Jackie Robinson Remembered

Article excerpt

THE bringing of Jackie Robinson into baseball was at once the most controversial sports development of the century, the best-planned sports maneuver in history, and as courageous a matching of athletic ability and executive acumen as sports has ever known.

The Jackie Robinson story started, in a manner of speaking, in 1942 when Branch Rickey, a baseball executive with an eye for history and drama, moved to Brooklyn as president and general manager of the Dodgers.

At the time, George C. McLaughlin was president of the Brooklyn Trust Company, which controlled Dodgers policy by right of its trusteeship of 50 percent of Dodgers stock. Rickey told McLaughlin, who was also a ranking political figure, that he would like to meet with the Dodgers board of directors for the purpose of discussing the mass-scouting of players.

That," Rickey said, "might include a Negro player or two." McLaughlin was equal to the challenge: "I don't see why not. You might come up with something. if you find the man who is better than the others, you'll beat it. And, if you don't, you're sunk. "

With the help of McLaughlin, the board of directors approved Rickey's ideas and plans, including the scouting of Black players. All members of the board pledged themselves to secrecy about the "Negro facet" of the new Dodger program, which, in Rickey's mind, was calculated to build a dynasty as well as solve a "problem.

As numerous scouting reports came into the Dodgers office, one name stood out over the rest ... Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro League. And Clyde Sukeforth was assigned the job of finding the Monarchs and bringing Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers office. Sukeforth located the Monarchs in Chicago, where they were playing the American Giants in Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox. Robinson wore uniform No. 8.

As Robinson later said, "When Clyde Sukeforth said he represented the Brooklyn Dodgers and had come to the game specifically to see me play, I almost laughed in his ... face. I was sure that this fellow standing before me was just another crackpot." But by August 28, 1945, when Jackie entered the Dodgers office and met Branch Rickey, he knew this was no crackpot scheme. The first question Rickey asked Robinson was, "Do you drink?" Robinson said no. "That's fine," Rickey said, relaxing in his chair. "Sit down, sit down. We have a lot to talk about."

Rickey explained that he wanted to win pennants in Brooklyn and that, to do so, he needed ballplayers. He explained how the war had ravished the Dodgers of playing talent, qualitatively and quantitatively, and said that for three years he had been scouting hitherto untapped sources, such as the Negro Leagues.

When the basic orientation period was over, Robinson, stunned by the inviting prospect of playing organized baseball, was placed in the most challenging position any player, rookie or star, had ever experienced.

From a desk drawer, Rickey produced a book, Papini's Life of Christ, and began to read aloud. Rickey himself often read the book as a guide to humility

"Can you do it?" Rickey asked. "Can you do it?"

Shifting nervously," Arthur Mann, then a Rickey assistant and friend, has recalled, "Robinson looked from Rickey to Sukeforth as they talked of his arms and legs and swing and courage. Did he have the guts to play the game no matter what happened? ... The opposition would shout insults, come in spikes first, throw at his head. . . .

"'Mr. Rickey,' he murmured, do you want a ballplayer who's afraid to fight back?'

"'I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back!' Rickey exclaimed, almost savagely. He paced across the floor and returned with finger pointing. "You've got to do this job with base hits and stolen bases and fielding ground balls, Jackie. Nothing else!'

At the end of three hours, die admonition, You can't fight back! …