A fan recalls what Jackie Robinson meant to blacks of his era
Memories of Jackie Robinson are being rekindled this spring on the 40th anniversary of the year he broke baseball's color line. Alfred Meyer, now a lawyer in New York City but then a young man living in rural Missouri, has his own vivid recollections of those times and of what it meant to his black friends and co-workers to finally have their own hero playing in the big leagues.
We sat in the car in the late afternoon heat, slapping at flies and waiting for Nate. James Earnshaw and I stared at the hood of his green Dodge, stained with tree sap, and hoped for signs of movement within Nate's small sway-backed house. The Brooklyn Dodgers were in St. Louis to play the Cardinals that night and we had a long trip ahead of us. But nothing stirred. And yet, it was Nate who had urged haste. He hadn't wanted to miss the Dodgers' batting practice. More specifically, he didn't want to miss one moment of Jackie Robinson.
Nate was the son of a freed slave and an Osage Indian woman. He claimed 65 years, but James said he was 75 if a day. No matter. He spent his days on Highway 40 in mid-Missouri bent over a rake, manicuring newly spread hot asphalt, and we never saw him sit down on the job. Maybe the heat tired him. But he was James's father-in-law and he would never show fatigue to James - or to me, James's white friend. Truck after truck would back up to the bin of the road paver and dump steaming tar and rock through the open tailgate. The paver chugged ahead, Nate walked behind it, tamping the asphalt, and in sweat, salt, sun, and heat, the miles inched away.
This morning Nate had chatted about Jackie. He ought to have a lower uniform number. And why is he in left field now after so many years at second base?
At noontime when the flow of trucks slowed, Nate had called to James. ``Earnshaw! That boy got to go see Jackie.'' He nodded toward me. ``Dodgers in St. Louis tonight. You got to take that boy.'' I shrugged in surprise.
``That boy can take himself,'' said James. ``I think Nate want to go see Jackie.'' He turned to me. ``See, Nate don't drive. I don't take him, he don't go.''
Now at the end of the day James and I, in salt-streaked denim, sat waiting. Nate had insisted on promptness; no time to wash away the sweat and asphalt. But where was he? James unhooked the car's rope handle and opened a door to let in more air, but there was none. Cicadas sounded in the fields. ``I guess you see who do the baiting and who do the waiting,'' he said.
``He shouldn't stop for dinner now; we can get something on the way,'' I said. I wasn't thinking of the ``White Only'' and ``Colored Entrance'' signs on the caf'es in Missouri's Little Dixie. I had never really noticed them.
James laughed. ``We eat in the car.'' He looked at me sympathetically, knowing that I did not understand.
James glanced at his watch. Five o'clock. He stuck his head over the roof of the car. ``Nate! You got any idea what time it is? Jackie Robinson don't wait on you.''
In a moment, the warped screen door scraped over the porch boards and Nate emerged. He wore new bib overalls, and his denim shirt was starched and clean. He carried a large bucket of chicken. ``Well, I be....'' said James, nodding in mock deference. ``I see the lord Nathaniel grace our presence on this day.'' He turned to me. ``He done shower himself. He ready for Jackie.''
Nate's wife called from the porch: ``You be sure to give that skinny white boy something out of that bucket. He don't look like he eat much.''
``Earnshaw, drive the car,'' said Nate.
We drove along, raising clouds of dust, passing an orange tractor and wagons of hay bales with black farm hands riding on them. ``Evening, how y'all,'' said Nate, quietly. He sat in the back seat with dignity, leaning forward now and then to pass pieces of chicken to us, urging me to eat plenty.
James was right. We did miss batting practice. But Nate was content when he and James handed me their money and I bought the tickets. ``All together?'' the attendant asked me, glancing at them. ``Sure,'' I said.
As we sat down along the third base line, there were curious glances and a few stares. Two of us were the only black men in the whole grandstand. ``All together?'' Of course, I now thought; how else would ``they'' be here. The blacks' section was at the distant right-field pavillion, obscured behind the big wire screen that turned home run drives into doubles. You could not see into this darkness, and in many previous visits I had never heard a sound from there. Until tonight, I was not fully aware that blacks went to big league ball games.
James looked around unblinkingly at the faces turned in our direction. ``Get us a drink when the man comes by, Al,'' he said to me with a flourish. He waved a five-dollar bill. ``Get us each two. I got money.''
