JJM One of the reasons Paige was not under consideration is because he was a pitcher and there was some concern about him throwing bean balls. With him out of the picture, how did they settle on Jackie Robinson?
SS It is important to say that there must have been 75 or more Negro League athletes who could have been signed and who would have succeeded brilliantly, but Jackie Robinson had the most desirable combination of circumstances. It was also possible for Branch Rickey to have brought up Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella at the same time to diffuse the attention and the burden, as well as the identity of Robinson’s achievement. That being said, he had the best possible combination of circumstances. As the best college running back in the nation, and perhaps the most versatile athlete, he had played under intense national scrutiny before. Baseball was arguably not even his best sport. He was a brilliant shooting guard in basketball, a great track star, a great football runner. He could have potentially even been an inter-collegiate golf champion if so many courses hadn’t been segregated at that point. So, he knew how to play under the scrutiny of national attention because he had done that in college.
The fact that Robinson was college educated was also appealing to Rickey because he understood the person he selected would be subjected to a great deal of national interest. Additionally, Robinson was a veteran. Rickey felt it was important that since so many American men and women served in the Armed Forces that the person he selected also be an Army veteran. Ironically, because he had been discharged from the Army in 1944, Jackie Robinson was available to be signed. There were other great Negro League athletes who had some of the same combination of talents and resume items as Robinson who were not available to play. For example, Monte Irvin of the Newark Eagles was still on duty in the Army in 1945, serving with the occupation forces in Germany. So, when Branch Rickey wanted to end the summer of 1945 by signing an African American ball player, Irvin wasn’t available. Irvin was also a college educated veteran who had many of the same qualifications Jackie Robinson did, he just didn’t happen to be available. As you mentioned, Robinson wasn’t a pitcher, so Rickey didn’t have to worry about signing somebody who threw the bean ball. Also, he was such a versatile athlete they didn’t have to worry about him only being capable of playing a specific position. They knew that he could play the outfield, the infield, or whatever position came open. He never played first base before yet they turned him into a first baseman, where he became an all star player. So, every possible qualification required seemed to lead back to Jackie Robinson.
JJM The fact that he was dishonorably discharged from the Army seemed to be a component of his resume that Rickey found attractive.
SS Yes, Rickey knew the story. Clyde Sukeforth, the man who scouted Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers, had made some careful inquiries and knew the story and thought it was terrific. Rickey was not in any way put off by his Army discharge, and in fact thought that the circumstances of it spoke well for the character of the man he wanted to sign.
JJM What was the immediate reaction in the Brooklyn community to Robinson being on the Dodger roster?
SS As a generalization, Brooklyn considered itself the most progressive territory in the United States at that point in time. It was politically and socially very liberal, and it was a community that was integrated in a larger sense, although often segregated block by block. They were PM magazine readers and Roosevelt lovers, and from Paul Robeson to Pistol Pete Reiser, Brooklyn loved “lefties.” In a way, the signing of Jackie Robinson called on Brooklyn to live up to its own best social and political convictions. It was also a distinction for Brooklyn, which was always a little conscious of being overlooked in contrast to Manhattan. They felt that, in a funny way, they were summoned by history to play a role, and to demonstrate something about themselves. For the most part they certainly lived up to that.
JJM Robinson was an instant sensation. While he experienced a couple of slumps early on, they were never enough to create tension about him staying with the club. What would Rickey have done, do you suppose, if Robinson failed as a player? Was there someone else waiting in the wings?
SS I have thought about that and I don’t know for sure. I think he was genuinely convinced that Robinson would not fail. As you note, although he had a brilliant minor league season, he began the season with a slump. Yet, Rickey knew that he was the type of player who could do so many other things for his team. For example, his base running was often so good that it kept him in the game and it still made him a factor in games even when he was going 0 for 4 and 0 for 5 at the plate. Rickey was convinced Robinson would succeed, and he was intent on assuring that by not pulling him when he slumped. When Robinson got into slumps later in his career, I think managers would not think much of benching him for a game or two, as you would any player, but Rickey wasn’t about to do that when he was starting his career, when it became known as the “great experiment.” If they had gone a few months without on field success, I don’t believe he would have sent Robinson to the minors, he may have brought up Roy Campanella, making the decision that the “experiment” was going to succeed even if it wasn’t with Robinson. He wasn’t going to totally bet on the one person who he thought was the best bet. I think he would have just kept trying until one player or another had broken through. As it happened, he didn’t have to worry about that.
JJM Larry Doby came up with the Indians of the American League in the same season
SS Yes, he was signed in July by the Cleveland Indians, and they did not send him up through the minors. They brought him up directly from the Negro Leagues to the majors.
JJM Your chapter on Robinson’s experience in the minor leagues was very interesting. It’s easy to forget that he was also the first black minor league player affiliated with a major league franchise. The fact that he joined a team that had a Canadian city as its minor league property probably had a lot to do with the Dodgers being the first team to have a black player as well.
SS Yes, Boston often cited that that was the reason they couldn’t sign Jackie Robinson.
JJM Because Boston’s minor league team was in Louisville?
SS Yes, their farm club was in Louisville, although if Boston had been genuinely interested in signing Robinson there were other things that they could have done. I think the answer is that they were genuinely not interested in signing Robinson.
JJM They have had the wait and see approach to baseball for as long as I have been a fan of baseball, and as you say, not signing Robinson was probably a more damning curse than that of the Bambino.
SS I certainly think that. Obviously, baseball never should have been segregated, but if we get past that premise in which I deeply believe, this could have happened in Chicago, and probably should have. The White Sox should have signed a Negro League player. It certainly could have happened in any of the other teams in New York, and it could have happened in Detroit. It arguably could have happened in Washington, DC, the nation’s capitol, but it didn’t. It took the right combination of circumstances, including the community of Brooklyn and a general manager with a sense of history and the nerve of Branch Rickey.
JJM How did Jackie Robinson spend his life after baseball?
SS As I noted earlier, prior to his being a ballplayer, he had not spent much time worrying about social and political issues. But the process of becoming a national hero — a term I use adviseably — sharpened his conscience and his identity. He knew how important his story and achievements had become to so many people across the United States. Immediately after retiring he became a personnel executive for Chock Full O’ Nuts, where his specific mandate was to work on minority hiring. He also became a social and political activist. He supported the work of Martin Luther King, and he worked for Governor Nelson Rockefeller in New York. He was a very active liberal Republican at a time when people like Rockefeller, Ken Keating and Jacob Javits were in the Party. These men were real supporters of the civil rights movement, whereas the Democratic Party at the time was often typified by people like Strom Thurmond and Richard Russell of Georgia. So, he became a political activist. He wrote a column for the Harlem Voice and the Amsterdam News, endorsed political candidates, and supported Dr. King’s non-violent campaign for racial integration. He maintained himself as a factor in American life because he was so acclaimed as a hero, and understood that from that moment on, what he did, believed in, and endorsed were important to millions and millions of Americans.
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This interview took place on December 18, 2002
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Pulitzer Prize winning author Diane McWhorter on Birmingham, Alabama and the events leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
* Text from publisher