TOM PUTNAM: Good evening. I’m Tom Putnam, Director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, and on behalf of John Shattuck, CEO of the Library Foundation, and all of my Library colleagues, I’d like to welcome you to tonight’s special forum.
Let me begin by thanking all of you for coming, and acknowledging the sponsors of our forum series, including lead sponsor Bank of America; Boston Capital; the Lowell Institute; the Corcoran Jennsion Companies; and our media sponsors, The Boston Globe, WBUR, and NECN. I also want to thank Steven Schlein, a Llibrary volunteer, for the display of items from his collection of Jackie Robinson memorabilia.
In planning this event last spring, we hoped we’d convene with the home team in the hunt for another World Series title. Despite last night’s score, until the final out of the final game for Boston fans, the dream will never die. We are relieved that our planning didn’t jinx the Sox’s chances to get this far, and we promise to adjourn so you will be home in time for tonight’s first pitch.
My favorite baseball story involving President Kennedy was told by Dave Powers - longtime Kennedy friend, political aid, and court jester - who recalled the game at Fenway Park when John F. Kennedy was a young Congressman. Seeing a number of politicians approaching the announcer’s booth, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. encouraged his son to join them. “Give them a chance to see you.” But as he stood, Dave Powers pulled on his sleeves. “Don’t do it. We’re here to see a ballgame, not a lot of politicians.” Unsure of his next move and aware that his loyalty to his father was being challenged, John F. Kennedy took his seat. A few minutes later, the voice over the loudspeaker acknowledging the presence of the other elected officials elicited a raucous round of cat calls and boos, proving that political instincts are often better cultivated in the streets of Charlestown than the halls of Harvard and Wall Street.
Tonight, rather than taking the politician to Fenway, we bring baseball to Columbia Point in keeping with the Library’s newest temporary exhibit, Shaping Up America: John F. Kennedy’s Sports and the Call to Physical Fitness, which I hope you will all come back and visit.
The genesis of tonight’s conversation occurred last spring at a forum that commemorated President Kennedy’s 90th birthday with his fellow nonagenarian Dan Shore reflecting on the events of the 20th century. Moderating that evening was Mr. Shore’s friend and NPR colleague Scott Simon, who asked a question about heroes over the past 90 years whose contributions to our history are often unsung. Among the names that were mentioned - Jane Addams, Louis Brandeis, Oliver Wendell Holmes - was Jackie Robinson, offered by Mr. Simon himself -- perhaps an obvious moderator setup. [laughter]
Anyhow, knowing a good idea when we hear one, we asked Mr. Simon if he would return this fall to help us honor Jackie Robinson during this year in which we celebrate the 60th anniversary of his historic feat in integrating Major League Baseball. Before we begin, let’s watch a few minutes of a Ken Burns documentary that brings that momentous day in our nation’s history to life.
[video clip] [applause]
We are honored to have with us this evening Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, who is the Vice President of educational programming for Major League Baseball. [applause]
SHARON ROBINSON: Thank you.
TOM PUTNAM: She is the author of numerous books, including Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America, which, along with Mr. Simon’s biography, will be on sale in our bookstore immediately following tonight’s forum.
Ms. Robinson is also the creator of Breaking Barriers In Sports, In Life, a national program created by Major League Baseball that teaches students the qualities and values that Jackie Robinson demonstrated, and how to use those values to face and overcome barriers in their own lives.
Leading tonight’s conversation will be Tom Oliphant. All of Boston knows Mr. Oliphant as a correspondent and columnist for The Boston Globe, with which he won a Pulitzer Prize as one of three editors who managed the Globe’s coverage of this city’s desegregation crisis. But as he recounts … [applause] … As he recounts so eloquently in his memoir, Praying for Gil Hodges, he is a New Yorker by birth, whose happiest day as a child was October 4, 1955, when the Dodgers finally won the World Series. [applause] The book’s title is taken from a homily delivered on a steamy hot Sunday at a mass in Brooklyn when the Dodgers first baseman was in a slump. “It’s too hot for a sermon,” the priest entoned. “Go home, keep the Commandments, and pray for Gil Hodges.”
As tonight’s forum indicates, baseball plays a unique role in our nation’s history and identity, inspiring children, fans, historians, writers, and poets. You may have seen the poem by Mary Oliver in the Globe this weekend, offering baseball as a metaphor in which nothing is certain except the way the old players hang on to their smarts, their prowess as long as they can, as the luminous young keep showing up so swift, so quick, with such light in their eyes and such beautiful swings.
In 1947, one of those new players with fire in his eyes was Jackie Robinson, the story that is told in Scott Simon’s biography, Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball. Mr. Simon is the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday and has won every major award in broadcasting for his personal essays, war reporting, and commentary. His next novel, Windy City, will be published this spring. [applause]
One of baseball’s greatest attributes is its ability to reconnect us to our youth and to unite us with new generations experiencing the sport and more for the first time. Earlier this evening, I shared with Sharon Robinson a picture of my Guatemalan-born son, who at the age of 8 chose on his own to trick-or-treat as Jackie Robinson. When I was his age, I had already conceded that my scrawny frame would never develop into that of a major league athlete, and instead envisioned myself as one of those aspiring politicians in the stands of Fenway or the priest delivering a short and peppy sermon. I realized, in preparing for tonight, the work I do now is a childhood dream come true, and that introductions like this are for me a bit like throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway. So indulge me for a moment, as a diehard Weekend Edition fan, to read in my best NPR voice words written by a champion to many of us, Scott Simon:
Jackie Robinson gave his life for something great. Heroes do. He chose to bear the daily, bloody trial of standing up to beanballs and cleats launched into his shins, chest, and chin, and the race-baiting taunts raining down from the stands. And then he performed with eloquent achievement and superlative poise. Robinson allowed that hatred to strike him as it would a lightning rod, channeling it down into the rugged earth of himself. When he was summoned by history, he risked his safety and his sanity to give history the full measure of his strength, nerve, and perseverance. In the end, real heroes give us stories we use to reinforce our own lives.
To hear more of that historic story here tonight, please join me in welcoming Sharon Robinson, Scott Simon, and Tom Oliphant. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s play ball.
TOM OLIPHANT: You know, I can’t top Putnam’s story about his kid, but I can come close to give a little sense of the immense power of this story even today. One of the hot schools in the country right now, as some of you may know, is NYU. The president of NYC is a very indefatigable, big-voiced man named John Sexton, who is Brooklyn down to his tootsies. When you get selected president, you get to do something on your academic robe, and the perk is you can do anything you want. The only thing Sexton did was have the number 42 stitched on the sleeve, which is a little of an idea of how powerful this thing resonates even all these years later.
I’m not so good at arithmetic, but I’m pretty sure it was 62 years ago next Tuesday that reporters were called to the offices of the Montreal Royals, the Triple-A farm team of the Dodgers, for what they were told would be an important announcement. It turned out that in October of 1945, just a couple of months after the end of the war in the Pacific, the Dodgers had signed Jackie Robinson to a contract to play with the Royals the following season. But of course everybody who was present for the announcement knew what it really meant, which was that this manifestation of Jim Crow was dead, and it happened just like that.
To sort of get us going, I was going to ask Scott, if he could, to kind of set the scene of America in 1945. To describe this country that Jackie Robinson was to have such a colossal impact on. Baseball included, by the way.
SCOTT SIMON: Yeah. Well, I guess the first thing we have to note is that the United States had just, along with Great Britain, Canada, had just fought an exhausting and costly war for freedom with an army that was segregated. Segregation was still the norm in the United States, officially, and as we know here in places like Boston, unofficially. Practically. Lynchings were not uncommon and, for the most part, they were unprosecuted. They were not considered a crime.
I think it’s difficult, even painful, for us to recall anywhere our families came from, what was tolerated in the United States in 1945, especially as we positited ourselves, not entirely unfairly, as a beacon of freedom comparatively in the rest of the world. One of the astonishing discoveries, and it was astonishing perhaps only to me as I was investigating the life and times at that particular point, was firstly, of course, baseball had not always been segregated. Actually there were a number of African American players before the turn of the century. I say this with some chagrin - it was actually Cap Anson of the Chicago White Sox who was responsible for leading the movement to segregate the game.
I was also astonished at the degree to which the integration had been a live debate for much of the 20th century. All of which is a way of saying people knew better. The people who were in favor of integrating baseball, making it open to African American players and Latin American players, actually ranged a pretty wide … They were not a coalition, but they ranged pretty widely a field. It ranged from the sports page of the Daily Worker, which was actually the Communist Party daily newspaper, which is actually an outstanding sports page. [laughter] I think I say in the book, I wish they were as lucid about Joseph Stalin as they were about Joe DiMaggio. And Westbrook Pegler, who I think of as being a neo-facist, a far right-wing columnist -- I wish he was as lucid about Joe McCarthy as he had been about Joe DiMaggio. But they were all in favor of the integration of baseball, essentially a man ought to be able to do whatever he ought to be able to do to learn a living in this country.
