Jackie Robinson, whose centenary baseball as a whole plans to celebrate this season, had a playful side that isn’t often discussed when discussing the player and the man. After a few struggles with Connecticut realtors who flinched at the thought of a black family buying and building in some of the state’s more comfortable environs, two bankers rolled the dice for Robinson, his wife, Rachel, and their three children.
“Finally,” Rachel Robinson told Roger Kahn, “we found one builder, Ben Gunner, a bank operated by two Jewish brothers, and they’d take the chance. Ben Gunner and I used to sit out and watch the water and talk and one day I told him I’d always wanted a fireplace for the bedroom. To surprise me, he built one. Then Ben thought children should have a secret staircase. He put one in, and a fireman’s pole . . . to slide down and so many extra things, for which he didn’t charge, he may have gone broke building this house for us. Nothing shakes it.”
Not long afterward, the Robinsons’ eldest son—a troubled young man singed by his experience in the Vietnam War, but trying to remake himself by working with addicts as a counselor at a treatment center called Daytop—was attacked when someone poleaxed him with a board, splitting his forehead open. At the time, his sister, Sharon, was married and living and working in Washington, D.C. (After a career as a nurse and teacher, like her mother, she has since written nine books and is an education consultant to MLB.) His younger brother, David, crossed the country to attend Stanford University. (He is now a longtime coffee farmer in Tanzania.) As Mrs. Robinson spoke to Kahn of the attack and Jack, Jr.’s brief hospitalisation, her husband occupied himself with Kahn’s young children before having to retrieve his son from the hospital.
“When Robinson found [my] older boy wanted to become an architect,” Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer, “he showed him something of how the house was built. My younger son wanted to fish. Robinson found him a pole and baited the hook and pointed out a rock. ‘That’s the best place to fish from.’ He was playing peek-a-boo with my three year old daughter when the time came for him to leave. ‘You and the children stay,’ he pleaded. ‘I wish Rachel could see them playing. That’s what this house was built for, children’.”
Robinson himself at the time dealt with rising health issues. Now white-haired somewhat prematurely, perhaps a crown for a baseball prince who had to play the game harder while at first suppressing much as he began eroding its de facto segregation, Robinson was now under strict doctors’ orders. “I lost weight on doctor’s orders,” he told Kahn. “I have diabetes, high blood pressure, and I’ve had a heart attack. That’s because I never drink and I don’t smoke.”
Diabetes in fairness ran in his family; his brothers also dealt with it. His heart and diabetic issues would leave him almost blind and facing a likely leg amputation. The first heart attack left him bedridden for three weeks. A second heart attack would kill him in 1972, at 53, months after his old Dodgers teammate Gil Hodges died of his own second heart attack. Robinson was among those at the Hodges funeral and said, “Gil was always a calming presence. I always thought I’d be the first to go,” the first meaning from among the men he played with in ten Dodger seasons.
He retired from baseball at 37 thanks to the knees he’d punished for ten seasons finally resigning their commission. And he couldn’t retire without one last shenanigan thrown his way. Before he made his retirement public, the Dodgers traded him to the Giants, of all people, after the 1956 World Series loss, while Robinson accepted a commission to write about his retirement for Look. Unable as always he’d been to say “No comment,” Robinson then had to deal with a more generous contract offer from the Giants, until Dodgers general manager Buzzie Bavasi told reporters he was sure Robinson would play no matter Look because “I know the guy and he likes money.”
Right then and there Robinson knew the retirement would hold, any lingering doubt erased when he awoke one morning to a knee swollen to the point where he couldn’t get out of bed. He entered the corporate world, working for Chock Full o’Nuts, the coffee company who’d created a chain of lunch counters staffed mostly by black people, before trying the insurance business and then food franchising. Before his death, Robinson assembled an enterprise he intended to build low-income housing using black capital and integrated builders and workmen.
He refused to surrender his belief in integration even in the face of rising militancy in the 1960s and 1970s civil rights movement. At a protest near a new state office building in Harlem, which was aimed at encouraging integration, Robinson—who warned the young black protestors that they’d lose if the project failed—assisted an elderly white man who’d been flattened from behind and knocked down by a pair of young black militants and listened to the young blacks hound him as an Oreo.
