Remembering Jackie Robinson

I have been asked by a few of my friends and members of my family about the movie #42, which refers to Jackie Robinson’s number when he played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers which was owned at that time by Branch Rickie.

The reason I have been asked is that I played with Jackie on the Montreal team during the spring training in 1947. This time period plays a big part in the movie because it was at the conclusion of that spring training that Jackie was brought up from Montreal of the AAA International League to the Dodgers in the major leagues and which broke what was referred to as the colored barrier.

My recollection of the events:
In 1946 Jackie was signed with Montreal as the first black player in organized baseball. Rickie had him assigned to Montreal, which was out of the country even though many of their games were played in the US. I had also signed with Montreal in 1945 but was in the service and played ball for the US Navy at the Com of the Marianas on the Island of Guam in ’46 but was discharge later that year.

Spring training for Montreal and the Dodgers in 1947 was outside of the country in Cuba for half the time and then we flew to Panama for the last half of spring training. I am guessing that the reason we were training out of the country was because Mr. Rickie wanted to minimize Jackie’s exposure to the US media. The movie skips Cuba entirely and has all the training in Panama but all the events that happened there are included. The movie did a very good job of depicting it like it was.

So I met up with Jackie at a military academy outside of Havana in 1947 where Montreal had their spring training facility. The Dodgers headquartered at the Hotel National in the City of Havana. There were now two other black players in training with us on the Montreal team besides Jackie, Roy Campanella, a catcher, and Don Newcomb, a pitcher. However, as depicted in the movie, they did not live with us at the military academy but stayed in a hotel.

It was strange in that there did not seem to be any need for that as we were not in a hotel, which I thought was where the racial problems were. I guess it was because of the animosity from some of the ball players. And that is maybe a guess on my part but we had a couple of ballplayers on the team from the south and they would not shower if any of the blacks were in the shower at the time. Cuba has many black player – perhaps even the majority – so everything fit in.

Jackie played second base and so did I. He played for the first squad and I played for the second in all of our in house games. When we played Brooklyn or any other team Jackie and the first squad played the first six innings of the game and our second squad played the last three innings. As we played the same position at second base, Jackie and I spent a lot of time together. In fact, he taught me a turn-around at second on a double play ball that to this day we are the only two I have ever seen use it. When he moved up to the Dodgers, Jackie moved to playing first base to get him in the lineup and he played there for the rest of his career.

As an interesting aside, on the second squad playing with me at first base was Chuck Connors, who later became the Rifleman in the TV series – a left-handed Rifleman, if you recall.

Jackie swung the bat right handed but was a great bunter. That’s another thing he taught me – they did not have him bunting for a base hit in the movies but he actually runs at the ball when bunting so he is moving out of the batter’s box at the time he makes contact with the ball. He did not drag the bunt as most right handers would do. One thing I really remember about him when he was base running, his fingers during the lead off actually were moving or vibrating and someone picked up on that because it was that way in the movie. They actually do a close up of his hands. Quite different.

In base running no one ever took a longer lead off then Jackie did. I was fast and stole some bases, but it scared me just watching his lead offs in the movie. He was very challenging. The movie says Mr. Rickie asked him to do that and I have no reason to doubt it.

The movie story intertwines with Leo Durocher, the Dodger manager, and Lorraine Day, movie actress. She obtained a divorce in Mexico and then married Leo and they were both there during spring training. We met Lorraine at a joint dinner party for the Dodgers and Montreal. Lorraine became known as the First Lady of Baseball but it was little bit dicey during that spring training as there was a question about the legality of her divorce, which was covered in the movie.

Another aside: One day after practice at the military academy Jackie sent word into the locker room to come out to the veranda where he introduced us to Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champ, who was in Havana and had come out to the military academy to visit Jackie.

We then flew to Panama.

One very interesting thing happened when we were in Panama that was not mentioned in the movie but significantly made me aware of just how big the impact Jackie had on pro baseball and the major effect it was having in the world. We, the Montreal team, took a long bus ride to a little town called Mount Hope, Panama, to play an exhibition game. It is close to Colon on the Caribbean side of the country. I remember as we drove into the town, everyone was black. The streets were solid with people yelling and screaming Jackie’s name. Banners with his name and picture were hung across the streets. His picture was everywhere, on placards and in the store windows and on the program for the game. It was like a mob scene.

The people started to rock our bus from side to side. It was a little scary. Everyone just wanted to touch this hero. We had not seen any of this in Havana or Panama City. There were lots of accolades for him but this was on the serious or even dangerous side, but still friendly. So here are these black people in a little town thousands of miles away from anywhere exhorting in Spanish this person who was breaking down this invisible barrier that somehow had them (and the rest of us) all trapped. I was raised in Seattle, about as far away from the civil rights action as you can get, but this really opened my eyes and I started to understand.

When we played the game that day against their local team we played in a rickety old stadium. Jackie played the first six innings at second base as usual and I played the last three. I have been booed playing baseball before, which is normal when you are the visiting team, but I never was booed like I was that day. They wanted no part of me replacing Jackie.

When spring training was over Jackie moved up to the Brooklyn team. Campanella and Newcomb went with Montreal, I think Chuck Conners went with a west coast team which probably led him to Hollywood. He was an excellent athlete and also played pro basketball. I ended up playing for the Dodger team in Colorado that year.

Branch Rickie did a lot of innovative things for the Dodgers. I met him first at a night game in Cuba. Kudos to Harrison Ford. He really played the role of Branch Rickie in the movie very well. Mr. Rickie was a little bit more on the heavy side than Mr. Ford but he did a wonderful job portraying him.

The last time I saw Jackie was in spring training the next year in Pensacola, Florida, at a military base. The last day there the Dodgers had finished their game and Jackie came over to the field where I was still playing a game to say good-bye to me.

My personal take on the movie was that it was excellent. I don’t know the fine points of the Lorraine Day and Leo Durocher story that the movie spends time on but the internet says they were still together when she died at the age of 87.

Jackie was a first-class man. He really put up with some terrible things. Mr. Rickie made the choice and he really chose right. His second choice, Campanella, was one of the best ball players I ever played with, maybe the best, but he, like most of us, could not hold a candle to Jackie as a temperate man. If Rickie had picked Campanella first we might not be where we are today.

Possibly a co-hero in this wonderful story is Branch Rickie. That’s in my opinion of course, but it took the two of them to make this happen.

The movie really is part of Americana and I hope you see it. And I hope the above insights are helpful.

One Comment »

  1. I thought I had left a comment?? Very well written, Bob, knew you played
    professionally, but you never told me this important part of baseball and
    US History! Your modesty is overwhelming, too bad it isn’t cntagious. Ron