STEVE INSKEEP, host:
A reporter who was there remembers April 15, 1947, 60 years ago this weekend. Jim Becker recalls an early spring day when, he writes, a black man in a sparkling white baseball uniform walked alone from the dugout onto the green grass of Brooklyn's Ebbets Field.
Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball on that day. The many people whose lives were changed by that include Frank Robinson -no relation - who became a Hall of Fame player himself and manager. And he's on the line. Welcome to the program.
Mr. FRANK ROBINSON (Former Manager, Major League Baseball): Pleasure to be here.
INSKEEP: Did you ever meet Jackie Robinson?
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, yes, I did. Of course. 1956.
INSKEEP: What was the occasion?
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, baseball. Spring training. Baseball game. Dodgers against the Reds.
INSKEEP: You were with the Reds then?
Mr. ROBINSON: Yes, I was. That's where I started my career.
INSKEEP: Did you seek him out?
Mr. ROBINSON: No. No. No. No. A photographer got us together to take a photograph, and we chatted just briefly on the field at that time. But, you know, I was a youngster, shy kid from California, and it wasn't a lot of conversation at that time.
INSKEEP: How conscious were you of Jackie Robinson's role coming before you?
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, I was very conscious. Conscious until this day of what he had to endure and what he put up with, and how graceful he handled the situation. And without him doing it the way he did it and the respect that he collected over those years, you know, it would have been very difficult for others to follow.
INSKEEP: What did you have to put up with when you came to major league?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, same thing. Racial things. You know, fans saying things from the stand. You couldn't stay at the hotels in spring training with the team. The first few years that I was with Cincinnati, we came up to play Baltimore in an exhibition game in 1956 and we couldn't stay downtown at the hotel with the team. Those things.
INSKEEP: Jackie Robinson gave a speech near the end of his life in which he said the next barrier for baseball was to have a black manager. Turned out the first one was you.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. Absolutely.
INSKEEP: Did you have a time in those early years as a manager telling a white player what to do and you wondered if this person was giving you every bit of respect you were due?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I don't know about the respect because, you know, as long as they do what you ask them to do on the field, you feel like you have their respect. But, you certainly don't always know if they're giving their all because of the color of my skin.
INSKEEP: You thought they weren't giving their all for you.
Mr. ROBINSON: Absolutely. And, you know, some of the rules changed, with some of the white players were allowed to be away from the team when they weren't performing, that was pitchers, and then show up when they were going to pitch. And I stopped all of that, and they lashed out at me about that. So I had some problems there, but we overcame them as a team. And, you know, the managers have the tough decisions to make and the players are not always going to agree with them.
INSKEEP: What have you thought about in more recent years as there seems to be fewer black ball players than there were 20, 30, 40 years ago?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, it just hasn't started the last few years. It's been going on for quite some time, and now people are starting to take notice. Of course, there is not as much interest in black American players because the focus really is in the Latin countries now to sign players from down there, and develop players in the Latin countries.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that Major League Baseball scouts are getting all excited about Latin America and maybe spending less time in black neighborhoods in the United States?
Mr. ROBINSON: That's what I'm saying. Because there's not as many scouts going into the inner city, and that's a fact.
INSKEEP: When you've spoken with young African-American baseball players today, does Jackie Robinson's name come up very often?
Mr. ROBINSON: No. Certain black players have been asked about Jackie Robinson and one just commented, who was Jackie Robinson. I just don't think enough interest and enough credit is given to him, and that's really a shame.
INSKEEP: If there was somebody out there listening now who's only vaguely aware of Jackie Robinson, only knew the name, what more would you want to be sure that people knew about what he was?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I want them to be sure about what he did not only on the field. I think what Jackie Robinson did off the field was even more significant. I think he brought a country together. He showed the people that blacks, if they are treated equal, could be just as good if not better than the white players.
And I think Jackie did that and he brought a following because blacks showed up at the ballpark in great numbers and followed the Dodgers. And white fans also started to cheer for Jackie Robinson, the black player on the field, because, you know, he was an outstanding athlete and he was doing what he could do to help his ball club win ball games, and he was being very successful at it.
INSKEEP: Mr. Robinson, thanks very much for the time.
Mr. ROBINSON: Okay. You're welcome.
INSKEEP: And you can see that photo of Frank Robinson and Jackie Robinson at npr.org. Jackie Robinson took the field 60 years ago this weekend.
Unidentified Man: Robinson waits. Here comes the pitch. And there goes a line drive to the left field. (Unintelligible) is after it. The ball is over his head, against the wall. Here comes (unintelligible) scoring for the win.
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
Unidentified Man: Jackie Robinson is being pummeled by his teammates.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.