When Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey decided to give Jackie Robinson, an African-American, the chance to prove himself in all-white Major League Baseball, he quickly became one of the least popular men in the league.
Although he had the support of baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, Rickey infuriated his 15 fellow owners when he brought Robinson to Brooklyn in 1947. But he went ahead on his own terms, and made Robinson abide by them.
"Even with Rickey, there were conditions," explained Hall of Fame pitcher Don Newcombe, who would be one of the next two blacks on the Dodgers. "Jackie, who had always been very aggressive, had to promise Rickey in 1946 that ... he wouldn't fight back on the field. I mean no matter what kind of names some white fans called Robinson; no matter how often rival pitchers threw at his head, he had to agree not to react."
"It wasn't easy for Jackie on road trips, either, because he was never allowed to stay at the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his teammates," continues Newcombe.
When Robinson joined the Dodgers, he entered a different world. Before 1947, only a handful of blacks (usually passed off as dark-skinned American Indians or Cubans) had played occasionally at the major-league level. The only time professional baseball strayed from its closed-shop attitude was during occasional off-season exhibitions between major leaguers and Negro League teams. Targeted mostly for big cities without major league teams, the events drew huge crowds. The fact that Negro teams often won, especially if Satchel Paige pitched, made few headlines.
But Robinson immediately made headlines for the Dodgers. He batted .297 with 12 home runs and chalked up 29 stolen bases - modest by today's standards, but eye-opening at a time when that weapon was not generally popular with managers.
And the point is that Robinson didn't just run, he exploded with a sense of theater that put all other action on hold once he reached first base. Fans couldn't take their eyes off him. In fact, television was so intrigued by his base-stealing antics that it invented the split screen to let viewers watch Jackie and the pitcher at the same time.
Hall of Fame announcer Vin Scully, who called more than 900 of Robinson's games, has always said Jackie was one of the most exciting players he's ever seen. "There were other great base stealers who could bring a crowd alive," Scully says. "Maury Wills, for example. But Robinson was so much more animated when he took one of his dancing leads off first base that he'd have the entire crowd in an uproar."
In 1962, the year Wills swiped 104 bases, Scully says he asked Wills about his reluctance to steal home. "Wills's reply was that he didn't try because he was afraid he might fail. When I mentioned that such a possibility never seemed to bother Robinson, Maury's answer was that he didn't think it ever occurred to Jackie that he might be thrown out."
By the time Robinson retired after 10 years with the Dodgers, he had stolen home 19 times.
The record books show that Robinson is not one of the top 100 base-stealers of all time. In fact, the top base-stealer in major league history, Rickey Henderson, stole more bases (238) during the 1983 and 1984 seasons than Robinson (197) logged during his entire Dodger career. But like Babe Ruth, who was more fun to watch striking out than many of his rivals were when hitting home runs, Jackie was all about excitement.
In the end, Robinson's most enduring legacy was not in his statistics, but in cracking the door for blacks to integrate - not only into the major leagues - but into American culture.
"Basically it was Jackie who got integration going," says Buck O'Neil, a Negro League teammate of Robinson's on the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs. "At the time Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Martin Luther King Jr. was still a sophomore at Morehead College. In later years, when King was doing everything he could to help the civil rights movement, he would frequently say how important Robinson's early contributions had been to that cause."