I had underestimated the degree to which organized Major League Baseball had an investment in segregation. Without drawing out the point too much, in New York, in Chicago, in Washington, D.C., the owners of major league clubs owned stadiums where there were Negro League teams that played at the same time. So the integration of baseball at that particular point would have obviously cost them audience. In New York at Comiskey Park; Chicago, Griffith Stadium; in Washington, D.C., Briggs Stadium; in Detroit.
If I can harken back to what we heard, I think, Gerry Early said in the film, without getting ahead of ourselves - I know we want to tell the Boston side of the story - you really can draw a line through American experience between 1945 and then 1947 when Jackie Robinson took the field. This was before President Truman signed the order to integrate the U.S. Military. This was before the Brown v. Education decision. And I think the degree to which it contributed to that and everything else - the second half of the 20th century is literally incalculable. I mean, I’m glad Tom read that section because I believe Jackie Robinson is a hero to this country in the same way that Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln and, for that matter, the man whose Library is enshrined here.
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, you know, Vernon Jordan said to me once that this was the first crack in the system, the first really significant, serious crack.
Sharon, introduce your father to us any way you want. He came -- except for people who’d followed sports on the West Coast -- he burst on the scene essentially unknown. Who was he? And give me a sense of how you’ve come to view him as a historical figure as well as your father.
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, picking up from where Scott left off, in 1945 my father was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, and Branch Rickey, who was president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, sent his scouts out looking for a pioneer. He wanted more than one black person to move into professional Major League Baseball at the time. So he sends his scouts out, and they came back talking about Jackie Robinson for several reasons.
One, he was considered the best all-around athlete on the West Coast at the time. He had lettered in four sports at UCLA, great tennis player, he excelled at every sport except swimming. Funny thing -- I met a guy recently who said, “Your father taught me to swim.” [laughter] Because everybody has these memories, and I’m going, “Oh, that’s so interesting. So how did that happen?” And he goes, “Well, he took me out and…” And I said, “Well, my father didn’t swim.” And he said, “Well, he probably held me and, you know…” [laughter]
Anyway, so my father was a great athlete across the board. But more than that, Branch Rickey looked further into who he was, because character was going to be so important. Branch Rickey was such a … He wasn’t just a great businessman, he was also looking for strength of character. And one of the things he found about my father was that, again, before Rosa Parks, when my father was in the Army, he was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of the bus in Texas. He had to stand up for himself and defend himself based on the fact that he was in a city bus with Jim Crow laws, but they were still on an Army base and he was an officer. So he ended up winning the case and was honorably discharged. But the fact that he stood up and had stood up from when he was a child. My grandmother moved them from the South, from Georgia, to Pasadena when my father was an infant, when her husband left them, and they were sharecroppers. And so they moved, and my grandmother was this very courageous woman herself, and she moved her family. She worked as a domestic and they were very poor, but she managed to save enough money to purchase a house. She wanted a house in an area that was all white, and it was not Jim Crow laws, but …
TOM OLIPHANT: Pretty close.
SHARON ROBINSON: Segregated. Exactly. So my grandmother sent in a light-skinned cousin to represent her, purchased the house and moved her very black family into the neighborhood. So my father started out right away, as a child, understanding that there was cross burnings and name-calling and all of that right from childhood.
So Branch Rickey looked at all this and I think it was also important that … You know, I tell kids that character -- he had the skills, certainly -- but he had to have this strength of character in order to persevere, to perform despite of the pressure, which is a great lesson for all of us to learn from.
Branch Rickey brought my father in for that famous face-to-face. At that point, my father was just sort of sitting on his hands. My father had this sort of fiery personality, which you don’t get from “The Jackie Robinson Story” where he played himself, but he really did. So people sort of think he was passive, and that’s far from the truth. [laughter]
So he had this face-to-face where Branch Rickey role-played, and he had to make a decision right there whether he was able to sort of hold back that temper and the natural instinct and do battle as a baseball player. My father agreed to that.
I’m coming to understand him as a man as well as a father. I had to deal with such things as public images - the movie that was made in 1950 versus who he was, who I saw at home - and the role Branch Rickey played in his life. He was a very important figure in the entire experiment. He orchestrated it down to not only where they would stay when they were traveling -- because they couldn’t stay in hotels with the rest of the team -- but also he went to the black community and said, “We want you to attend games and want your support.” But he talked about behavior, like how you’d behave when you get there, which is sort of insulting, but Branch Rickey felt he had to have this thing so controlled, and he did this against … His own family was opposed to him. “Why do you have to be the one?” kind of attitude. There really were two pioneers, one from the inside and one who was brought in to play the role. So I have great respect for Branch Rickey as well.
TOM OLIPHANT: We’re dealing here, I think, with one of the most historically important relationships you could imagine, Jack Robinson and Branch Rickey. And if I can just draw you out a little bit more, Sharon. They made a deal.
SHARON ROBINSON: They made a deal.
TOM OLIPHANT: Not everybody knows the ins and outs of it. If you could summarize it, just to understand the forces at work here as history was being made.
SHARON ROBINSON: They made a deal at that meeting in 1945 in Branch Rickey’s office. And Branch Rickey, understand, is a 67-year-old man. My father is in his late 20s, 26.
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s close enough. [laughter]
SHARON ROBINSON: Branch Rickey had this moustache and these eyebrows and smoked a cigar and was quite gruff. The deal was that in first few years -- he wasn’t sure how long it would take to actually break through -- so in the first few years my father had to sort of hold back natural instincts and kind of play it out in his aggressive play of baseball. My father had to verbally agree to that. And they came to signing a contract that was not a written contract, but it was a verbal agreement. After my father agreed, and that was after Branch Rickey went through the role-playing and really put my father in that position, just testing him.
TOM OLIPHANT: Did he give him an example of a taunt? Did he tell him what …
SHARON ROBINSON: Oh, did he ever! Oh boy, yes. He jumped in his face, called him a nigger. He acted as a racist fan, a teammate opposed to him playing, an opposing player. He gave him every example he could think of, just really jumping in his face. At one point my father was literally just sitting on his hands. Kind of like, “What do you expect from me?” And Branch Rickey says, “I expect you to hold back that natural instinct.” So after he finishes this whole discussion with my father, he then produces a book by an Italian philosopher, Joseph Papini(?), who laid out the non-violent approach to social change, essentially. Again, this is before King and King followed Ghandi, but Branch Rickey had been a follower of this particular philosopher.
TOM OLIPHANT: Scott, who was this guy Rickey? You hear so many -- part P.T. Barnum, part passionate Christian, part genuine believer in what he was about to do, and also a penny-pinching businessman who I think was known in the sports columns as “El Cheapo.” [laughter] Introduce this other character in this drama.
SCOTT SIMON: Well, it should be said that Branch Rickey, when he was the General Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals was not prepared to do what he did in Brooklyn. St. Louis was St. Louis, and he made no attempt to integrate baseball there in St. Louis. It was a few years before that.
I must say people have asked me over the years, “Was Branch Rickey really interested in doing something progressive or did he just want to win the pennant?” And I must say, I don’t find the answer “he just wanted to win a pennant” to in any way diminish Branch Rickey’s stature. I think any other motive would have been patronizing. It must be said -- although I think he could have accepted some kind of an award every week for the rest of his life until he died -- Branch Rickey was always very scrupulous about saying, “My only motive was to win a pennant and then to win a World Series. I signed perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time. I don’t deserve any plaques for that.” He had a picture of Abraham Lincoln, to give a sense of history, up in his office in Brooklyn. That even, of course, even in St. Louis.
I believe he grew up with people who had seen Lincoln’s funeral train pass through Ohio on its way to burial in Illinois. Lincoln had been a great hero of his, and he had Lincoln’s picture up in his office. Of course, the easiest criticism to make of him by, I think, people who had too much time on their hands in those days, was that he was just trying to imitate Lincoln or just make himself more important than a baseball club owner. I wonder what we would have said if somebody who had a picture of Lincoln up in his office and didn’t move to integrate the game. He was absolutely a showman, and I think over the years people have asked why Jackie Robinson as opposed to -- and you can fill in the blank -- Monty Irvin, who I think was in Germany at the time, Don Newcombe, who was maybe 19 at the time and was a pitcher.
TOM OLIPHANT: Campanella.
SCOTT SIMON: We could go on and on listening examples. Sure, certainly Roy Campanella. And there were practical answers to that, but one of the answers was that it was Mr. Rickey’s idea. Certainly he could have signed half a dozen people on the same day that he announced Jackie Robinson’s signing, and within a year, he did. Campanella was signed, Don Newcombe was signed and went to Nashua, New Hampshire.
But it was Mr. Rickey’s intention that America would be enthralled by the story of this one, brave, dauntless man walking out onto a field alone. That would have the effect of galvanizing public opinion in a way that, had three players come up at the same time, obviously would have been a little amorphous.
TOM OLIPHANT: You know, Sharon, your mom wrote once that most of us who have tried to understand this relationship, just simply because its historic importance is so immense -- I mean, I gather for the last decade Robert Redford has been trying to develop a movie?
SHARON ROBINSON: Working on it, yes.
