a style that many, including Hemingway, found overwhelming," penned an attack on the conspiring ballplayers that began: "'You don't always lynch a man by hanging him from a tree. There is a great lynch mob among us and they go unhooded and work without rope… . They lynch a man with a calculated contempt which no court of law can consider a crime. Such a venomous conspiracy is the one now trying to run Jackie Robinson out of organized baseball… . It is an indication, I believe, that as a people we are a failure and not as good as the laws by which we live." Philosophers with portable typewriters; sports hacks with strong moral visions; is it any wonder that Kahn pines for those days even as he laments and excoriates the slowness of change?
Ultimately, it is Kahn's special access to both Rickey and Robinson over the years (he became close with both after his relatively brief stint on the Dodgers beat) that gives the deepest insights into the difficult and beautiful fusion that these two very different souls created. Kahn includes transcripts of conversations with Rickey (and also the fruit of his perusing of the 100 plus boxes of Rickey's papers at the Library of Congress), and his theme is often the stirring eloquence of the man, a trait that may have alienated more in the hard-boiled press and among the ill-educated baseball men of his day than any measure of piety or penury. Among the many examples that show a philosophic frame to Rickey's mind, my favorite is the incidental remark he gave when asked if he'd upbraided Carl Furillo for his initial refusal in 1947 to play with Robinson as his teammate. When Kahn asked, "What did you tell Furillo?", Rickey responded: "Nothing. I did not bother to speak to him at all. I regarded Furillo as a man in whom talk could arise no moral dilemma because he had no basic moral compass of his own." Kahn, later in the book and in the spirit of his gently revisionist project, notes that Furillo did come around, and prove Rickey wrong, in his embrace of Roy Campanella as his partner in public warm-ups during the Dodger games of the 1950s. Touche, to be sure, though Kahn doesn't gainsay Rickey's eloquent barb toward fellow executive (and chair of a baseball committee formed in 1945 to 'handle' the race question, by burying it) Larry MacPhail—a man who made it his practice to undermine Rickey's decisions both publically and privately, and to mock his 'miserliness' especially. Quoth Rickey of MacPhail: "His creditors grew whiskers whilst they waited." A silver tongue, indeed, and a self-defensive and pragmatic man, to be sure, but a great man, in baseball and in American culture.
And what about Jackie? As I finish up this piece, Jackie Robinson Day for 2015 has recently been celebrated in the Major Leagues, with every player—white, black, Latino, Asian—wearing a "42" on his back, and the 68th anniversary of that earth-shaking opening day has resounded yet again. (As an intriguing side-note, Jackie debuted 63 years after Moses Fleetwood Walker, the fine catcher for Toledo of the American Association, had appeared as the last black player in big league baseball until Rickey's grand experiment.) Kahn had perhaps the most thorough access to Jackie, both before and after his playing career, of any journalist, and this includes the ill-fated venture of Our Sports, a sort of insider sports magazine dealing with racial issues, for which Robinson brought in Kahn as editorial advisor. The project failed, despite earnest and thoughtful writing such as the July 1953 homage to Branch Rickey that they co-wrote, which Kahn includes in full as a kind of court's evidence arguing vainly against the magazine's failure to get a readership. He finally reflects that "Jack and I were dedicated to the ideology of integration. The mainstream press was not. Their interest seemed to be money, only money." Kahn follows this observation with one of his few bitter moments: "I could find no copies, not one, of any issue of Our Sports in all the files and warehouses of knowledge and creativity that constitute America's national library." So 100 boxes for Rickey's ideas, not a single folder for Robinson's chief rhetorical project—for Jackie, it would all have to be expressed in the courage and fire he showed on the field, and Kahn's chief homage among the many for his dear pioneering friend is delivered near the book's finale: "He was a brilliant student of the art of playing baseball," by which he meant, changing the world.
I can't end this review without paying my own homage to the quirks and incidentals of Kahn's long narrative that jump out at me, a sucker always for the hyperbole and sentiment of old-time sports journalism, pared of any clunky language by Kahn's sharp sensibilities. There are great lines and side-facts throughout which show a shrewd eye moved by sheer love of baseball. There is Kahn's memory of the Ebbets Field fare he bought with his dad as a boy in the 1930s: "All game long, vendors bellowed, 'Hey, frank 'n' a roll here!' as they hawked Stahl-Meyer hot dogs. I remember those hot dogs as being just about the finest food on earth. They cost 10 cents. The Gulden's mustard was free." Is there something wrong with me, if a tear wells up at a sentence about mustard? Of Rickey's perfecting of his first significant baseball brainchild, the farm system, upon his arrival in Brooklyn in the mid-1940s, Kahn offers this astonishing tidbit: "Within just a few years, Rickey had established ownership or working agreements with no fewer than 27 minor-league teams. That meant working contracts for about 500 players. Newport News of the Class D Piedmont League, equivalent to a Single-A league today, numbered 15 athletes 17 years old or younger on its roster. Jake Pitler, one of the few Jewish minor-league managers, ran the club and commented, 'Our kids were so young that our team bus was loaded with comic books and candy bars, but practically no shaving cream.' Two of the youngsters were Clem Labine and Duke Snider." The vastness of Rickey's empire, the astonishing youth of the players, the hiring of a Jewish manager, the future Hall of Famer reading Superman on the bus—it's all packed in there.
And to return to the theme of Cuban players, as the build-up to my prophetic turn on the 2015 season, I was stunned to know that Branch Rickey had first scouted a player from that fair island to break the color-barrier in the Major Leagues. Walter O'Malley, who later took over the Dodgers and jettisoned Rickey in 1950, was sent as the Dodgers lawyer in the mid-'40s to check out Silvio Garcia: "He told me to fly to Havana and do a background check. We understood that the first black would have to be a great ballplayer but also a man of character. I'd had some dealings with one of the leading Cuban Jewish families, the Maduros. They were active in a whole lot of areas, from cane sugar to baseball… . Robert Maduro, a good ballplayer in his own right, helped me out. He had a file on Silvio Garcia and it wasn't pretty. First, Garcia was in trouble with Cuban selective service. It looked as though he might be accused of draft dodging. Second, his personal health records showed that he had been treated for venereal disease." Ah, well. But Cuban players are making their presence felt, and 2015 will be the year that Silvio's dream gets fully realized. Kahn notes that Garcia ended his career playing in the Provincial League in Quebec in 1949, three years after Jackie had led Montreal of the International League to the Little World Series crown, in the aftermath of which the "fans chanted his name over and over. Roh-been-son Roh-been-son … . Finally Robinson emerged. 'There came a demonstration seldom seen here,' wrote Sam Maltin. 'The crowd was hugging Jack and kissing him. He tried to explain he had to catch a plane. They wouldn't listen. They refused to hear him.' Finally Jack was able to burst free. He ran through an exit and down a street to a car that would carry him off. The crowd ran after him, shouting and cheering breathlessly. As Robinson ran, he began to weep. 'I'll tell you what made me cry,' he told me. 'I realized here was a big white crowd chasing after a lone Negro, not with lynching in their hearts, but love.' " Kahn draws a breath here, then offers this reflection: "Has there ever been a finer moment in sport?" So, at the nexus of a zealous Methodist skinflint, a proud and brooding young African American athlete, a communist journalist, a frenzied French-Canadian crowd, somewhere in all that an elderly Jewish, Brooklynite journalist has forged a narrative, a document, a massive editorial for this changing of the American cultural landscape, baseball's proudest (and most cussed and awkward and human) story.
Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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