LIANE HANSEN, host:
Sixty years ago today, there was a blue sky and a soft breeze at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, a perfect day for the first game of the baseball season. Jackie Robinson, the man Red Barber described as very definitely brunette, trotted onto the field and took his position at first base. As the first African-American in the Major Leagues, all eyes were on him.
The first batter for the Boston Braves, Dick Culler, slapped a grounder to third base. Dodgers third baseman, Spider Jorgensen, scooped it up and tossed it to Robinson in time for the out. It was now official: Major League Baseball was integrated.
Jonathan Eig has just written a new book called "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season," and he's in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.
Mr. JONATHAN EIG (Author, "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season"): Thanks, Liane.
HANSEN: What was the reaction in the stands that day at Ebbets Field?
Mr. EIG: It was decidedly mixed. There was a huge black crowd. By some measures, it was three-fifths African-American that day at Ebbets Field, which had never happened before, nothing even close. And those folks were exuberant. They were really trying to restrain themselves from applauding every time Robinson kicked at the dirt. They were so happy just to see him on the field.
Mr. EIG: On the other hand, it was a surprise that there were 6,000 empty seats, that there weren't more white folks there for a beautiful day. The first day of baseball in Brooklyn was usually a packed house.
HANSEN: You write that Robinson wasn't the most talented black ballplayer in the country. He had a weak throwing arm and a creaky ankle, short on experience, and at 28, he was a little old to be a first-time player. So why did Branch Rickey choose him to be the one to break the race barrier?
Mr. EIG: It was a fascinating choice. I think he chose Robinson because Robinson was so intelligent and so competitive and so strong. He wanted somebody who would not just integrate the game but somebody who would really push the point, who would make it clear that black players were here to stay and that they were not to be trifled with.
HANSEN: So he was someone who could probably stand up to all the media scrutiny?
Mr. EIG: Not just the media scrutiny but the animosity he was going to get from - even from his own team, not to mention from his opponents. There were a lot of people who thought, if we could drive this guy out and do it quickly, we might end this integration experiment before it really takes hold.
HANSEN: Was there any evidence of that on the field that day?
Mr. EIG: Not that day. Before that day, during spring training, threatened - several of them threatened not to play with Robinson. They were really trying to drive a wedge between him and the rest of the team. And then, just a few days later, some - when the Philadelphia Phillies came to town for their first game at Ebbets Field, they really let him have it. Their manager, Ben Chatman, ordered his team to go as hard as they could, riding Robinson and riding his teammates for playing with a black man. They were really vicious.
HANSEN: So what was Branch Rickey's primary motivation?
Mr. EIG: That's a tough one to say, because Branch Rickey always had many motivations. He was a complex man. He wanted to integrate the game. He wanted to do the right thing. He was a very religious and moral man. He also wanted to win, and the Dodgers had the worst team, the smallest ballpark in New York. And he saw a competitive advantage here by signing black players. And he wanted to make money too. That's not - as an owner of a baseball team, now, you will not find that shocking that he might have wanted to make money.
HANSEN: Did he want to win the pennant, too?
Mr. EIG: Oh, absolutely. And Jackie Robinson turned out to be just the right guy for that job, too.
HANSEN: Yeah. How did the newspapers cover Robinson's opening day in 1947?
Mr. EIG: It's interesting. Again, it's divided. The black newspapers are all over it. It's a banner headline in every African-American paper in the country, with six pages of photos inside. On some of them, they wrote about what Robinson ate for breakfast, and they wrote about where he sat on the bench.
The white papers barely mentioned it. The New York Times, Daily News, the New York Post - barely a mention of this historic event. They treated him like another ballplayer and just mentioned that he happened to go 0 for 3 that day.
HANSEN: Hmm. Before the Dodgers, Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs, and in your book, you write that he fit into the Negro Leagues like a schoolmarm in a brothel. What do you mean by that?
Mr. EIG: Yes. Robinson was a very serious guy. He did not play around and he really liked to win, and it drove him crazy that these Negro League teams would play games and then stop in the fifth or sixth inning to get back on the bus so they can go play another game. He just couldn't stand it. And I think the conditions were very rough too. And he was a guy who did not tolerate racism very well. And here they were on the road, trying to get food from restaurants where they wouldn't be served. And most of the guys in the Negro Leagues have gotten used to it. Robinson never got used to it.
HANSEN: How did Jackie Robinson's wife, Rachel, handle this new life?
Mr. EIG: To me, she's one of the real heroes of the story and perhaps one of the forgotten heroes, because - in 1947, they were newlyweds. They had a five-month-old baby, and they were living in this cubicle of an apartment. They didn't even have the apartment all to themselves. They shared it with a stranger.
So three people in a 10-by-12 room, and Robinson is very much alone in going through this ordeal. His teammates don't speak to him for the most part. He's got no family, no friends in New York. And his wife is his rock. And she's a brilliant woman who knew exactly what he was going through and helped him in so many ways.
HANSEN: So how do you assess Robinson's performance during that first season?
Mr. EIG: Nothing short of brilliant. He started slowly. And even a month into the season, there were those who were saying that he could be sent back to the minors at any time, leaving the game all white once more. But by middle of May, early June, he's just crushing the ball and he's driving people crazy with his aggressive base running. And the Dodgers, to everyone's surprise, were in first place and they stayed there all season long.
By the end of the year, not only is Robinson hitting .295 and leading the league in stolen bases, but more importantly, he's won over some of his very crusty, very Southern, very prejudiced teammates and they're now saying, we couldn't have done it without him. They have to admit it.
HANSEN: Wasn't he voted rookie of the year?
Mr. EIG: He was indeed. And today, the award is named after him.
HANSEN: You know, there's a lot of books on Jackie Robinson, particularly as we come up to this anniversary. Why did you feel you had to write a new one?
Mr. EIG: I felt like we were beginning to hear the myths more than the truth. And I wanted to really strip back the layer of mythology that has come to surround Robinson and look at exactly what happened. And I thought by crystallizing the story into one season, you could really see his impact on America. And this book is filled with stories of people whose lives were changed in that moment - not people reflecting 60 years later, but people whose lives changed that season because they saw Jackie Robinson hit the ball.
HANSEN: Jonathan Eig is the author of "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season." And he joined us from our New York Bureau. Thanks for your time.
Mr. EIG: Thank you.
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