TOM OLIPHANT: With him as …
SCOTT SIMON: He wants to play Rickey.
TOM OLIPHANT: He wants to play Rickey. And he’s …
SCOTT SIMON: … old enough.
TOM OLIPHANT: He’s old enough.
SCOTT SIMON: He’s old enough, but Branch Rickey never looked like Robert Redford.
TOM OLIPHANT: Even at 68.
SCOTT SIMON: On Rickey’s best day or Redford’s worst day, they’d never look like each other. [laughter]
TOM OLIPHANT: I have always thought that there is so much attention paid to this extremely important relationship because this is the one sledgehammer against Jim Crow that was not struck by a law or an executive order or a court decision. A guy decided to do it.
But I was going to cite something I read that your mom wrote long ago. That so many portrayals -- it’s so hard sometimes to get it right -- but often it comes across like Rickey’s the paternalistic figure and Robinson is the employee. And, of course, the truth is nowhere near that. How have you sorted out the relationship?
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, that initially it was employer-employee. A friendship grew more after they were both no longer with the Dodgers. And they were friends until Branch Rickey died. I’d also like to point out that Branch Rickey was an innovator in many ways.
TOM OLIPHANT: Farm system.
SHARON ROBINSON: He brought farm system, when the men were all going to … When the baseball players were being shipped off to war, he went to his board and asked for younger men to be brought into the club, thinking that even if after the training that he could then … They’d go off to war and they’d come back and still be young enough to play. So he was always innovative and going to his board wanting to make some pretty big changes.
SCOTT SIMON: It must be said, too, he was certainly called “El Cheapo” and he didn’t like to pay more money than he felt was necessary, and in those days of Major League Baseball, the salaries, certainly compared to now, were astonishingly small. But I think within two years, Jackie Robinson was the highest-paid player on the Brooklyn Dodgers.
SHARON ROBINSON: $40 thousand dollars
TOM OLIPHANT: Pardon me, what?
SHARON ROBINSON: Forty thousand dollars. [laughter]
SCOTT SIMON: Forty thousand dollars. Dice-K gets that for clearing his throat these days, if I’m not mistaken.
TOM OLIPHANT: But for you younger people, they had off-season jobs -- selling insurance, working in stores. This was a very different America, right?
SHARON ROBINSON: Absolutely.
TOM OLIPHANT: How great was the tension within him? And within your family, as this all began, with everything? No matter how much maneuvering there was behind the scenes, it was all on him and what was the tension like?
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, the tension was great, and I wasn’t around, so I’ve heard stories and what I’ve read. And certainly what my father told me. But the tension was great. In fact, there was one point where my father just shut down for a short while and had to take a break. He had to get past that and recommit to what he was doing.
There’s one example that I find very poignant of when the black cat was thrown onto the field and the opposing team said, “Hey Jackie, here’s your cousin clowning around.” My father was absolutely furious, and he hit a double, and with the next player up, he came home. As he’s rounding third base, he looked over at the other team and he said, “Well, I guess my cousin’s happy.”
My father, all of his life, I can tell you, had ways to express that tension. It didn’t come out as an angry man at home. It came out as an activist at home and out in the world. So he was constantly on the telephone, writing letters, marching.
SCOTT SIMON: One of the things that, when I got to do the book, that I couldn’t get over were the letters. These are all, by the way, at the Smithsonian or …
SHARON ROBINSON: The Library of Congress.
SCOTT SIMON: Library of Congress. Your father wrote letters by hand to people from all over the country. And typically, these letters would begin, “Dear Mr. Robinson, I have never before written a letter to a baseball player or an athlete.” Even letters that would say, “Dear Mr. Robinson, honestly I thought I hated Negroes.” And they wouldn’t just say “How do you hit behind a runner?;” they would say, “Dear Mr. Robinson, what can we do to secure world peace?” Or, “Dear Mr. Robinson, what can we do for its …” And your father would write back. It’s amazing.
TOM OLIPHANT: For those of you that want to get into this aspect of Jackie Robinson, there is a book that is either just out or will be out in a matter of days. I think Times published it, Times Books. They had access to this voluminous, and I mean voluminous, file. And we will get to his activism in a second. But the letters he wrote and received, from 1947 practically to the week he died, a very large excerpt of them is published in book-form now, and you can read what he was like. You can almost feel the intensity within him; it comes through dramatically, clearly. But just to bring the narrative up to date for a second, he played 1946 in Montreal. And the Dodgers brought him up for Opening Day in 1947. And this thing was not smooth, as beginnings go. Right, Scott?
SCOTT SIMON: Well, he had a slump right at the beginning!
TOM OLIPHANT: The baseball part of it, 0-for-20 at one point, I think.
SCOTT SIMON: Actually, I think 0-for-23. But it must be said that nobody was better at getting on base without the benefit of having a hit than Jackie Robinson. And of course he galvanized the game when he would just get to first. The way he would dance off second, steal second, dance off second, distract the pitcher, which of course would increase the chance that somebody hitting behind him would be able to get a hit. So he made himself a factor, really, from the first day.
TOM OLIPHANT: How about the teams in the other cities? Particularly as the Dodgers began to travel?
SCOTT SIMON: You mean Philadelphia.
TOM OLIPHANT: Or Cincinnati. Tell whichever story you find the most illustrative. I’ll tell the other one in a minute. But it was no bucket of chuckles in that first month, and give us a feel of what it was really like.
SCOTT SIMON: Well, I’m thinking of Philadelphia, and I’m trying to recall the … Ben Chapman.
SHARON ROBINSON: Right.
SCOTT SIMON: You read about Ben Chapman, the manager, and now you wonder who on earth this half-bright, racist, anti-Semite could or should manage a Major League team. In any event, he was, forgive me; he was an ass. [laughter] And he believed, or as he said to reporters, “You know, Robinson has to prove that he can take it.” And if you could imagine it, he had his players sit in the dugout and lower their bats as if they were making sounds as if they were machine guns in the direction of Jackie Robinson at first base.
Now this I will say, not to the credit of Philadelphia, but Major League Baseball. It was denounced immediately and I believe within two weeks by the time the Dodgers returned to Philadelphia, Ben Chapman knew his job was in jeopardy, and he was begging the Dodgers to let him pose shaking hands with Jackie Robinson.
TOM OLIPHANT: Exactly.
SCOTT SIMON: Of all the disagreeable things in the way Jackie Robinson swallowed what would be his instinctive reaction at that time, the one thing he would permit himself to do - and it must be said, the one thing Mr. Rickey did not ask him to do - was actually to shake hands with his idiot. So they each held opposite ends of a baseball bat between them, and it was not enough to save Ben Chapman’s job.
TOM OLIPHANT: Do you know Cincinnati? And Pee Wee Reese?
SHARON ROBINSON: Yes.
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s about three weeks in. Again, to set the scene, particularly when the Dodgers left Brooklyn, the atmosphere in the ballparks they visited could be -- “ugly” dignifies it in a way. Dick Gephardt, the former Majority Leader of the House, once told me that when his dad once took him to the ballpark in St. Louis, where he grew up, that first year, just so he could say he saw Jackie Robinson play, it was the first time he heard most of the words he later got in trouble for using. No place was more vicious than a river town almost on the Kentucky border, Cincinnati, where the Reds are. Pick it up, if you will.
SHARON ROBINSON: It was before the game started and the fans were reacting to the fact that my father was on the field with white teammates. They sort of turned … Pee Wee Reese, who was from Kentucky, they turned away from my father’s focal point and turned to Pee Wee Reese as a focal point. And like, how dare he embrace Jackie Robinson in any kind of way as a teammate? And Pee Wee walked over to my father. And the story is so muddled from that point on. [laughter] We don’t know if he put his hand on his shoulder or his hand around his shoulder, and neither Pee Wee nor my father had any idea what was said, but it was enough to hush the crowds. It was important not only because Pee Wee was a teammate, but Pee Wee was a leader on the team. So it set a tone that, “Go ahead and do all the taunts you want. We’re going to play as a team.”
TOM OLIPHANT: In the Cincinnati paper of the next day when I was researching one of the sports writers said, “You would hear the gasp when Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson.” Now, according to your father, it happened again the following season, right here. The Braves were still here then, a little bit more enlightened than the Red Sox of that era, but not by much. The way he tells the story in one of his two books, this time it was coming from the Braves dugout, over where what’s now where BU plays ball. They still have the bleachers, they’re still standing here, right? The abuse - and remember we’re talking about the ugliest kind of language you can imagine - is coming from the Braves dugout, and this time Reese and Robinson walked over together and stood in front of the Braves dugout. Reese put his arm around him and they just looked in, kind of like almost calling them out. About that time, it stops. Have you ever been able to understand why some white people behaved well and so many behaved so horribly?
SHARON ROBINSON: You know, when I was writing Promises To Keep, I talked to my mother about this. And I said, “So we had these two buckets. Would the buckets of letters of support be two to one, in terms of hate letters versus letters of support?” And she told me it was the other way around. There were more letters of support than there were hate letters. There were many Americans who wanted this to change, who were excited by the kind of ball that was being produced.
