Beyond 42: After 42 Part I
Money, Vic Power, Larry Doby, and Respect
Baseball’s fight for economic equality crosses paths with Jackie Robinson’s fight for racial equality.
“Whenever you believe enough in something and whenever you come out swinging, I sincerely hope that you will swing the real heavy bat and not the fungo bat.”—Commissioner Ford Frick to Jackie Robinson.
“Curtis Flood,” wrote Robinson, in a March 1962 column about a Mississippi NAACP rally they both attended,” …talked with a fine, deep feeling about realizing his responsibility in the racial struggle.” Like Jackie, Curt Flood could not understand how those with the platform felt unable or unwilling to use their voice for the good of others.
In the 20th century, baseball as ‘America’s Pastime’ was more than an idiom. The national game reflected society. It is why the integration of Major League Baseball is such a seminal moment in American history. Jackie Robinson was the main protagonist. Of course, the purpose of this column is to illustrate why Jackie Robinson is more than a baseball pioneer.
Jackie Robinson curated his brand from the moment he signed with Brooklyn. His political activism began in the late 1940s. Robinson’s outspoken nature almost got him traded in 1955. A year later he retired to break the corporate color line – Robinson was the first Black Vice-President at a major American corporation, as Director of Personnel at Chock Full O’ Nuts. It was not a ceremonial position. Robinson did use his influence to advocate for civil rights. He ran the Freedom Fund for the NAACP. Robinson was a published author and syndicated columnist.
Robinson the pioneer, became a vessel through which the leading figures of baseball’s integration articulated their experiences. He weaves his own story among others to express the impact of baseball’s integration, as Robinson and other civil rights leaders sought to move the needle in other arenas. In June, the History Channel illustrated how Flood, Bob Gibson, and Bill White coped “After Jackie,” as the film is titled. Robinson took it upon himself to do the same thing in 1963. Robinson’s third book, Baseball Has Done It, is an oral history of integration in the context of the civil rights movement.
“All of us feel we should do something for those who are less lucky than we are,” said White in Baseball Has Done It. “All of us think about the problems which face the Negro people today. Our problem as ballplayers is what action to take. Period. Last winter, [in 1962] Curt Flood went to Jackson, Mississippi, to show by his presence that we in the big leagues, we’re solidly with those unfortunate people down there.”
Robinson’s anthology is a historical snapshot in time. It shows how those who followed Jackie felt about integrating baseball at the dawn of the civil rights movement. Medgar Evers has been killed. President Kennedy was assassinated with his civil rights bill languishing in Congress. Lyndon Johnson is President. Television has awakened many outsiders to Jim Crow, but America is yet to hear Dr. King’s dream.
Dear Jack, I wanted to say how grateful I am to you for the opportunity of becoming part of the Great American Game of baseball. I know how tough it was and if you had failed, I would not have had the chance. Sorry, you retired, but only in one phase, and I think that you are a great asset to the game other than as a player…
Sincerely Larry Doby.
He added a postscript: “This note is between you and me….”
“[Black players] wanted Jack to speak out,” said Rachel Robinson in 1957, while Jackie added: “They wanted me, but they didn’t want any part of it. That’s the thing that griped me.”
The controversy started when Jackie Robinson gave an honest answer to an earnest question by a young girl on NBC’s Peabody Award-winning television program, Youth Wants to Know, conceived as Meet the Press for teens.
Noted Times writer Jack Gould back in 1952: “increasing concern has been voiced in many quarters recently over the conduct of forums and discussions on television. All too often, especially in the heat of an election year, these programs have seemed more concerned with staging a circus or a fight than calmly exploring an issue…”
The World Series was televised for the first time in 1952, and the three major networks were barely a decade old. Gould commended Youth Wants to Know, where the panelists were teenagers (before the term entered the lexicon) as a contrasting ‘model of dignity and usefulness. Television had also begun to change the business of baseball.
“Faye Emerson was the moderator,” Robinson recalled. “The kids were asking me questions, some of them pertaining to baseball and others not. Finally, a little girl — I imagine she was 13 or 14 years old at the time — got up and asked me whether I thought the Yankees were prejudiced.” Robinson first complimented the Yankees players, who just beat the Dodgers in the 1952 World Series, and said the players were not bigoted but added: “If you are talking about the New York Yankees organization, the people that do the hiring and all, the only thing I could say was ‘yes.’ And I went on to another subject. I always felt that this young lady must have had a reason. She must have heard some time or another that the Yankees were prejudiced, and I thought they were. I certainly wasn’t going to say to her, ‘no.’”
