I was a pre-teen in 1947, the year the Brooklyn Dodger
organization brought Jackie Robinson up from their farm team in
Montreal. I wasn't aware of the historical significance of the
event, only that there was a new, potentially great player
joining our "Beloved Bums" and that he would help us beat our main
pennant rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, which, in turn, would
earn us the chance to finally beat-- no, not just beat-- humble!
humiliate! destroy! those damn Yankees at long last.
If there were editorials on the sports pages about the
"Negro situation," I didn't know of them-- my nose was forever
buried into the box scores and stats. Record books on the order
of the Louisville Slugger Yearbook, a freebie I sent away for
each year from that famed baseball bat manufacturer, showed us
"how to play shortstop like Lou Boudreau" but made no mention of
race restrictions in our National Pastime.
Those were the days before Little League, and we played ball
in the various empty lots scattered throughout our Brooklyn
neighborhood. I may not have batted high in the order of our
Avenue “F” Cyclones, but no one else on the team knew Ty Cobb's
lifetime batting average or had ever heard of Napoleon Lajoie or
Zack Wheat, the first "big name" Brooklyn Dodger all-star!
The only "hate" I was aware of was the hate we all shared for the
New York Yankees! For someone like a Stan Musial who would come
to Ebbets Field and kill us, it was more of a love-hate. He was
so good I was forced to rationalize, "Well, if someone had to hit
the winning R.B.I. against us , I'm glad it was him and not some
other Cardinal creep!" It was a lot easier to idolize other-than-
Dodger-rival heroes, like Ted Williams, of course, for they were
in the other league dedicated to beating in the brains of the
At the time, I regarded Hank Greenberg's 58 homers as a
stat alone, impressive to be sure, but never hearing about how
"they wouldn't give the Jew a decent pitch to swing at” in those
last games of the season to keep him from breaking The Babe's 60
home run record until much later on. 60 homers in one season
remained an electrically charged stat long after Greenberg's run
for the record books. Many Yankee fans rooted against their own
Roger Maris's heroic attempt and eventual "asterisk" triumph
hoping that their favorite slugger, Mickey Mantle, would be the
one to break Ruth's record. No Dodger fan would ever be so
unsupportive of one of our own.
I remember clearly the first game I attended in the 1947
season and how disappointed I was that all the buttons said
"Jackie." What about my hero, Pee Wee Reese? I was too young and
naïve to realize the true significance of a black man finally
participating in a previously all-white baseball world. After
all, many of my boxing heroes were black (as were college
football stars and entertainers) and I didn't know one kid who
rooted for Billy Conn in his rematch against Joe Louis for the
"Why only 'Jackie' buttons?" I asked. "I want a Pee Wee
Reese button!" The black vendor smiled down at me and said,
"That's because Jackie's a Negro, son. The first." What
difference did that make? I loved Pee Wee and I wanted a button
to prove it! The only feeling I experienced that moment was
disappointment as I purchased my “Jackie” button. How I wish I
still had it today.
Of course, I soon became an ardent Jackie fan too, but
mostly for his baseball ability as his stats would define.
Indeed, Robinson won the National League batting championship in
1949 with a .342 average and I was ecstatic that a Dodger achieved
that distinction -- any Dodger. Batting .342 was a respectable
average for a batting champion then as it is now, but again, out
of context. The handicap of emotional pressures on Robinson's
shoulders was surely worth another 30 or 40 points.
It wasn't until later, as an adult working for Civil Rights,
that all Jackie Robinson had accomplished finally came into true
focus. Those achievements are excluded from the stats, along with
the "bad pitches" thrown to Hank Greenberg and the hate letters
delivered to Hank Aaron as his quest for 715th career home runs
(to surpass Ruth's record of 714) neared its glorious finale.
The years have made my love for Jackie Robinson complete.
I love him for all the wrong reasons, and all the right ones.
Nick Meglin is a writer living in North Carolina.