TOM OLIPHANT: Did you father have a sense as time passed, could he feel his impact on the country, that the resistance to this was in fact ebbing, that it had worked and now it was spreading? Did he have that sense?
SHARON ROBINSON: Yes he did. It was a sort of an excitement, and it came out in his playing and his general attitude about the game. He became a baseball player that was important to the team and not just an experiment.
TOM OLIPHANT: Right. You know, again, especially reading the black press from 1947, I was struck - excuse me - by the number of photos taken on the evenings when the Dodger train would pull into towns they were playing in. More often, Chicago is one I remember particularly. The Daily Defender, right?
SHARON ROBINSON: Sure.
TOM OLIPHANT: And the picture is of the platform. In the distance, you can see the Dodgers getting off the train. But the photo is dominated by a crowd of what looks to be 400 or 500 people, at 11:00 at night, all black men with their sons, coming out just to see him. So just to give you some kind of an idea, the colossal impact, that it was not early. And before 1947 happened, before 1945 happened, I just wanted to make sure we mentioned briefly, because we’re in Boston today, an incident that happened right here which I think captures the essence of Jim Crow baseball in a town that, at least at that time, was darn near the capital of it every bit as much as St. Louis or Cincinnati or Birmingham. And it’s called in baseball lore “The Sham Tryout.” Tell us, Scott.
SCOTT SIMON: In a nutshell, Major League Baseball was segregated. Minor League baseball was segregated. There was a Boston City Councilman named Isadore Muchnick, who managed to get past the Boston City Council a resolution that called for both the Red Sox and the Braves to at least give a tryout to African American players or face the possibility that they would be denied beer sales on Sunday. [laughter]
TOM OLIPHANT: Hit ‘em where it hurts.
SCOTT SIMON: That’s really getting dirty, isn’t it? [Inaudible] father, years later, in Chicago, and was Jackie Robinson’s roommate for his first few months in the major leagues. Baseball players had roommates then. We’re talking about -- can you imagine -- room two, sometimes three to a room? They didn’t travel with crews of a dozen people around them and that sort of thing. In any event, they arranged the sham tryout. And I’m afraid I’m forgetting the names of the other two players, Negro League players …
TOM OLIPHANT: I’ll help you in a second, because one of them …
SCOTT SIMON: Sam Jethro was one?
TOM OLIPHANT: Who would be Rookie of the Year for the Boston Braves five years later, that’s how awful this system was. But yes, Sam Jethro.
SCOTT SIMON: Sam Jethro I’m just throwing out …
TOM OLIPHANT: And a second baseman who never made it but was one of the stars, Marvin Williams.
SCOTT SIMON: Marvin Williams.
SHARON ROBINSON: Oh, okay.
SCOTT SIMON: So they had a tryout at Fenway Park. The account of the eyewitnesses is unanimous. Isadore Muchnick sat on the seat, said … He talked about Jackie Robinson slicing vicious line drives off the big Green Monster in left field. As he said, “He just rattled it!” And Joe Cronin, then manager of the Red Sox, later president of the American League, said the immortal and notorious words, “Great ballplayer, too bad he’s the wrong color.” And Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethro, for that matter, and Marvin Williams, none of them were signed that day.
Which is, I might say … I always had a problem when I heard Red Sox fans refer to the Curse of the Bambino. Because if you take a look at the Red Sox record -- in fact it must be said, obviously, that they were in the World Series in 1946. But if you take a look at their record from that day, really, until 1955, really, beyond that, with that great team they had, Teddy Ballgame and others. With the exception of that one year in 1946, they were almost winding up maybe one, two, or three games behind the Yankees. To me, I think, had they signed Jackie Robinson, it does not beg credulity to think they would have been in two or three more World Series at least! So I think, on the contrary, what happened was the curse for not signing Jackie Robinson. [laughter] [applause]
SCOTT SIMON: It should be said those Chicago White Sox should have signed him, the Chicago Cubs should have signed him, the Yanks … any team in baseball should have signed him. But the Red Sox were the only ones to go through the charade of a tryout.
TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed. People who, at the time anyway, the stink would have been much louder and in fact, the city council may have very well signed an ordinance after, because not only did Cronin do the old “don’t call us, we’ll call you” thing after the tryout, but another famous Red Sox name, Eddie Collins, who was the General Manager at the time, also did this. It probably … Something would have happened politically, except the day after the tryout Franklin Roosevelt died. So the story went away, but if you want to understand just how huge this wall was, not just in baseball but in America, nothing symbolizes it better than this story. The Red Sox, by the way and as many of you, I’m sure, know, were the last team in the majors to desegregate. One guy in 1959. The Yankees were among the last also, by the way. Elston Howard. Now tell us a little bit about what this amazing athlete was like as a ballplayer. You’ve seen him play, right?
SHARON ROBINSON: I was too young.
TOM OLIPHANT: You were too young. Boy, I have. Did you ever, Scott?
SCOTT SIMON: No, I was too young also. [laughter] But we’d love to [simultaneous conversation]
TOM OLIPHANT: After 1954, I think, was the first time since, other than Jackie Robinson, when you would hear about a player who could completely take over a game. Willie Mayes is the only person I’ve ever heard talked about in the same breath as him. He could do it hitting, actually; as time went on, he could do it fielding. But above all, he could do it running. Probably as electrifying a baseball player as I ever saw.
My family, we always sat in the left field bleachers at Ebbets Field, which was the least segregated part of Ebbets Field. It was usually about half Jewish and half African American. An amazing United Nations kind of out there. In fact, the first word I ever heard in Yiddish, was some guy shouting “Yonkel” at Robinson, which sort of basically translates into “Jackie.” [laughter] But one time …
SCOTT SIMON: Did you call him “Yonkel” at home? [laughter]
TOM OLIPHANT: It was a low chant. You would hear from the bleachers, especially when he came up to bat. It was just, “Yonkel. Yonkel. Yonkel. Yonkel.” You know? The pride in Brooklyn was just … on the field, it was … We had box seats one night, one night in my life, behind third base. One of the many things that Jackie Robinson could do was go from first all the way around to score on a cheap double. And this particular night, it was like a blur. He was a big guy, he was not a little guy, very thick neck. And he came steaming around second, took this wide turn around third, and for one little second - I’m nine years old at the time - I got very nervous because I thought he was coming right at me. [laughter] I could actually hear him breathe. And you got this feel for this intensity.
But what you also got when you saw him play was a sense of his brilliance. There were plays that he patented that you just don’t see anymore. He’s on first, the catcher tries a pickoff play at first and there’s a cloud of dust at second. If he ever got to third base, it was just the most amazing performance. It always happened and it always worked. He would do this dance. Your father was pigeon-toed, right?
SHARON ROBINSON: Right.
TOM OLIPHANT: And he would get up on, I can’t do it, but he’d start dancing off third. And every pitch, he’d sprint about halfway home. And pitchers just found it unnerving. Many a game affected simply by what Robinson did on third base. And the reason he unnerved pitchers so much was that he was one of the few people who ever played this game who was quick enough and smart enough to steal home. And he did it 19 times in his career.
SHARON ROBINSON: He still holds the record.
TOM OLIPHANT: Huh?
SHARON ROBINSON: He still holds the records.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yeah. I mean, nobody tries this anymore.
SCOTT SIMON: I don’t think anybody stole home all year this year.
TOM OLIPHANT: There are years now that happen when nobody in professional baseball does it. Nineteen times. He studied the pitchers, he understood. The other thing you have to understand is that he was one of the few hitters who was both the ideal slap-hitter - he could hit these line drives. The story of the tryout is true. Nobody ever hit more vicious line drives than Jackie Robinson did. But he also… [inaudible] … if the curve ball hung, he hit it. So we’re talking about one of the highest-impact baseball players of the post-war era, whom this system robbed us of for at least four or five or what would have been his most productive years. So the impact of him on the baseball field was gigantic.
SCOTT SIMON: Can I add something?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yeah!
SCOTT SIMON: You know, when they have these polls of athletes of the 20th century -- and I must say that some people here might be familiar with the fact that I do not take a second seat to anybody when it comes to idolatry of Michael Jordan -- Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali were usually at the top of those lists. Some people would also promote Pele, some people also Babe Ruth. I thought, clear and away, the choice would have been Jackie Robinson.
Firstly, because of the virtuosity he had at a number of sports. Michael Jordan, I think, was not as bad a baseball player as people thought, but he certainly wasn’t a good one. Babe Ruth was, I think, somewhat more than the lummox he’s been presented, but he never seriously, except for golf, was serious about another sport. And drinking. I say that with respect. [laughter]
TOM OLIPHANT: And what is the other word? Wenching?
SCOTT SIMON: Wenching would be another. And you know, Muhammad Ali never dabbled in another sport. Not only was he a virtuoso as an athlete … I think the more I’ve been able to write about sports over the years, the more I’ve had a chance to talk to athletes, the thing they say that separates a great athlete from the merely very accomplished is the ability to play under stress. Nobody played under greater stress, nobody exhibited a higher level of performance under unprecedented stress than Jackie Robinson.