The Yankees were incensed. Robinson noted the breadth of their “public relations,” when the term was used more as jargon than a profession. Yankees brass made such a hullabaloo, insisting on a formal retraction and apology, that Robinson, who refused, was summoned to MLB Commissioner Ford Frick’s office. National League President when Robinson signed, Frick was an ally from the start. In 1951 he succeeded Happy Chandler as Commissioner, who presided when Rickey signed Robinson.
Jackie Robinson’s NBC office was in the same building as MLB Commissioner Ford Frick. (Getty Images)
Robinson recalled his meeting with the Commissioner thus: “We exchanged greetings., and finally, before we got on to the subject, I said, ‘Mr. Frick, before we go any further, I want to make this statement.: if you have brought me here to tell me I cannot say the Yankees are prejudiced, we might as well forget that, because if tomorrow somebody asked me if I thought the Yankees were prejudiced, the only answer I could say was yes…If the Yankees don’t want me to say it, all they have to do is change– I hope they make a liar out of me.’
Robinson suggested that he get a transcript of the program before he made up his mind. Frick agreed.
Said Frick: “Jack, I just want you to know how I feel about this thing, period. Whenever you believe enough in something and whenever you come out swinging. I sincerely hope that you will swing the real heavy bat and not the fungo bat.” It’s a maxim Robinson would adopt as his own.
“I thanked [Frick] and said I was certain my actions indicated that was what I was going to do,” said Robinson. “Whenever I see an evil or wrong, I intend to speak out or say what I believe about it. And the way I feel, not what somebody else feels.” As ever, as with the teenage girl, Robinson was true to his word. He spoke his mind for the rest of his life.
Jackie returned to Youth Wants to Know on October 4, 1953, alongside Yankee ace Allie Reynolds, just hours after the Yankees beat the Dodgers 11-7 to go up 3-games-to-2 in the 1953 World Series: “I can honestly say right now that I think it depends on the ability of the ballplayer now, not the color of his skin.” By the end of 1953, almost every club had integrated. Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox were now the exception.
Robinson spoke with former Kansas City Monarchs Secretary Dizzy Dismukes, who was hired as a scout for the Yankees. Robinson played for the Monarchs in 1945. “I haven’t changed my mind, as yet, as far as the Yankees or a couple of other ballclubs are concerned…It doesn’t make much difference whether I approve or not,” Jackie added, “but I am still waiting to be shown.”
“The thing that’s bringing all this, probably, Jackie,” replied Reynolds, “is…Vic Power that we had the last couple of years. He’s had some very good years at the plate. I don’t know what he hit last year. I think it was .340 [his average over two seasons]. The problem is, with that young fellow, is trying to find a position for him to play.”
In early 1952, picketers lined Yankee Stadium on opening day, demanding the World Champions “hire Negro ball players now.” Signs read: “Wake up Yankees, end discrimination.”
The Yankees may have symbolized the glitz of Manhattan and the White establishment to many, but the Bronx, where they played was a multi-ethnic, multi-racial bedroom community much like Brooklyn. Bronx community activists saw Jackie Robinson across town and wondered why the Yankees had not followed suit like the nearby New York Giants.
“I think he’s about the only one of us [Black players] who is in a position to say exactly what’s on his mind,” said Larry Doby of Jackie’s statement about the Yankees in 1953: What would I have said? I think I would’ve gotten around the question somehow…It’s a delicate situation…”
(Original Caption) National League president Ford Frick (left) presents to Jackie Robinson, Dodger star, the John A. Hillerich and Bradsby Silver Bat Award in honor of Jackie's winning of the National League's batting championship last year. The ceremony took place before the opening game at Ebbets Field, where the Brooks took on their over-the-river rivals, the Giants.
Today’s Zero, Tomorrow’s Hero.
