TODAY ``America's favorite pastime'' includes players of all races, and many of baseball's superstars are either black or Hispanic. Many people forget how long blacks were kept out of organized baseball. It was only 42 years ago (April 18, 1946, to be exact) that a black man first faced a white pitcher in professional baseball. His name was Jackie Robinson, and he was already known for his strong will and athletic prowess.
At UCLA, Robinson had starred in four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball. He was a powerful man, but more than his strength, Robinson was known for his speed. He was an outstanding baserunner and was always a threat to bunt. But what brought him to the major leagues was his courage and self-discipline, and a man named Branch Rickey.
Mr. Rickey was the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As such, he was trying to build winning teams, to have a competitive edge over rival ball clubs. With the United States engaged in World War II and many ballplayers in uniform, Rickey had the foresight to hire 16- and 17-year-old players, men who were too young to be drafted into the service.
Once they did enter the service, they had already played for a Dodgers farm club. So when these young men came back from the war and played again for the Dodgers, Rickey had a group of experienced, mature players. During the war years, he built one of the strongest organizations in all of baseball.
Once the war was over, wanting to keep his competitive edge, he had scouts out all over the country. What most people didn't know was that some of those scouts were looking for black ballplayers.
The Jackie Robinson story is not the fairy tale we hear as children. Robinson did not come to the major leagues through the front door. Or even through a side door. While the baseball world assumed things to be business as usual (which meant that black ballplayers would still be excluded from major league baseball), Branch Rickey carefully calculated breaking the racial barrier. He brought Robinson in the back door. When the word got out that the Dodgers had signed Robinson, those who opposed blacks playing major league baseball tried to make certain he was kept out.
Rickey made absolutely sure that Jackie understood the impact his arrival would have on the league. When they first met, he told Robinson what he should expect. He even went so far as to bait him, playing the part of an angry fan yelling racial epithets at him. Robinson was able to control his anger while Rickey went on to role-play an irate teammate and an intrusive reporter.
What he wanted Robinson to understand was that he could not fight back, and would have to be strong and self-disciplined enough to ignore the racist comments that would be hurled at him.
Robinson was to play for the Montreal Royals, one of the Dodgers' minor league teams. Rickey chose the Royals because he thought fans in Canada would be far more accepting of black ballplayers and because the schedule brought the Royals no farther south than Baltimore. But Robinson would still have to attend spring training in Florida, where racism was the norm, and the ``Jim Crow'' laws, prohibiting racial mixing, were on the books.
There were city ordinances in Florida which prevented blacks from playing ball with whites, and made sure that blacks ate in separate ``colored'' restaurants and stayed in separate ``colored'' hotels. Both Robinson and his wife, Rachel, were from California, and were unprepared for these realities of the South.
Rickey knew it would not be easy for some Southerners to accept a black man playing major league baseball. So he spent a good deal of the winter speaking to local officials and businessmen about what would occur that spring in Daytona. Rickey's advanced warning soothed most of the growing tension, but the situation remained uncertain.
The first scheduled exhibition game against the Dodgers went ahead as planned. Robinson played five innings, and things looked as if they might go smoothly in the South. But the next game, which was scheduled to be played in Jacksonville, was canceled because city officials refused to let a black play on the same field as whites. Rickey's protest was to no avail.
The rest of the spring took the same erratic course. In one game, the chief of police came right out onto the field, and wouldn't let the game go on until Robinson left the ballpark. Keeping Rickey's rules in mind, Robinson stayed cool and left the field without questioning the policy.
Opening day for the Royals was played in New Jersey against the Jersey City Giants. The stadium was filled to capacity, with many thousands of fans being turned away. Baseball fans around the country anticipated the appearance of the black second baseman.
Robinson batted second. For fear of seeing unfriendly faces glaring at him, he did not look at the crowd. He stepped into the batter's box. He watched the first five pitches go by and then grounded out to the shortstop.
In his second at-bat, Robinson came up with two players on base. Everyone expected him to bunt. Robinson swung away instead, launching a three-run homer over the left field fence. The crowd went wild, pleased for Robinson, and all of his teammates went out to greet him.
On one pitch, Robinson showed the world that a black man could play in the major leagues. On one pitch Robinson made all of Branch Rickey's work pay off. He showed that their partnership was more than just a publicity stunt. Robinson went on to have a great afternoon, proving his skills on the bases as well as at bat. From that day he started his career as a genuine baseball star.
Even so, his appearance did not necessarily open the door in the way Rickey had hoped. Integration was slow, and few black players came into the game until the middle of the 1950s.
Today, 42 years later, the Jackie Robinson story inspires us. But it has done little to sway the opinions of owners unwilling to give blacks an opportunity to coach in the majors. Even today some people in baseball ignore the efforts of two men who brought justice in the face of a previously unbroken barrier.