TOM OLIPHANT: By the way, I should say at this point in the program, that it’s your turn in a second, and anybody who has a comment, a story even, or a question, there are the microphones.
And while you’re thinking of what you want to ask, I had a couple of questions for Sharon to sort of fill out the historical picture, because another thing that is special about your father is that this didn’t stop after his last day as a Dodger. Just the opposite. Tell us about your father the activist, the indefatigable activist.
SHARON ROBINSON: When my father retired from baseball, it was in 1956, so he became a Vice President for Chock Full o’ Nuts. But he had a sort of latitude with Mr. Black, who was the president of Chock Full o’ Nuts at the time, that he could be out there in the community as much as he wanted, needed, whatever. So he immediately started working in the civil rights movement. He was down south as much as he was up north. He was raising funds within NAACP, which at that point was a radical civil rights group. So he was raising funds and stomping the fundraisers, and then we started doing fundraisers in our home.
He said to us, at our dining room table … We all loved sports, and we all watched everything on television and played every sport out there. But at the dining room table, we focused on what was happening in the country. It was civil rights first, politics second. My father said to us that “you can have whatever career you choose to have.” At the time I wanted to be a nurse, and he said that was fine. He wanted us to be happy with our careers. But as a family, we’re going to be involved with the civil rights movement and social change, that should be our family mission.
So we started as a family having jazz concerts to raise money for the civil rights organization at our home, which continued after my father died for the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Our first one was in 1963, and Dr. King, the funds were for Dr. King and NCLC and for the jailed civil rights workers and it became very much a part of our life.
My father not only marched, he wrote letters constantly, just argued with everybody about anything. We were talking about 1960.
TOM OLIPHANT: We’re going to come to that. But finish telling us about his approach. Why was he so involved? When I say involved, I mean matters big and small, constantly whirling dervish of activity as if he was still on the field.
SHARON ROBINSON: No, it was his life, it was his passion. He just had to be in there. He also was out there trying to get other athletes involved. That was really hard, and he was really disappointed when they wouldn’t respond, and he was very angry at this sort of duplicity of giving him honors and yet treating African Americans so badly. And so he would always say to us, these are awards and ceremonies, but what’s really important is the activism. And he was just out there. And I try to explain that my father died when he was 54. So he died a young man, but he was, every minute of his time, he was in a battle. And it wasn’t a battle around sports, it was a battle around justice in America.
TOM OLIPHANT: Now you listed politics, I think, second after the …
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, they sort of got closer to …
TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed. Now given where we are, you must explain 1960 in the Kennedy Library, if you can.
SHARON ROBINSON: It was a painful period. I was 10 years old, but my fifth grade teacher had given us an assignment to go home and find out who our fathers were voting for. I went home and begged my father to switch loyalties from Nixon the Kennedy, so I could go in my class the next day and say I was … Because he was going to divide the class according to who your father was voting for. So it was a very painful thing for me. And my father, he was the most stubborn man, well, yes. My father had one, a couple really poor judgments. And that was one of them. [laughter] So in 1960, he supported Nixon. My father was a Republican, although he was actually -- most folks do not ever accept this -- but my father was actually registered as an Independent.
SCOTT SIMON: And he didn’t endorse Goldwater in …
SHARON ROBINSON: No. That was the turning point.
TOM OLIPHANT: But it’s 1960. Different America.
SHARON ROBINSON: Different America. He’s working with Rockefeller at the time. Rockefeller is a liberal Republican and he was very much involved in the Republican Party, and they went up against the Goldwater Republicans at the Convention. That’s when I saw my father split from Republicans. They just saw the change in the Republican Party. My father actually saw the mistake when he went to Nixon and said it was important he went to Martin Luther King while he was in jail. And Nixon refused to follow my father’s advice.
TOM OLIPHANT: And this is down the stretch of the campaign …
SHARON ROBINSON: Very important moment in the campaign. Kennedy, on the other hand, is right in there, and it totally shifted the African American vote to Kennedy and sort of … My father knew that he was in the wrong camp. This is me speaking, but … [laughter] He did. He’s talked about it afterwards, he actually regretted that he was in there. So he felt he had to follow through and try to make whatever changes he could in Nixon’s campaign, but then split off when it became …
TOM OLIPHANT: It leads me to my last questions, and please, because I’m going throw it open in a second. If you have questions, please go to the microphones. In reading the letters in this fascinating compilation that’s about to be published and remembering what your father was like politically at the time as the ‘60s drew to a close, I thought it was very easy to sense at least some disillusionment with the pace of the civil rights movement, at least some disappointments at what had not happened.
A bitterness is an edgy word that doesn’t mean anything to me, but there was a change in your father’s outlook, and he died before we had a chance to see how it would be resolved. But talk a little bit about the way your father looked at America after all the impact he’d had on it, as it turned out, near the end of his life.
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, he did reach a point where he was sort of at a crossroads himself, as was the movement. He did not feel that the NAACP, which he’d supported in the ’50s and early ‘60s, was an organization he could no longer support. He had a falling out with Dr. King - they’d been marching buddies over the war, over the peace movement. My father had a son who fought in Vietnam, and my father was sort of, “We’ve got to support these boys.” And Dr. King was adamant that we stop the war. Sound familiar?
TOM OLIPHANT: Heard that one before.
SHARON ROBINSON: So then there were the revolutionaries, who my father didn’t … He said to me, “Sharon,” -- I came home one time; I was in my quasi-revolutionary days, I never got a black leather jacket, but I got a black vinyl jacket …
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s close enough. [laughter]
SHAREON ROBINSON: I had my tan, came home with my Huey Newton poster, which I immediately put on the wall across from my Degas “Dancing Girls.” My father walked into my room. My father rarely told me I could not do something. There were two things I couldn’t do: I couldn’t have a cat and I couldn’t have this Huey Newton poster in his house. He told me to take it down. What he said to me was, “Sharon, black people cannot take up arms and win. They’re not going to do it, it won’t work; it’s not going to happen.” So he was at odds with everyone, and believe me, it was really tough at home.
TOM OLIPHANT: Do you think he was in the process of working? I mean the currents were affecting all of us.
SHARON ROBINSON: He was really into economic justice at that point, you know, it was going politics, economic justice. He started to get excited about Jesse Jackson, because he was just coming onto the scene, and very much talking about economic justice. That was sort of a hopeful sign to my father, that there was somebody that was taking them away from the revolutionaries, away from the conservatives and really thinking about this from an economic standpoint.
TOM OLIPHANT: Did it affect his views on the worthwhiledness, to coin a word, of desegregation itself? Was he still a believer in integration? Or had there been, to an extent anyway, a feeling that the larger society had just been too rejectionist?
SHARON ROBINSON: No, my father actually remained, believed in equality across the board. So he felt that everything should be open, there should be no barrier placed based on race. So that would deal with the integration part. I don’t think he ever got to the point where he said integration wasn’t working. Now, had he lived longer, I don’t know what he would have said. But he didn’t get to that point and I don’t believe he would have. I think he believed that this struggle was ongoing, and he just had to stay in the struggle and change as it changed and look at new ways to adapt. But he was never disillusioned with struggle.
TOM OLIPHANT: And maybe you could bring it all the way current by telling us just a little bit about the Foundation and what it’s involved in because to the extent that your father is still with us, in a way you can sense it through what the Foundation does. Tell us.
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, my father died in ’72. In ’73, my mother and a group of friends started the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Do we have any of the Foundation people here tonight, because we have a committee here in Boston? Well, it’s my fault, and I will apologize to them for not telling them. But anyway, we have a scholarship committee in Boston that kind of deals with this region of the country. We have for 30 some odd years, and we’ve supported over 1,000 scholars. We currently have 259 young men and women who are in colleges and universities across the country.
We are very much into leadership development, so we select students based on academic achievement, need, and their commitment to giving back. So we look at whether there is evidence of that in their high school years and earlier and also require of them in their college years. From that, we have seen a real leadership category of alums that have developed. And it works. The alums work with the scholars, and the older scholars work with the freshmen, so the networking that’s been involved and the building of leadership has been pretty amazing.
Our biggest accomplishment, because we actually see these students once a year -- they all come to New York and spend time with us, and they’re involved with our staff throughout the year, so we monitor them very closely, right down to what’s happening with them emotionally. We have a session during the networking weekend -- we call it “family session.” It’s a time for students to stand up and say what’s really bothering them, what’s really going on in their lives. They talk about everything from a grandmother dying, to racism on their campus and how do they handle it, to depression. They have real problems as well, but they come to the group to work that out. So I guess our big achievement is that we have a 97 % graduation rate, which is a pretty … [applause] It’s my mother’s baby, so.
TOM OLIPHANT: Which reminds me, I would be remiss if I also didn’t ask you to tell us how your amazing mom is doing, and is she up to her eyeballs in this work as much as you are. How’s she doing?