The silence of Black players irked the Robinsons: “In many instances, isn’t it that Jack, in almost all the controversies was not backed up by other Negro ballplayers?” said Rachel to Carl Rowan in 1957. Jackie agreed. “They would turn their heads and look the other way; They wouldn’t say it. They wouldn’t hear it; they weren’t involved in it, or they absolutely denied it.”
The political landscape and national conversation around race had changed markedly in the short time since Rowan and Robinson collaborated on Wait ‘Till Next Year, Jackie’s first memoir after baseball. The burgeoning civil rights struggle awakened Black consciousness while fostering both empathy and backlash from Whites. Jackie was at the vanguard of the movement.
A New Jersey native, Larry Doby joined the Negro League Newark Eagles in 1942 before entering the service at 21, three years later. The Navy was even more notorious for discrimination than the Army that court-martialed Robinson. “For the first time,” explained Doby, in Baseball Has Done It, “I was conscious of discrimination and segregation as never before. It was a shock. If you’ve never been exposed to it from the outside and suddenly it hits you. You can’t take it. I didn’t crack up. I just went into my shell…I thought: ‘This is a crying shame when I’m here to protect my country.’ I couldn’t do anything about it I was under navy rules and regulations and had to abide by them or face the consequences,” as Robinson found out.
After the war, Doby returned to baseball. On July 1, 1947, Doby was one of the Negro League’s most feared hitters and a Newark Eagle. Robinson was in the middle of a 21-game hitting streak that established his bona fide superstar credentials. No one could argue that Black players couldn’t hack it with ‘big-league players.’
On July 2, owner Bill Veeck had signed Doby to a contract. He played one last game for the Eagles, then boarded a train to Chicago and toward the unknown. By July 5, 1947, Doby was in a Cleveland uniform striking out against Chicago reliever Earl Harrist against the White Sox at Comiskey Park. With no warning, no mental preparation for what lay ahead, Doby integrated the American League. Jackie had 19 months to prepare. Doby had less than a week.
“It was literally overnight,” said Luke Epplin, author of Our Team. Epplin recounted a virtually catatonic Doby hunched over head-in-hands as he waited to board the train from Newark to Chicago, overwhelmed at the prospect of what lay ahead. Robinson was given a clear roadmap and mentored by Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. Given a season to acclimate in Triple-A, Robinson was embraced in Montreal. Still, the former college football star almost suffered a nervous breakdown amidst the pressure. Doby was provided with no such buffer or infrastructure.
UNDATED: Brooklyn Dodgers infielder Jackie Robinson (r) with Larry Doby (l) and Satchel Paige of the Cleveland Indians. (photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)
“No one told me what I had to face,” recalled Doby, who was hitting over, .350 with a slugging percentage over .700 with the Eagles. His first start on July 9 almost sparked a revolt. When Doby played the second game of a doubleheader at first base in place of Eddie Robinson, who was hitting .220. According to Our Team, Eddie, who died in 2021 at age 100, threatened to quit. Umpire Bill McKechnie, inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Jackie and Doby’s teammate Bob Feller in 1962, made Eddie Robinson see sense. In 1945, Feller was skeptical that Jackie, built like the football player he was known as could hit Major League pitching.
Doby knocked in his manager Lou Boudreau with his first Major League hit in a 5-1 Cleveland win. Doby didn’t start again. He got just four more hits the rest of the season, batting just 27 more times over the season’s final 91-games. Had Robinson struggled like that in Triple-A or Brooklyn, history may have been quite different. Doby wasn’t alone. John Wright, who went to Spring Training with Jackie Robinson in 1946 lasted just two games with the Montreal Royals after ten seasons in the Negro Leagues. Then 29, he was out of baseball by 30. Roy Partlow of the Philadelphia Stars was also scouted and signed by Rickey. He lasted just two games with the Royals before returning to the Negro Leagues. Dan Bankhead was signed in late August 1947 and appeared in the World Series with Robinson. A two-time 20-game winner in the minor leagues, his career ERA with Brooklyn was 6.52. Campanella and Newcombe, also signed in 1946, joined Robinson in Brooklyn where the three combined for five MVPs.
