August 1945. The Great War was ending, with the Japanese Emperor’s surrender speech coming on the 15th. US automakers were gearing up to restart production for the American public after four years of manufacturing exclusively for the military. The Dodgers (Da Bums!) were still in Brooklyn. And the great Branch Rickey was preparing to make history with them.
In 1904, Branch Rickey was coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team. The team went to South Bend for a game against Notre Dame, and when they arrived at their hotel – actually, not a hotel but the local YMCA – Rickey was told that the joint had “rooms for everybody – except him!” “Him” being Charley Thomas, the catcher, who happened to be black. Rickey got a cot and put Thomas in his own room, whereupon the management tried to have Charley removed from Rickey’s room. Rickey firmly declared that neither he nor Thomas had any intention of leaving, and eventually, after a lot of angry back and forth, the manager of the Y relented. When Rickey went back to his room, he found Thomas sitting on his cot weeping. As Rickey later recalled, “Charlie was pulling frantically at his hands, pulling at his hands. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s my skin. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everybody else. It’s my skin, it’s my skin, Mr. Rickey!”
Charley Thomas went on to become Dr Charles Thomas, a highly successful dentist, and he never forgot Branch Rickey. Nor should anybody else.
In August 1945, Branch Rickey had a meeting that would change baseball, and America, forever. The meeting was with a fellow named Jackie Robinson. But the groundwork for that meeting was laid back in aught-four, and was an indelible part of Rickey’s character from that night in the YMCA on.
Rickey came to the Dodgers in 1942 and immediately set out to find the right man to integrate baseball. He hired two scouts to scour Mexico and the Caribbean countries to search for the most talented ballplayer they could find to accomplish his purpose. But Rickey knew that talent and athletic ability wouldn’t be enough. The man who broke baseball’s color barrier would have to be a man of uncommon character and integrity; he would have to be a man of almost super-human cool and reticence, able to take a mountain of abuse with unflappable detachment and self-confidence. As Rickey himself said in a speech in 1956:
The second thing was to find the right man as a player. I spent $25,000 in all the Caribbean countries, — in Puerto Rico, Cuba, — employed two scouts, one for an entire year in Mexico, to find that the greatest negro players were in our own country.
Then I had to get the right man off the field. I couldn’t come with a man to break down a tradition that had in it centered and concentrated all the prejudices of a great many people north and south unless he was good. He must justify himself upon the positive principle of merit. He must be a great player. I must not risk an excuse of trying to do something in the sociological field, or in the race field, just because of sort of a “holier than thou.” I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time, and even now, is the wrong man off the field. It didn’t matter to me so much in choosing a man off the field that he was temperamental, — righteously subject to resentments. I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load. That was the greatest danger point of all.
The reasons for resistance to integration in baseball weren’t just moral or philosophical; there were financial considerations as well. Prior to Rickey’s “Great Experiment,” as it was called, the Major League teams rented out their stadiums to the Negro League teams for games when the home team was out of town. This brought in a substantial amount of revenue that the owners of those teams didn’t want to lose. It was also widely recognized that the crossing of the color line in the bigs would spell the end of the Negro League, which would put a lot of people out of work. But the thing was inevitable, even if Rickey was one of the only people in baseball who knew it at the time.
So in August ’45 he had his meeting with Robinson. Rickey had used a little subterfuge when he sent his scouts out, and also when he called Robinson in to meet with him that day: he told everyone he planned to start a black team himself called the Brown Dodgers. But when he got Robinson in his office, he revealed the truth: he was going to put Robinson on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. There would be no Brown Dodgers team; Robinson was going to be the man called on to integrate baseball, and Rickey needed to make sure that Robinson was up to the challenge. For hours he hurled insults and epithets at Robinson, giving him a small sampling of what he could expect once the color line was crossed. He acted out likely scenarios designed to get Robinson’s goat, to rattle him as much as possible. Robinson bore up under the strain and never lost his composure, and Rickey knew he had his man.
Robinson himself was no stranger to racial controversy. He had been court martialed in 1942 when he was in the Army for refusing an order to move to the back of a bus; the order was found to be in violation of Army regs, and Robinson was exonerated. There were other incidents as well. The tendency today seems to be to sanitize – or infantilize – Robinson as “the Good Nigger,” a man who took the slings and arrows of outrageous abuse without ever once losing his Stepin Fetchit Sambo smile. But Robinson had a deep and abiding anger over racial injustice in America, and it stayed with him all his life. In 1946, he started with Brooklyn’s top farm team, the Montreal Royals, and was subjected to the same kind of abuse he got the next year in New York. He later claimed to have been close to a nervous breakdown and was said to have been relieved when a doctor told him that some chronic health problems he had been suffering were from stress and not cancer. Of course, as far as I’m concerned, all this just makes him that much more of a hero; that he could manage his first year with the Dodgers and maintain his public composure and grace speaks volumes about the man’s courage, self-control, and essential dignity.
And abuse he got, plenty of it. Along with Rickey and his family, Robinson had to deal with everything from refusal of service in restaurants all over New York to death threats to angry fans hurling garbage from the stands. His teammates on the Dodgers organized a petition against allowing him to play, which fizzled when team captain Peewee Reese and several others publicly welcomed him to the Dodgers clubhouse. Rickey couldn’t get a cab in New York for love nor money. Other teams threatened a boycott against the Bums which eventually came to nothing.
But Robinson and Rickey persevered and eventually won their war. Time passed, and Robinson was accepted as the fine player he was. He was a six-time All Star and played in six World Series. In that first tumultuous year, he was named Rookie of the Year and led the league in stolen bases, and finished second in runs scored. He was MVP in ’49 and led the league in hitting. He had a lifetime batting average of .317 and in 1955 became one of just 12 players ever to steal home in a World Series.
And now it’s 2003, and we’re in a completely different place in terms of race relations. Not to say that racial prejudice has been eliminated altogether; far from it. But the intolerance we see nowadays is of a more personal type that I don’t think humanity will ever completely rid itself of, and institutional racism of the kind Rickey and Robinson fought so hard against is a mere foul shadow of what it once was. I mean, think of it: the most pitched racial battles today are usually fought over ridiculously trivial matters when compared to the battles those two legends fought. Folks who make their living off of racial disharmony are reduced to picking at old scabs like the Confederate battle flag. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson simply don’t have much in the way of worthy causes to choose from, so they spend their time scuttling around the nation like the dung-beetles they are trying to stir up controversy wherever they can to keep those donations pouring in.
And all the while, a growing black American middle class goes about the business of building a better life for themselves and their families, ignoring the shouts of race-baiters who would prefer to keep them all on the Democrat plantation, sucking at the teat of dependent misery and outdated bitterness. You can’t tell them this isn’t the land of opportunity; they’re out there doing the things that those who wish to keep them poor and stupid always say are impossible without government help.
Sure, racial prejudice still festers out there, in places. But it’s no longer a life-threatening cancer on the body politic; at worst, it’s become more of a minor scrape that will heal eventually and not even leave much of a scar. I think at this point it’s fair to say that the worst is behind us, and it’s thanks to giants like Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson that this is so. Every American owes men like these a great debt, and ought to be proud to lift a glass to honor their memory this Independence Day.