SHARON ROBINSON: My mom’s great. She had a tough time this year, which was the first time I ever heard her say she was old, and it was very upsetting. My mother turned 85, so she had a couple of things happen to her that were frightening, and then her friends are all ill or whatever. So she’s feeling sort of fragile, but she’s got it back; she’s got her spirit back. And she has a new project now, and her new project is the Jackie Robinson Museum. We have a $20 million campaign and space, and we hope to have it opening in a couple of years. So you’ll be able to come to New York City and see. You know, I don’t think it’s as large as this, it doesn’t sit out on the water, I know that. But it’ll still be quite beautiful.
TOM OLIPHANT: It’ll be good. And Scott, I have a summary one for you before we turn to the first questioner. Have you figured out in your mind how come it was baseball where this happened first? We do this recitation about 1945: ten years before Montgomery, 20 years before the Voting Rights Act, a decade before Brown v. Board. Why did it happen in baseball?
SCOTT SIMON: Obviously, I really don’t have a definitive answer. Baseball was at that time more the national game than it is today, where obviously basketball and football have made inroads on that. I think there was a sense of baseball being under scrutiny. I think there was a sense of baseball being tied a little more specifically to the life of the country, season in and season out, than it might be here, even in Boston, where they obviously have a very good football team that people like to brag about too. By the way, are they videotaping tonight?
TOM OLIPHANT: The idea is, you never know. [laughter]
It’s like the government. You never know.
SCOTT SIMON: But I think all of that may have contributed something. I must say, for those of us who love baseball, we can be obviously tireless advocates for talking about the way in which it seeps its way into the character of the American people, and I believe that. But I want to assert that only humbly because I think obviously there are a lot of games that obviously have a hold on a lot of Americans now.
I do think that one of the … when Jackie Robinson was introduced, was at the All-Star Game, and said, “I will thank you for the honor, but I will be happier …
SHARON ROBINSON: World Series.
TOM OLIPHANT: World Series. It was just before.
SCOTT SIMON: “… I look across that field into that dugout and I see an African American manager in that dugout.” Because at that particular point in baseball, there were no African American managers. And a certain amount of progress has been made, but certainly not nearly enough.
TOM OLIPHANT: And finally, Putnam said earlier, about that dinner, remember, earlier this year, I guess? When you were listing people from the 20th century and you realized that you could not talk about the most significant Americans, certainly of the second half of the century, without mentioning him. How do you think now?
SCOTT SIMON: Do I still believe that?
TOM OLIPHANT: Yeah.
SCOTT SIMON: Yes, I still believe that.
TOM OLIPHANT: So do I. The one thing that I think the subsequent histories have missed more than anything else, is that I don’t think you can find an American who is most important to the dismantlement of segregation in the second half of the century than him.
SCOTT SIMON: One point. I was reminded by -- again it was earlier this year -- when there was the anniversary of the March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. People who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge said the image they had as they walked across that bridge to try to bring down segregation in this country? The image they had in their mind was of Jackie Robinson walking across the baseball field.
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right.
SCOTT SIMON: That, to me, absolutely typifies …
TOM OLIPHANT: You have been very patient, sir, and we thank you and please go ahead. [applause]
Q: Sharon, I would like to have your comment about the horrors of New Orleans. We were down in Ward 9. Medium income black people wiped out completely. Probably one-fifth have come back, the rest have been beaten down.
TOM OLIPHANT: New Orleans, you mean?
SHARON ROBINSON: New Orleans.
Q: Yes. New Orleans. And segregation isn’t working there. Where is it working? Thank you.
TOM OLIPHANT: You mean integration.
SHARON ROBINSON: Integration, yes. It was horrible. It was horrible on many levels. The inaction of our government, the inability to control it and to get aid to the people in need. Integration not working. My brother and I talk about this, actually, because my brother has had some thoughts on it. But it does work. It’s very important. I spend a lot of time in schools, and the strongest, most interesting schools are always those that are most diverse.
And I think what’s not working is that there is a great deal of re-segregation of our schools and of our communities, and it’s not Jim Crow laws that are creating this, but a different kind of economics. That to me is very frightening because we lose the value of being part of, kids growing up in diverse schools and diverse communities.
I just left one in a very interesting place where the community itself looks completely the same because it’s a new upscale community in Texas. 80% of the housing has to be brick. Everything looks the same, even the Hampton Inn is this fancy brick building. Every community, the schools have all been designed by the same architects. And I was sure, when I went in there, that I was going to see only white kids. And sure enough, it was a pretty diverse student body once I got in there, and rich, and inviting, and interesting.
TOM OLIPHANT: And we can still do. Would you mind if I go back?
Q: Hi, I have one comment and then a question. I was a teenager in the ‘50s, growing up in Brooklyn and saw Jackie Robinson many times. In those days, after the game, there were no steel gates separating players from the fans, as there are today when the players get in their SUVs and drive away. I used to wait for Jackie after the game. In those days, you could give the players self-addressed postcards and they would sign them. They would take the cards with them and sign them at their leisure and mail them. Jackie was so popular, but also so receptive. He would come outside with a cardboard box and you could deposit your card into the box. He also used to talk to the fans. I walked with him a number of times to the subway. He would talk with other kids around me about the game. He was incredible.
SHARON ROBINSON: Yes. Thank you.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you for that very much. I’ll add one. You could be walking down Montague Street with a friend and, you know, most of the Dodgers lived in Brooklyn. Your father was a little unusual in that they went to Connecticut two or three years in maybe?
SHARON ROBINSON: Four.
TOM OLIPHANT: Yeah, ’54. But you’d be walking down Montague Street toward Ebbets Field with a friend, and these guys commuted within Brooklyn to their jobs as baseball players. Sometimes if you waved at a passing car, it would stop. It happened to me and my friend once. In the car were Junior Gilliam - they called him Junior Gilliam then, later Jim Gilliam - and, of all people, Shotgun Shuba, George “Shotgun” Shuba. Two Dodgers carpooling to work, waved at by a couple of kids who stop and give them a ride the rest of the way. [simultaneous conversation] You’d get shot for that now!
SHARON ROBINSON: I tell people to go to Spring Training. It’s a good time to still have more intimacy with the players. Go to a Minor League game.
TOM OLIPHANT: You know the Vero Beach story. [Simultaneous conversation]
SCOTT SIMON: You couldn’t go to Vero Beach because Jackie Robinson was …
TOM OLIPHANT: In effect, they built their spring training complex in Florida, the Dodgers did, after the war, so that the black and white players could have a decent place to stay while they were in spring training because so many of the motels and hotels in Florida were segregated.
SCOTT SIMON: They had to go to the Dominican Republic.
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right.
SHARON ROBINSON: I think he has an additional question.
Q: I just had a quick question about a story that I heard about Jackie’s amazing athletic ability before his accomplishments at UCLA, where, as you indicated, he was a four-letter man. I’d heard, and I don’t know if this is true, that he was once passing through some city in California, and saw some notice about a ping pong tournament and I had heard that he’d never played ping pong in his life, and he entered the tournament and he won. [laughter]
SHARON ROBINSON: Right.
Q: So I didn’t know if that’s true.
SHARON ROBINSON: Yes. Yes, he could never turn down a competition. Even card games at home with the family, he did not give us the games.
TOM OLIPHANT: In my old racket, we say some stories are too good to check out, and we’ll just accept that one.
SHARON ROBINSON: We’ll just accept it.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you for your patience.
Q: On Saturday, April 12, 1947, I was with my high school buddies, sitting opposite first base. It was an exhibition game, the Dodgers versus the Yankees, before the season began on Monday, and I saw your father come out to bat for the first time, and he got a hit against Aly Reynolds.
SHARON ROBINSON: Thank you for that. Actually, I had that in my book. I had that April 12 date, because to me, that was the first time he came out in that uniform. And we changed that for the second edition. So if you have the first edition, it was April 12; in the second edition, we changed it to April 15 to coincide with what Major League Baseball was saying. But April 12 is very important. Thank you for that. That’s great. [applause]
TOM OLIPHANT: Do you still get them? Do people come up to you and tell you …
SHARON ROBINSON: All of the time. Wonderful stories. And, you know, what is amazing to me is it’s not just the men. It is women that went as little girls. When my father started working for Chock Full o’ Nuts, I used to go to work with him. His office was on Lexington Avenue, and downstairs was the coffee shop, upstairs were his offices; he would sit me on the stools and the women behind would tell me stories. It’s one of my best memories. They had these rectangular brownies with pecans, and they would feed me these brownies and tell me these stories of going to see my father play. So I grew up with that image of how special it was, and I still get it. Yes.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you, sir.
Q: Yes, first, I’d just like to say I teach up north of Boston. I just want you to know your father’s a big discussion in my history classes and all of that, as much as anyone involved in civil rights and the catalyst.
Second thing, I wanted to say, though, is ask you all, maybe all of you, was did your dad ever share at home some of the begrudging transformations that took place amongst his own teammates? Because not everybody was on board with this from the start, and did he ever reflect upon those friendships that weren’t just a snap of the finger made, that took time?