“I was on my own. The Indians treated me like any other rookie….” Doby remembered for Baseball Has Done It. He stayed alone on the road in segregated accommodations. Anticipating Robinson’s isolation, Rachel was the only Dodger wife allowed to accompany her husband to Spring Training. Rickey surveyed, cajoled, and prepared the Dodgers organization. He even hired writer Wendell Smith as a consultant. Cleveland owner Bill Veeck compensated Eagles owner Effa Manley whereas Rickey refused but made no such preparations for Doby.
“Loneliness made me tense up,” explained Doby. “The worst thing was not having anyone to communicate with, talk over the game with after it’s over and start thinking about the next game.” Doby bounced back. In 1948 he established himself as a power-hitting outfielder. He even got a new roommate. ‘Rookie’ Satchel Paige, Robinson’s former teammate with the Kansas City Monarchs. “I was too young to know how to brush off some of the more serious incidents,” which included a fan coming out from the stands and almost attacking him, as he recounted for Robinson: “Satchel, picked up a bat to defend me. Hal Peck, a White teammate, grabbed and held the heckler for the cops. That sort of thing would have upset me worse a year earlier, but I was learning how to take hate in stride. Besides I had friends now.”
Cleveland went on to win the 1948 World Series after Jackie’s Dodgers lost to the Yankees in 1947. Since baseball integrated, only the 1950 World Series was an All-White affair. Doby hit a home run in Game 4. Steve Gromek’s embrace, Epplin recalled, was a seminal moment for Doby: “Finally a man showed his feelings for me,” Doby was to have said.
Happy Twosome. Cleveland Indians' Steve Gromek and Larry Doby hugging after winning game four of the World Series. Cleveland went on to win the series in six games.
Doby, like Robinson, faced double standards with the public especially when he asked Cleveland General Manager Hank Greenberg for a raise: “I was well paid, but I didn’t get the raise I deserved… I held out for 10 days the following spring and was threatened in telegrams with all sorts of things that made me wonder what was going on. Hank hadn’t an ounce of prejudice in him. He was trying to keep salaries down. The way all bosses do.”
Greenberg, who experienced antisemitism as a Hall of Fame player, went out of his way to give Robinson words of encouragement. “Stick in there, you’re doing fine, keep your chin up,” Greenberg told him during their first encounter in May 1947. “Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg,” Robinson told the Associated Press at the time. On his first road trip, Robinson had come from Philadelphia where manager Ben Chapman’s racist taunts made national news. Players from other teams questioned the pay disparities between Black and White players, but discontent was growing among all players over money and control. The revolutionary Veeck sold the Indians in 1949, the same year Branch Rickey was forced out of Brooklyn.
“I used to keep to myself…I wish I’d spoken as I do now,” admitted Doby in 1963, “If I had, I’d have been a better ballplayer.” Robinson certainly did. The winter before the 1953 season, the 34-year-old Robinson’s last truly spectacular year, marked a turning point, as Robinson’s outspoken nature seemed to draw ire from all directions. A rift between Jackie and Dodger management began. Many in the press turned on the once-lauded Robinson. He was now temperamental. Ungrateful. Cantankerous. After his first prolonged slump, whispers of his demise began. The Dodgers wanted to rid themselves of Jackie Robinson, and considered it on multiple occasions, before finally jettisoning him after the 1956 season.
Still, Robinson and Rickey’s endeavor was a resounding success, even if its impact was no longer appreciated. Teams began to realize that racism put them at a competitive disadvantage. In the early fifties, the Yankees were the exception. They won six World Series from 1947-1953 and beat Robinson’s Dodgers five times with an all-white team.
“How prevent a young man like Robinson from demanding his rights? He was direct, aggressive, the kind that stands up when he is faced with injustice and will hit you right in the snoot. It’s understandable. I would be that way, too, and so would any man that’s a man,” said Branch Rickey, two years before his death, who had the last word in Baseball Has Done It:
“Now as I see it today, the main complaint of Negro ballplayers is that integration in baseball will never be complete until there is integration everywhere…There should be no compromise on the part of the Negro people in this country. That’s my opinion!… The big challenge to the Negro today [in 1963] is to fight for the right to be equal and then to qualify as an equal and no less important is the challenge not to compromise for less than equality.”
Added Robinson: That’s the way I feel about it!”
Part 2: Continues with the story of Vic Power and Race, The Economics of Baseball, and the Supreme Court with Jackie Robinson at the center of two fights.