Before he was anything else once he broke baseball’s disgraceful colour line, Jackie Robinson was a Dodger. A Brooklyn Dodger. A Dodger as the first major league Rookie of the Year (the award became one for each league in 1949), a Dodger when the Boys of Summer finally made this year next year (the 1955 World Series), and a Dodger when he retired at 37.
My friend Howard Cole, a splendid baseball writer who created the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America (and very kindly lured me into life membership), tried to remind people of that point around Jackie Robinson Day 2013.
“Truth be told,” he wrote for L.A. Weekly then, “while I understand the reasoning behind it, I’m a little jealous of the teams that get to share in the holiday. They didn’t do anything in particular, and some made things as difficult for Jack as can possibly be.” Not to mention that not every team other than the Cleveland Indians (with Larry Doby) and a third Show team got the near-immediate hint.
“I’d kind of like to see just the Dodger players wearing the number 42 on their jerseys,” Cole continued, “with the rest of teams bowing in reverence.”
Retiring Robinson’s uniform number baseball-wide is one thing, but my friend Cole is right. On Jackie Robinson Day—whether everyone’s playing on the actual day or whether, as this week, it covers two days since several teams were off Thursday—only one team has the proper call to wear 42 on their backs.
That team is Robinson’s team.
It’s not that the entire Dodger team necessarily welcomed him with open arms and hugs when he first arrived in 1947. There were teammates who did so. There were others who didn’t. There were those among the latter who petitioned to push the Dodgers not to bring Robinson up from the Montreal Royals, where he’d won the International League batting title and helped lead them to the league championship.
Robinson had to change hearts and minds the hard way. In a Dodger uniform. He had to change hearts and minds on both his own team and the rest of the league. It was easier to convince a barracuda to think about a strictly vegetation diet. Maybe the toughest mind he had to change was the man said to have petitioned the Dodgers to block Robinson’s advent in the first place.
But there the Dodgers were clinching the 1947 pennant. And there in The Sporting News was a remarkable quote: No other ballplayer on this club, with the possible exception of Bruce Edwards, has done more to put the Dodgers up in the race as Robinson has. He is everything Branch Rickey said he was when he came up from Montreal.
That was Dixie Walker talking. The same Dixie Walker who’d once said he’d sooner stay home and paint his house than play with a black man on his team. The same Dixie Walker who eventually made a reputation as a coach for helping young black players adjust and improve their swings at the plate. Though he’d be one-upped by a southern white teammate named Bobby Bragan.
When Branch Rickey called his southern Dodgers to ask about the Walker petition and their real feelings, Bragan said right out he’d been raised to segregation. Rickey agreed to trade Bragan but never made the deal. Bragan’s heart and mind could be changed by only one man. Robinson.
Rickey asked Bragan if he’d play his best with Robinson on the team. The reluctant Bragan said yes, he would. Then, little by little, piece by piece, Bragan found himself drawn to Robinson. They’d talk baseball, on the team train and in the dugout, maybe sharing a joke or two. Before long, as a remarkable profile by Joe Posnanski said, Bragan found himself dissenting from his own family’s dismissal of Robinson. “Wait a minute,” he told his family, “you don’t know him.”
“Bragan and Robinson became friends, real friends, the sort who would go to each other’s houses for dinner occasionally, the sort who would happily embrace whenever they came across each other,” Posnanski wrote. “And Robinson was always proud that Bragan became known as a man who would treat people fairly, honestly, no matter the color of their skin.”
Bragan went further. He became a manager in the minors and the majors and developed a bigger reputation for helping young minority ballplayers—including turning a frustrated kid in the Dodger system into a switch hitter and shepherding his path to the Show, a kid named Maury Wills.
“I think it’s just a matter of becoming acclimated to the thing by association,” Bragan ended up writing in his memoir, Baseball Has Done It. “I was exposed to integration daily under the shower, in the next locker, on the bus, in the hotel and many conversations . . . All this adds up to a tolerant attitude, a little more understanding of the situation than if we’d never left Alabama.”