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, first of all, my father would only talk if we asked him about something specifically. He didn’t sit around talking about, “Oh, the days when I played baseball.” He was always on what’s going on now, and what do we do about … We didn’t actually have that really good discussion that I remember until that World Series game, just before my father died. I was then 22, and I just knew he wouldn’t always be there, so I wanted to have those discussions.
But we did talk about some of the quasi-friendships, and someone will say, “Oh so-and-so was his best friend.” Best friends to me come to visit you and you go out to the movies together and have dinner together. [laughter] That is what I think of as a best friend. So, yes. There were quite a few ballplayers, and I loved how Branch Rickey handled that right up from the bat and said, “It’s up to you.”There was a petition that actually went around before my father joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, and some of the players signed it saying they did not want to play on an integrated team. Branch Rickey and the Manager … well, it came down from Branch Rickey.
TOM OLIPHANT: Durocher.
SHARON ROBINSON: Durocher delivered the … the mandate was, “That’s fine if you don’t want to play with Jackie Robinson and we’ll be more than happy to trade you.”
TOM OLIPHANT: Do you want to quickly tell Dixie Walker?
SHARON ROBINSON: Oh.
SCOTT SIMON: Can I quickly take Leo Durocher?
TOM OLIPHANT: All right, I’ll do Dixie Walker.
SCOTT SIMON: Leo Durocher is, in many ways, a much maligned figure. He was never better than when he was given that petition. And this was in the Dominican Republic, and they called a team meeting in the kitchen of the hotel. And forgive the vulgarity, but Leo Durocher gave a speech and -- Leo Durocher, whose name is not often associated with the heroes of the civil rights movement -- [laughter] -- Leo Durocher gave a speech of the kind that Eleanor Roosevelt would not. He took the petition and he said, “You can stuff it up your ass!” And he said -- Oh, forgive me, I just noticed there are children there, I’m sorry -- [laughter] -- He said, “I don’t care if a guy is black, white, brown, or has fuckin’ polka dots. This guy can get us to the pennant. And so far, we haven’t won dick.” [laughter] Which is a, dare I say, Ted Sorensen-like eloquence for a group of baseball players. Leo was, alas, did not become Jackie Robinson’s manager by the time he got to the Major Leagues, because he was suspended for gambling. A slight infraction in an otherwise …
TOM OLIPHANT: Hanging out with gamblers.
SCOTT SIMON: But in any event, because as Mr. Rickey said, there’s a time when you trade and negotiate and there’s a time when you don’t. They had determined - Branch Rickey and Leo Durocher, for that matter, and the Dodgers - that baseball was going to be integrated.
TOM OLIPHANT: One more story involving an equally colorful person, and I think it illustrates how complex race relations can get. And I’m talking about Dixie Walker, who was the Dodgers left fielder at the time. An immensely popular baseball player known in Brooklyn as “the people’s choice.” Churse, as you say in Brooklyn. Excuse me. All-Star, big star at the time. He also had a hardware store in Birmingham.
SHARON ROBINSON: Mmm-hmm.
TOM OLIPHANT: Alabama. And he was actually the leader in the circulator of that famous petition. But there’s more to that story, because after they got outed and the effort by a petition fell apart - and it took about two seconds - one of the interesting things about the racism around Robinson was that it just seemed, whenever you could shine a light on it, it just disintegrated.
But in fact, Dixie Walker and Jackie Robinson had a very complicated relationship, and Robinson understood his predicament, which a lot of the facts about didn’t come out for years. Walker had been threatened from Birmingham, which is a famously violent place, that his hardware store would be no more if he didn’t lead the efforts to block Robinson. Jackie Robinson understood the predicament the guy was in, even to the point of if Robinson was on deck, and Dixie Walker hit a home run, Robinson always made sure that he didn’t shake his hand as he crossed home place, because he knew that would cause problems for him. In fact, Dixie Walker gave a lot of tips and other instruction things. So you think on the surface you’re dealing with racist opposition, you start to examine and you realize how complex all human relations are, but especially race relations. But enough stories. Yes, sir. Thank you for your patience.
Q: Hi. When I was a child growing up in the 1950s, I said to my dad, “You know, the Red Sox don’t win too often.” And he said to me, “Well, why don’t we take the names of all the other teams and put them in a hat, and you can root for that team if our team doesn’t do well,” and it turned out to be the Brooklyn Dodgers. And from that point, I became a fan of theirs. And Jackie Robinson has been one of my heroes ever since. I have to tell you, I come from Auburn, Mass., and in 1962, our Little League did pretty good. Well enough that after we lost, our town sent us to Williamsport and I met your dad, shook hands with him. The other honorary guest was Imogene Coca. [laughter]
SCOTT SIMON: What were Imogene Coca and your father doing at the same place?
TOM OLIPHANT: You’re sounding like Forrest Gump.
Q: There’re two things that are on my mind. One is related to the question you had: why baseball? And I’m not an expert on it, obviously, but I believe, because it was the national pastime at the time and the National League was considered the junior circuit, always under the footprint of the American League.
When you look at who they took between first with Jackie, then with Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe and Willie Mayes went to the Giants, and Ernie Banks to the Cubs, Bob Gibson to the Cardinals, the National League saw an opportunity to catch up, and I think that was part of the thing that really …
SCOTT SIMON: But everybody in baseball knew that the person who had the nerve, the audacity to start signing talent from the Negro League … it was the one place where the Yankees hadn’t scouted. They knew there was a World Series to be had because of it.
Bill Veeck wanted to integrate the league during …
TOM OLIPHANT: Tell a little bit of this story, because it ends up being so important.
SCOTT SIMON: Mr. Veeck, who, by the way, a month after Jackie Robinson entered the Major Leagues, began to sign African American talent and in fact didn’t put them in the Major Leagues at that particular point. Larry Doby was signed about a month and change after Jackie Robinson entered. But Bill Veeck wanted to integrate the major leagues during World War II. He wanted them as Philadelphia would have done it at that point and was prevented from … He advertised his plan and was prevented - and he probably could have won the World Series - was prevented by Major League Baseball. So there were a number of people who were ready, but they just weren’t willing, as Mr. Rickey was, to take the first step forward.
TOM OLIPHANT: You know, Sharon, I have always thought that the Bill Veeck story illustrates not only how evil the Jim Crow system was in baseball, but how in some ways absurd, even to the point of being laughable.
SCOTT SIMON: The first time Jackie Robinson came to bat in the Major Leagues, he was, I guess, Bob Feller was the … and people asked him … No, I’m sorry, it wasn’t Bob Feller, who was it? Oh, consult my book. In any event … [laughter] … He was asked after the game - might have been one of the Boston Braves greats - he was asked after the game if he’d ever seen pitching that good. And he said, “Well, do you know I’ve batted against Feller any number of times?” Because, of course, the great stars of the Negro League had played the great stars of Major League Baseball in exhibition games, which were very lucrative source of income for Major League Baseball over the years, so there was something especially absurd. The top-ranked players knew each other. They’d played against each other already.
TOM OLIPHANT: Bill Veeck tried to buy the Philadelphia Phillies in 1942. They were bankrupt. It was a sale by the League, which is how Washington, D.C. got its baseball team, sort of basically. And he made an offer with his intentions clear: to stock it with African American players. He was blocked. The Commissioner at that time was a horrible cracker named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
SHARON ROBINSON: Landis.
TOM OLIPHANT: Who was a rabid supporter of Jim Crow. They moved in and stopped him. And the sale was made eventually to the Carpenter family, who owned them for, God, almost 30 years, and the price was half what Veeck was willing to pay. Sometimes the system went to extra lengths to make sure it stayed segregated. But that’s probably the closest that baseball came to desegregation.
SCOTT SIMON: Clark Griffith had called Josh Gibson, and another star of the Homestead Grays, into his office in, I believe, 1936 and asked them if they would be willing to play for the Washington Senators. And they said yes and nothing ever came of it.
SHARON ROBINSON: That’s part of why the Negro Leaguers had that whole skepticism whenever the scouts came around. They’d been played with so many times. We should mention, since you mention Landis, we should mention that it’s his death …
SCOTT SIMON: That’s right.
TOM OLIPHANT: And let us now mention the name of the man who took his place, who told the rest of the owners, “I’m not going to let you block this.” His name? [simultaneous conversation]
SHARON ROBINSON: Happy Chandler.
TOM OLIPHANT: He had been the governor of Kentucky, in fact his grandson is in politics in Kentucky today. This is a border state guy, just like Pee Wee Reese from Kentucky. The death of Landis, in some ways, made it possible to buck the system. Tell us another story, though.
Q: Well, I will tell you that there are three things that I remember about sports, and that’s the ’55 Dodgers beating the Yankees; Bill Mazeroski’s home run; and, the Red Sox. And I always told my students, I told them that Jackie’s smiling down with David Ortiz. How ironic that it took the black hero in Boston to get it done.
My question, though, is the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the impact on the legacy on Jackie Robinson when they moved out of Brooklyn. It seems to me that Major League Baseball owes your dad and Brooklyn something more. You know, Yankee Stadium is the house that Ruth built, and to me, Ebbets Field is Jackie Robinson. And I think that Major League Baseball needs to do something. I just feel we’ve lost something.