“They see me in a suit and tie and they look at my white hair and they’re too young to remember what I did or they don’t care,” he told Kahn. “I began to talk and someone shouted ‘Oreo.’ You know. The cookie that’s black on the outside and white underneath.” His Dodgers teammate Carl Erskine (“Oisk” to Brooklyn fans) understood.
“Now I hear people putting him down,” Erskine told Kahn, also for The Boys of Summer. “To [them] he’s a period piece. When I hear that, I feel sorry for them. [They] can never understand what Robinson did. How hard it was. What a great victory. But he can understand them. He was a young black man once, and mad and hurt. He knows their feeling, and their ignorance must hurt him more.”
Robinson often flinched when people pointed out that his business life proved unequal to his baseball life, but his baseball life was just that overwhelming. His major league career was a short one at ten seasons, for which you could thank the colour line plus World War II service. (Where he prevailed at an Army court martial after refusing to move to the back of an Army bus.)
But at this writing he rates as the number twelve second baseman ever to play the game according to the wins above replacement-level metric, which shows him at a peak value 8.4 points above the average Hall of Fame second baseman. He played all four infield positions and two outfield positions during his career, but he played far more at second and was rated there when elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 with Bob Feller.
He was a solid hitter and turned baserunning into guerrilla warfare that only begins with leading his league twice in stolen bases (in 1947 and 1949, a clear opening to returning the running game to baseball) and merely includes his having stolen home sixteen times in his career. He drove pitchers and defenders out of their thinkings; he averaged 197 runs produced per 162 games almost more with his basepath tactics than with his bat.
“You want a guy that comes to play? This guy didn’t just come to play,” crowed Leo Durocher, who would have been Robinson’s first major league manager but for his suspension over consorting with gamblers in 1947. “He come to beat you. He come to stuff the goddam bat right up your ass.”
Said one of Durocher’s coaches and eventual Dodger manager Charlie Dressen, “Now on this team there’s some guys, they don’t like Robi’son. But that don’t mean shit because we’re gonna win the pennant and when they see it’s Robi’son getting them World Series money, he’s gonna look awful white awful fast.” Robinson helped get his Dodgers World Series money for six pennants and the only World Series championship of their life in Brooklyn.
During the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut there were those baseball writers writing against Robinson’s Hall of Fame credentials in terms of strictly baseball play, one particularly grotesque such observation being, “If Jackie Robinson had been white he wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame today, but . . .” Rejoined Allen Barra, in Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century, “Is it possible that anyone without brain damage could make a statement more asinine? If Jackie Robinson had been white, he probably would have been one of the most obvious and popular choices for the Hall of Fame of the 1950s, or, if he had retired later, the 1960s.”
You could argue his Hall of Fame induction was six parts his actual play and half a dozen parts his pioneer position, and you won’t get too ferocious an argument. If you strip the pioneer position from him a moment, you get a bona fide Hall of Fame infielder who was better than eleven second basemen elected to the Hall but fell short of another eight. Being smack dab in the middle of a pack of Hall of Famers is no shame.
(He was another kind of pioneer, by the way: he won the first baseball Rookie of the Year award, a prize awarded to one rookie across the board, in 1947. The leagues began awarding it separately in 1949. In 1987, it was renamed formally as the Jackie Robinson Award.)
But you restore the pioneer position and discover that he was man enough to leave it outside the door when he came home though the temptation to fume over the external indignities and grotesqueries must have been overwhelming.
“My husband underplays things,” Rachel Robinson once said. “That’s his style, Don’t let him fool you. What he came up against, and we all came up against, was very, very rough. He was explosive on the field, and reporters used to ask if he was explosive at home. Of course he wasn’t. No matter what he’d been called, or how sarcastic or bigoted others had been to him, he never took it out on any of us.”
When the Dodgers acquired pitcher Russ Meyer, who’d tangled no end of tough against Robinson, Meyer admitted he was very nervous about joining Robinson. Until Robinson greeted him in the clubhouse for the first time, held out a hand, and smiled while saying, “We’ve been fighting each other. Now let’s fight them together.”
“OK, pal,” Meyer replied. “You just made it easier for me.” In the same remembrance, for Peter Golenbock’s Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Meyer looked back with admiration. “Jackie,” he said, “was a competitor. He played the goddam game the way it’s supposed to be played. He played to win.” Meyer could have been talking about life itself as the man himself lived it, shattering barriers but never remaining less than a man.