FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.
Sixty years ago this Sunday, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. No one could have known on April 15th, 1947 that he would also become one of the greatest players in the history of the game. He took the Brooklyn Dodgers to half a dozen World Series, including one in 1956, his last season. NPR's Cory Turner has this story.
Unidentified Announcer: Curly(ph) looks back. Robinson waits. Here comes the pitch. And there goes a line drive to left field. (Unintelligible) is after it. He leaps. It's over his head, against the wall. Here comes (unintelligible) scoring. Brooklyn wins.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
CORY TURNER: The last hit of Jackie Robinson's career was a nail-biter, clinching game six of the '56 World Series. The Dodgers would go on to lose that series to one of New York's other famous teams, the dreaded Yankees. But Robinson couldn't have ended his career more gracefully. If you compare his flashy exit, though, to his historic entrance a decade earlier, there's one noticeable difference…
Unidentified Announcer: Jackie Robinson is being pummeled by his teammates congratulating him.
TURNER: On April 15, 1947, African-American fans across the country may have cheered for Robinson, but he got a very different reception from his fellow Dodgers. Several of the team's stars told general manager Branch Rickey they'd rather be traded than play with a black man. Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca was an exception. Born and bred in New York, he remembers an exchange he had with Robinson at an exhibition game just before the 1947 season.
Mr. RALPH BRANCA (Former Brooklyn Dodgers Pitcher): I'd gotten Jackie out on a pitch, a fast ball right down the middle. And as we crossed paths, he said, thanks, Ralph. And I go, what's he thanking me for? When we got to the dugout, I realized he was thanking me for not signing the petition that was circulated in Panama.
TURNER: After spring training in Cuba, the Dodgers played a handful of exhibition games in Panama. It was then that a few Southern players, led by the hard-charging Dixie Walker, tried to block Robinson's pending promotion to the big leagues. But general manager Branch Rickey would have none of it. Dodger catcher Bobby Bragan, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, remembers the mutineers being called into Rickey's office one by one.
Mr. BOBBY BRAGAN (Former Brooklyn Dodgers Catcher): You want to be traded? I said, yes, sir. He said, but if you stay, are you going to play any different because Jackie's on the team? I said, no, sir. He said, good day. And he had the same kind of interview with Dixie Walker and (unintelligible).
TURNER: Rickey's determination to break Major League Baseball's long-standing color barrier outlasted his players' determination to keep the game white. Not a single Dodger quit the team that year over Robinson. But before Rickey could officially call him up, the manager scheduled one more meeting with the man himself. Again, Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca.
Mr. BRANCA: You know, I'm seeing quotes in their first meeting where Rickey got into his face and Jackie, like, said he gripped the arms of the chair and did nothing. And he said, Mr. Rickey, do you want me to fight back? He said, no, I want someone who's strong enough not to fight back.
TURNER: Catcher Bobby Bragan, who went on to work for Rickey in team management, remembers the meeting a little differently.
Mr. BRAGAN: When Mr. Rickey interviewed him, you know, he told me he's going to have to turn the other cheek. They're going to call you nigger and black SOB. You're going to have to be able to turn the other cheek. And he said, I've never been obsequious. And when he said that, of course, that sold Mr. Rickey.
TURNER: While some of Robinson's teammates had little more than a high school education, Jackie was both an athlete and a scholar. He spent two years at Pasadena City College then transferred to UCLA, where he was the school's first student ever to letter in four sports. In fact, says biographer Jonathan Eig, baseball wasn't even his best sport.
Mr. JONATHAN EIG (Author, "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season"): He was much better at basketball and football, but he had such confidence in his abilities that he figured he would do fine at baseball. And in the minor leagues and in the Negro Leagues, even though he had very little experience, he did great.
TURNER: Which brings us back to that fateful day: April 15th, 1947. It was cloudy, according to pitcher Ralph Branca, but no rain. In other words, perfect weather for baseball. But Jackie Robinson's morning was less than peaceful. He and his wife Rachel had a five-month-old baby. Unlike the other players, the Dodgers hadn't helped him find an apartment either. Instead, they crammed the Robinsons into a single room at Manhattan's McAlpin Hotel. Again, Jonathan Eig.
Mr. EIG: Baby bottles all over the room, he's got diapers hanging from the curtain rod in the shower, he's got a little hot plate under the bed that they take out when they need to warm the baby's milk. It's a mess. You know, it's amazing that he can even think straight and concentrate on the game having to live like this.
TURNER: But Jackie very calmly folded the morning paper under his arm, kissed his wife goodbye, and left her with a laugh. If you can't pick me out on the field, he said, I'm the one wearing number 42. Despite the joke, Robinson understood that the stakes for him could not have been higher.
Mr. JACKIE ROBINSON: Oh, I knew the importance of the occasion. I knew that I was going to be somewhat out in front, and perhaps I would have to take a lot of abuse. I remember Mr. Rickey saying to me that I couldn't fight back, and I wondered whether or not I was going to be able to do this. I knew that this was bigger than any one individual and I would have to do whatever I possibly could to control myself.
(Soundbite of music)
TURNER: Ebbets Field in Brooklyn is small by big league standards, just north of 32,000 feet. But it wasn't sold out for opening day, and by many estimates, the fans who did come to Flatbush that day were two-thirds black. The predominantly white media showed little interest in the event. Only a few writers were on hand to watch Robinson take the field. Among them was Lester Rodney, sports editor for the New York Daily Worker.
Mr. LESTER RODNEY (Former Sports Editor, New York Daily Worker): Jackie came out of the dugout bearing an unfamiliar first baseman's mitt on his left hand. He had been a second baseman, a shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs. And there was no sign that opening day of a cordial and easygoing relationship between Robinson and the other Dodgers. That came later.
TURNER: Indeed, it did. And it came in large part because Robinson proved immediately that he could hold his own on the diamond. He grounded out his first time up, but later got on base after a fielder's error. It was then that he scored the Dodgers' winning run on a daring bit of base running, something Dodger fans would come to expect from the fleet-footed number 42.
Again, Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca.
Mr. BRANCA: He upset pitchers by dancing around, and he could start and go in a minute. I mean, he would - it looked like he was going to steal home and he'd put on the brakes and be headed back to third, because, I mean, he was coming full tilt. And when he stalled, he danced around at first base, and then he'd take off, and in two steps he was full speed.
TURNER: Robinson would go on to win Rookie of the Year and help lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to six pennants in his 10 seasons. He also opened the door for future Hall of Famers like Hank Aaron, Willie Mayes, and former Bronx Bomber Dave Winfield.
Mr. DAVE WINFIELD (Former Major League Baseball Player): I mean, he's right at the pinnacle. And he's somebody that wasn't so far removed from my life, from the era that I grew up in, so I just relate to him quite a bit.
TURNER: Jackie Robinson changed the face of America's pastime, and with it the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. For Robinson, it was never just about the game. Here he is reading from his 1951 This I Believe essay for broadcaster Edward R. Murrow.
Mr. ROBINSON: I can say to my children, there is a chance for you. No guarantee, but a chance.
TURNER: Thanks to Jackie Robinson, there's a chance for all of us.
Cory Turner, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CHIDEYA: To hear what Jackie Robinson did the night after his first game or to hear all of his This I Believe essay, go to npr.org.