If only today’s Bragans in and out of baseball were that open. And not just when it comes to black players, black people. When the Indians’ Yu Chang—a middle infielder by trade placed at first base, and a Taiwan native—made an unfortunate ninth-inning throwing error (instead of stepping on the pad for the second out, his throw to second trying for a double play hit Yasmani Grandal in the helmet, allowing the White Sox to score the winning run), he was hit with particularly racist Twitter messages.
“Maybe fix those slanty eyes and you can throw the ball straight jerk off,” said the nastiest of the messages and probably the one above all that hit Chang between his eyes. “Exercise your freedom of speech in a right way,” he tweeted, “I accept all comments, positive or negative but DEFINITELY NOT RACIST ONES. Thank you all and love you all. #StopAsianHate.”
I hope I wasn’t the only one who noticed that that happened to a member of the team that followed the Dodgers’ lead almost immediately, when the Indians’ then-owner Bill Veeck bought Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League and Doby broke the American League colour line in July 1947.
Would you like to know or be reminded how baseball’s re-breaking of the colour line (there’d been black and Latino players in the pre-20th Century game, however scattered or short lived before the colour line was imposed in earnest) actually progressed? Here you go:
After Robinson in Brooklyn and Doby in Cleveland, the next team to admit black players in 1947 was the St. Louis Browns, with infielder Hank Thompson and outfielder Willard Brown. Brown at 32 played one season with the Browns but became a Hall of Famer by way of the eventual Negro Leagues Committee in 2006; he’d been a solid slugging player for the legendary Kansas City Monarchs.
Also 1947—the Dodgers brought up pitcher Dan Bankhead, whose Show career didn’t amount to much. From there, here are the first black/minority players with each major league team of the time:
1949—Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, the outfielder who broke the New York Giants’ colour barrier.
1950—Sam Jethroe, outfielder, Boston Braves. Anyone who says Boston just wouldn’t have accepted black or minority players in those years should be called a liar. The Braves welcomed black players as liberally as the Tom Yawkey Red Sox wouldn’t.
1953—Ernie Banks (shortstop, Chicago Cubs), Bob Trice (pitcher, Philadelphia Athletics), Carlos Bernier (outfielder, Pittsburgh Pirates). Bernier was a black Puerto Rican; a year later, the Pirates welcomed African-American second baseman Curt Roberts. Inexplicably, Show historians tend to consider Roberts and not Bernier the first black Pirate.
1954—Tom Alston (first baseman, St. Louis Cardinals), Nino Escalera and Chuck Harmon (outfielder, infielder-outfielder, respectively, Cincinnati Reds—both players debuted in the same game), Carlos Paula (outfielder, Washington Senators).
1955—Elston Howard (catcher, Yankees).
1956—Ozzie Virgil (catcher/infielder, Tigers).
1957—John Kennedy (infielder, Phillies).
1959—Pumpsie Green (infielder, Red Sox.)
If you want to be absolutely technical about it, only three teams in today’s Show really have any business thinking about wearing 42 on Jackie Robinson day: the Dodgers, the Indians, and the Orioles, who’d moved from St. Louis in the first place after 1953 but who thought nothing of bringing two black players to the major league team in the same year as Robinson premiered.
What should the other teams do on Jackie Robinson Day if they have no call in certain ways to wear 42? I have an idea: Let the teams in both leagues who were there before expansion wear the numbers of their first black players.
Let the Braves wear Sam Jethroe’s number 5. Let the Red Sox wear Green’s number 12. Let the Cubs wear Ernie Banks’s 14 and the White Sox wear Minnie Minoso’s 9. Let the Tigers wear Ozzie Virgil’s 22. Let the Giants wear Monte Irvin’s 20. (He debuted with 7 but changed his number in 1950.) Let the Yankees wear Elston Howard’s 33. Let the Athletics wear Bob Trice’s 23, let the Phillies wear John Kennedy’s 8. Let the Cardinals wear Tom Alston’s 10, let the Twins (the original Senators) wear Carlos Paula’s 31. (Paula wore 31 for two of his three Washington seasons.)
