Friday, April 26, 2013

Jim Crow’s Playmates

Red Smith (1905–1982)
From American Pastimes: The Very Best of Red Smith

Photo of Jackie Robinson (1954) by Bob Sandberg for LOOK Magazine (February 22, 1955). Image courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons.
In May 1947 the sportswriter Red Smith caught wind of a quashed conspiracy among certain players on the Saint Louis Cardinals, who planned to boycott the Brooklyn Dodgers because Jackie Robinson had been added to the line-up. Outraged, Smith devoted his next column to the incident:
. . . the disclosure of an abortive attempt to organize National League ballplayers into a bloc to deny Jackie Robinson, the Negro infielder, his chance with the Dodgers is at once shocking and heartening. It is shocking because the national game should have been the last place for the seeds of prejudice to grow. It is heartening because of the forthright and uncompromising action of the men [league president Ford Frick and Cardinals owner Sam Breadon] who put the movement down.
Several years later Smith repeated this sentiment, writing “Whether they like it or not, baseball men now must set an example in interracial relations.” Even so, in 1956 he would reflect on the events of the previous decade, “I think I failed to understand, to appreciate really, the burden Robinson was carrying on his shoulders.”

Branch Rickey was the baseball manager who signed Robinson to a contract with the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers minor-league affiliate, where Robinson led the league with a .349 batting average and won the Most Valuable Player award in 1946. Following Robinson’s impressive debut with the Dodgers (he became major-league baseball's first-ever Rookie of the Year), Rickey would often tell journalists a story that continued to inspire him during those turbulent years. Four decades earlier, while still an undergraduate at Ohio Wesleyan University, Rickey signed a professional baseball contract and thus became ineligible to continue playing for the school’s baseball team. So the college appointed him as athletics director and baseball coach. Charles Thomas, the university’s only black player in 1903, replaced Rickey as catcher. Smith recorded Thomas’s story, as told by Rickey and presented here, in his February 19, 1948, column.

Notes: In his article, Smith mistakenly places Rickey and Thomas at the University of Michigan, where Rickey later coached, rather than at Ohio Wesleyan University. Arthur Mann was Rickey’s assistant, a sportswriter who later wrote the screenplay for The Jackie Robinson Story (1950).

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A curious sort of hullabaloo has been aroused by Branch Rickey’s disclosure that when he went into the ring against Jim Crow, he found fifteen major league club owners working in Jim’s corner. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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