The Cardinals were at infield practice. In the artificial fusion of ball park lights and lowering sun, the red and white uniforms were dazzling. The ball darted like a tracer bullet around the infield, popping gloves. Red Schoendienst pivoted artfully at second base. Intermittent whistles by the infielders kept things hopping. On the sidelines, someone in a sport coat chatted with Stan Musial. Enos Slaughter ran past them on his way to the outfield. Near the Dodger dugout, Preacher Roe took his warm-up tosses. High above home plate, announcers hovered and spoke into their mikes. Writers peered over their typewriters. The Dodgers were in town and the place was alive.
But Nate slumped beneath his fedora with his eyelids at half-mast. ``Earnshaw, where's Jackie?''
``He done gone back to Brooklyn, Nate,'' James kidded his father-in-law. ``Say he don't want to play.'' Nate sat and waited.
Some of the Dodgers came out. The crowd seemed to grow quiet as it studied them. Here were the headlined hard-hitting National League champions, longtime rivals of the Redbirds, walking quietly and looking up at the grandstand. The faces were well known: Carl Furillo ... Duke Snider ... Junior Gilliam ... Pee Wee Reese.
Nate sat forward and fixed his eyes on the field. Where was Jackie? A bat boy dragged an equipment bag up the steps. Two more Dodgers came out. Then nothing. Nate licked his lips and waited.
The first sign of Jackie's entrance came from the right field pavilion, from the depths of darkness behind the screen where I had never heard a sound before. Voices stirred as leaves in a light breeze. Someone whooped approval and a paper bag popped. Then he stepped onto the field. I had forgotten how powerful he looked. His thick shoulders and chest gave him a top-heavy appearance as he walked pigeon-toed toward the dugout with his small glove under one arm. Nate nudged me and nodded fiercely. ``Got to be big to play ball,'' he said.
During the game, you couldn't take your eyes off Jackie. As a batter, he stood in close to the plate - alive and aggressive - challenging the pitchers. On the bases he exuded competitive creativity, moving with quick starts and stops, keeping the pressure on, keeping the infielders disturbed and the pitcher distracted.
In the fourth inning, he was hit by a pitch and took first base. Minutes later, he was on third with the bases loaded. The batter was Bobby Morgan. Jackie started down the line, then backpedaled. Hal White, the pitcher, noticed him. Steal home? Impossible. Or, maybe impossible. Jackie was staring, bent at the waist with his feet apart, heavy arms swinging, Jackie was focusing, daring White to do something. White threw to third. Jackie stood on the bag and relaxed by looking high above the stands. The byplay was at a standstill - for a moment. When White was ready again, so was Jackie and the dance resumed. Jackie outdanced him. White walked Morgan on a 3-2 pitch and Jackie came home with the tying run.
``He don't play like a poor boy in trouble,'' croaked Nate. ``He play like he know something.''
``Campanella know something when he hit the home run,'' said James, referring to the black Dodger catcher's earlier smash. ``Gilliam know something.'' The black Dodger second baseman was one of James's favorites.
The game ended with a 6-5 Dodger loss. It made no difference to Nate that Jackie went hitless in three tries. He had seen Jackie. He had seen what Jackie could do.
We drove back through the sultry night, past fields, and barns, and wire fences embellished with Burma Shave rhymes. Nate was peaceful and silent in the rear seat while James teased him. ``I don't doubt Nate think Jackie the only chocolate chip in vanilla,'' he said. ``He don't talk about Monte Irvin, Larry Doby....''
We passed a neon roadhouse and Joni James from a jukebox came and went quickly. Nate's face was shiny in the dim light of the dashboard. I was not sure he would reply. Then he sat up. ``Yeah? what you saying, Earnshaw? Monte Irvin ... Doby.... They the good ashpalt, setting in the truck. But Jackie be the one. He open the gate, let it all pour.'' Nate leaned back and relaxed. We reached Highway 40, our highway paved by us. But so far, it had only the first layer of asphalt.
Next year the Supreme Court would order desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Next year Martin Luther King Jr. would begin his ministry in Montgomery, Ala. We hadn't seen it all coming. We just looked out and knew there were several more layers of asphalt to be put down before the job would be complete.