Let the subsequent expansion teams wear the numbers of significant black players who played contiguous to their areas unless we know whom their first chosen black players might have been:
Los Angeles Angels—Julio Becquer, 19. The first black player the Angels picked in the 1960 expansion draft that created the team.
Texas Rangers—Since they were born as the second Washington Senators, maybe they could wear Homestead Grays legend Buck Leonard’s 32.
New York Mets—Martin Dihigo, Hall of Fame pitcher for the New York Cubans, 17.
Houston Astros—This is a stretch: the Newark Eagles moved to Houston in 1948, by which time the team’s most notable players were either going to the Show or gone. Maybe Ray Dandridge, the Hall of Famer who wore 38 as an Eagle.
Kansas City Royals—This one’s a no-brainer: Satchel Paige, who wore 25 as a Kansas City Monarch.
Milwaukee Brewers—The erstwhile Seattle Pilots have a kind of choice: they could wear Luke Easter’s 9, since Easter once played for the Seattle Steelheads; or, they could wear Henry Aaron’s 44, since Aaron was the first black player signed by the Braves after they moved to Milwaukee and played his final MLB season with the Brewers.
San Diego Padres—John Ritchey, the first black player in the Pacific Coast League, who played as it happened for the Padres of that old venerable PCL. Uniform number: 1, I think.
Washington Nationals—Born as the Montreal Expos, well, nobody could top Jackie Robinson who’d been a Montreal Royal. But since they’re ensconced in Washington and won their franchise-first World Series as the Nats, they could go for a Homestead Grays immortal since the Grays played most of their games in Washington: Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, 20.
Seattle Mariners—Artie Wilson, who integrated the ancient Seattle Rainers of the ancient PCL and was the last Negro Leagues player known to hit .400. I haven’t been able to unearth his Rainers uniform number, but when he made it briefly to the New York Giants he wore 15.
Toronto Blue Jays—Charlie White, relief pitcher, Hall of Famer as a Negro Leaguer, and one of the first two black players signed to the longtime minor league Toronto Maple Leafs after Jack Kent Cooke bought the team in 1951. I can’t find his Negro Leagues uniform numbers, but he did wear 24 as a brief mid-1950s Milwaukee Brave.
Colorado Rockies—Middle infielder Bubbles Anderson. The only Negro Leaguer known to have been born in Colorado. Played for the Negro minor league Denver White Elephants, whose schedule often included games against white Colorodan minor league teams. Later played for the Monarchs and the Birmingham Black Barons. Number: 22.
Florida Marlins—Herbert Barnhill, a catcher for the Jacksonville Red Caps, Florida’s only-ever entry in the Negro American League. The Red Caps lured Barnhill from the Atlanta Black Crackers. Number: Possibly 18.
Arizona Diamondbacks—Ford Smith, pitcher and the only native of Arizona ever to play in the Negro Leagues, with four seasons as a Monarch before the New York Giants signed him to play in their organisation. Smith never made the Giants. I can’t unearth his uniform number, either, so since he was the first from Arizona let the D’Backs wear 1 with his name on the back.
Tampa Bay Rays—Walter Lee Gibbons, pitcher, who played for the Tampa Rockets of the Florida State Negro League before joining the legendary Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League. Number: 19.
If the foregoing has been a bit of a sprawl, I apologise. But it just doesn’t seem right that every Show team should wear 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. Not when only one team in the Show has the true right to claim Robinson as their own pioneering Hall of Famer, not when only two other teams took the same-season hint.
That team is the Dodgers. Everyone else, please ponder the foregoing and do your best to make it so. But don’t stop there, either. It would make everything Robinson stood for and believed meaningless if baseball can’t convince more of today’s generations of young black and other American minority people to embrace and feel at home playing Robinson’s game as their game, too.