Today’s Georges Will column:
Like many New Yorkers leaving home for work on April 15, 1947, he wore a suit, tie and camel-hair overcoat as he headed for the subway. To his wife he said, ‘‘Just in case you have trouble picking me out, I’ll be wearing number 42.’’
No one had trouble spotting the black man in the Dodgers’ white home uniform when he trotted out to play first base at Ebbets Field. Suddenly, only 399, not 400, major league players were white. Which is why 42 is the only number permanently retired by every team.
Jackie Robinson’s high school teachers suggested a career in gardening. Robinson’s brother Mack had finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Whites who won medals found that careers opened for them. Mack, writes Jonathan Eig in Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, wore his Olympic jacket as a Pasadena, Calif., street sweeper, while Owens found himself racing against horses at county fairs, ‘‘one small step removed from a circus act.’’
To appreciate how far the nation has come, propelled by what began 60 years ago this Sunday, consider not the invectives that Robinson heard from opponents’ dugouts and fans, but the way he had been praised. ‘‘Dusky Jack Robinson,’’ as the Los Angeles Times called him, alerting readers to the race of UCLA’s four-sport star, ran with a football ‘‘like it was a watermelon and the guy who owned it was after him with a shotgun.’’
That cringe-inducing fact is from Eig’s mind-opening book, an account of a 28-year-old man ‘‘filled with fear and fury,’’ and terribly alone. It includes unfamiliar details about familiar episodes. There is Lt. Robinson’s 1944 refusal, 11 years before Rosa Parks, to move to the back of a bus at Fort Hood, Texas. And shortstop Pee Wee Reese, a Kentuckian who until 1947 had never shaken hands with a black person, crossing the infield to put a hand on Robinson’s shoulder when Cincinnati fans were being abusive.
But Eig is especially informative about the dynamics among the Dodgers, who, like many teams, had a Southern tinge. The most popular player was nicknamed Dixie (Walker) and one of the best pitchers was the grandson of a Confederate soldier. The Dodgers’ radio broadcaster, Red Barber, a Mississippian, considered resigning, then thought better.
After the opening two games against the Boston Braves, the Dodgers played the Giants at the Polo Grounds in Harlem. The president of the National League, fearing excessive enthusiasm, suggested that Robinson should develop a sprained ankle. He did not, and the crowds were large, dressed as if for church, and decorous. Soon a commentator wrote, ‘‘Like plastics and penicillin, it seems like Jackie is here to stay.’’
Only 25,623 fans went to the game on April 15, 1947 – 4,000 fewer than on opening day 1946 and 6,000 fewer than the ballpark’s capacity. Perhaps some white fans were wary of being with so many blacks. Usually blacks were no more than 10 percent of Dodger crowds, but on this day they may have been 60 percent.
By 1956, Robinson’s last season, he had lost his second-base position to Jim Gilliam, a black man. Robinson died of diabetes-related illnesses in 1972, at 53, the same age Babe Ruth was when he died. Ruth reshaped baseball; Robinson’s life still reverberates through all of American life.
‘‘Robinson,’’ writes Eig, ‘‘showed black Americans what was possible. He showed white Americans what was inevitable.’’
Robinson changed sensibilities, which led to changed laws, which in turn accelerated changes in sensibilities.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s middle name was homage to the president who said ‘‘speak softly and carry a big stick.’’ Robinson’s deeds spoke loudly. His stick weighed 34 ounces, which was enough.