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, what we’re concerned about, and the retiring of his number is pretty major, and celebrating his … What we’re really concerned about and what we really want baseball to continue to be committed to changing, is the decreasing number of African Americans in the sport. So if you want baseball to do something, and all of us to do something, just look at how you can join us in the effort to expand the numbers, maintain the players. Part of what’s happening is, if they’re not superstars, they get to a point where they’re not being played, so they get kind of lost and then eliminated.
Q: It’s almost like, to me, your father’s legacy has to struggle even now because the place that made him great is gone. You have to fight a little bit harder to remember it. You can go to Fenway Park, you can go to Wrigley Field, you can go to Yankee Stadium, but you cannot go to Ebbets Field. There’s just something synonymous with it. Great. Your dad was great. Thank you very much.
SHARON ROBINSON: You know that the Mets are building a stadium, a replica of Ebbets Field, and we have the minor league team in Brooklyn.
TOM OLIPHANT: Coney Island.
SHARON ROBINSON: The Cyclones, who are very popular.
TOM OLIPHANT: And Yankee Stadium goes down after next year, so there is some justice there. [laughter]
Q: Thank you very much.
TOM OLIPHANT: Thank you for being so patient with us.
Q: First of all, there are two things I wanted to mention. My name is Steve Goode, and I teach at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics & Science, and it is a very diverse school. Next, I would like to say that there was a question about integration. Does integration work? Is it good? I think the answer is already made. When we heard the opening speech, at what his kid dressed up as. It used to be in this country, when I was growing up, that we didn’t have heroes as far as you could watch, that you could see on television. The only hero you had was white.
The irony now is that, because of baseball and many other sports, that children, regardless of religion, race, socioeconomic background, get to pick their heroes from what they see. How many kids walk around and say, “I want to be like Mike” or “I want to be like Jackie Robinson,” “I want to be like Larry Bird.” There are black kids that say they want to be like Larry Bird, but there are white kids who say I want to be like Michael Jordan.
I think that baseball, being the great sport it is, has offered a lot of opportunities for integration in this country, to do away with segregation. I think that, once you go that way, it’s going to be impossible to turn back. [applause]
SHARON ROBINSON: Thank you.
SCOTT SIMON: The Red Sox have, I must say, deservedly come in historically for some opprobrium here tonight. There is an annual birthday party that this - I have actually spoken there - that this Red Sox management has in honor of Jackie Robinson’s birthday every year. And I must say Tom and Larry Lucchino have, I think, been assiduous about not only sighting the very odious chapter that Boston occupies in the Jackie Robinson story, but actually have been assiduous about trying to make certain that, reaching out to the community to people know the story of Jackie Robinson.
TOM OLIPHANT: Indeed, to show you how what goes around, it was the Red Sox - you’ll remember this, Sharon - who initiated the political work that resulted in Robinson being posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which is the highest honor. It actually started with the Red Sox, and John Kerry and Edward Kennedy made it happen.
SHARON ROBINSON: Yes, it absolutely did.
TOM OLIPHANT: So this is different.
SHARON ROBINSON: They’ve made that clear since the new ownership came in, and they’ve really gone out their way.
TOM OLIPHANT: I’d like to pick up on that and ask you another question that flows directly from that comment, and that is, you’re in the schools a lot. Do you hear your father’s story used as a parable a lot?
SHARON ROBINSON: Absolutely.
TOM OLIPHANT: Is it still? Tell us a little bit about it.
SHARON ROBINSON: Well, throughout the grades, it’s used. Fortunately, we have National History Month, and more and more students are choosing Jackie Robinson as their person they want to study. We have books that have been out there so it leads to discussion from the young groups on up. We’ve also had this big 60th anniversary and celebration, and then the 50th anniversary, which increased interest in Jackie Robinson, so I don’t really find … I do have this one cute thing. We were having this long discussion at this school in Texas last week or week before last. They really understood Jackie Robinson, they were having this great discussion. And this one little girl raised her hand and said, “What is the color barrier?” [laughter] It was so perfect, because we just skipped over the basics, you know? It was just great. I just loved it. It gave me a chance to create. It was just fun. We had a good time.
SCOTT SIMON: I’m very nervous, because on November 26, our four-year-old, Elyse, told the people in her pre-school group, that Lena - who is our 11-month-old, was named Lena because we have to have a name in our family that is both French, English, and Chinese - was Lena was derived from Jacqueline, which came from Jackie, which is Jackie Robinson.
And so on November 26, I have to talk to a bunch of four- and five-year-olds about Jackie Robinson. And I’m plotting, because I don’t know how to tell the story, especially because I don’t know how to talk about race and segregation to this group of four- and five-year-olds in a very diverse school where I would rather not be the person who introduces them to that, let’s put it that way. But, on the other hand, I’m grateful for that opportunity.
SHARON ROBINSON: I tell you that you will have no idea of the questions that will come out of their mouths. [laughter]
SCOTT SIMON: There’s a great book, by the way, that Betty Bao Lord did, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, about a little Chinese girl…
TOM OLIPHANT: Another Dodger fan!
SCOTT SIMON: … which is just great.
Q: Another chronic Dodger fan. So let me ask my question. I’m a history teacher, a high school history teacher. I teach U.S. History and A.P. Government and Politics. So this is a story we will have in two days, because I’ll be at a forum here tomorrow on the Cold War. I don’t want people to get too upset, but I am a Red Sox fan. Just kidding, I’m really a Yankees fan. [crowd groans]
My question for you: do you think your father, being the activist that he was, do you think the other athletes of today, if they embrace the character that he portrayed, there would be more of a sort of revolution in sports?
SHARON ROBINSON: Hmm. Yeah, probably so. It’s such a different world for athletes today than it was. They’re so controlled by their agents and so many people that are calling the shots for them, even down to what their charities are going to be. The clubs, the ownership, and all that just kind of controls all that. So you do see some emerge that have … I always bring up Derek, because he’s such a good example. Derek Jeter? This is something he dreamed. He told his family that, “If I’m going to make it, I want to start a foundation.” And he did it right away, before he was a big name. And was doing work in his community, as well as in New York. He was in both places. And he had a family that joined him in this mission.
I’ve actually been very, very lucky, because in my 11 years in baseball, I’ve brought players into classrooms. What they have to do is stand in front of a bunch of children and say what their obstacle in life were. To tell you how nervous they get, we’ll have discussions before. “Well, what can I talk about? Do I have to have this?” And I say, “The more open you are with the kids, the more open they’ll be with you.” And to hear the stories. I have one player, every time he sees me, he goes, “This is the lady that made me cry in front of those children!” He gave me a big old hug because he talked about not having a father in his life. So I have this relationship with a lot of players, and I’ve seen them in action with kids that makes me feel really good. Are they politically active? Not terribly. Are they socially active? Not terribly. My father would be shaking his head, I’m sure.
Q: Thank you, and the seeds are planted, though. So you never know what they may grow.
TOM OLIPHANT: And thank you for your patience.
Q: Thank you. I just wanted to mention something very important that came out of that meeting with Mr. Rickey and Jackie. Mr. Rickey looked over and said, “Jackie, do you have a girlfriend?”
SHARON ROBINSON: Oh, right.
Q: And he says, “Yes, her name is Rachel.” And he says, “Tell me about her.” So he completed telling Mr. Rickey, who says, “Jackie, I have one piece of advice for you. Marry her right away.”
SHARON ROBINSON: Yes, good. [applause]
Q: And the rest is history.
TOM OLIPHANT: The one thing moderators of these forums hate to do is to be the one to call the halt, but we’re going to do this a little differently tonight, and give you one more baseball story, involving what I think may be still one of the most controversial plays ever in a World Series. And Sharon’s dad was right smack in the middle of it.
So close your eyes. It is 52 years ago: Game One of the 1955 World Series. It’s the top of the eighth inning at Yankee Stadium, your father is on third base, and you know what that means. Whitey Ford is pitching. The Dodgers are down two runs. And the only way Jackie Robinson can think of for the Dodgers to be behind one run is if he steals home, which of course would be unheard of today for someone to try. Whitey Ford goes into his windup. Throws. Robinson takes off for home and slides. There’s an intake of breath and a pause. The umpire, a guy named Al Summers: “Safe.” The catcher, Yogi Berra, at that point goes delightfully berserk, and for 52 years, people in baseball have argued about whether Sharon’s father was out or safe. [laughter]
SHARON ROBINSON: He was safe.
TOM OLIPHANT: Tell the truth, Sharon.
SHARON ROBINSON: He was safe at home. [applause]
TOM OLIPHANT: Any disagreement?
SCOTT SIMON: I’m a little shocked that you even broached the possibility that he wasn’t.
TOM OLIPHANT: You never know when there’s a Yankee fan lurking in the shadows.
SCOTT SIMON: I’ve always thought that Yogi’s histrionics explain that he knew that he was just safe.
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, I think it showed that the problem with the Yankees, actually, was always this sense of entitlement. How could a call go-- (*)