Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia. He remains for me and so many others one of the most important figures in sports and American history.
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While there were a few black players in the 1880s and a few others with African-American blood were described by their teams as "Cuban," "Mexican" or "Indian" in the first part of the 20th century, it was Jackie Robinson who shattered the color barrier post-World War II.
The struggle to break the color line in the Major Leagues included many sorry stories like this one from July 27, 1943. Wire services announced that three Negro National League players would be given tryouts with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But, the three Roy Campanella, Sam Hughes of the Baltimore Elite Giants and Dave Barnhill of the New York Cubans -- never received their tryouts.
Farcical Tryouts at Fenway Park
Each season, the Boston Red Sox had routinely received a waiver from the Boston City Council permitting them to play Sunday baseball. Now Councilman Isadore Muchnick, who represented the Mattapan section of Boston, teamed with African-American journalist Wendell Smith. They had an offer for Tom Yawkey that they knew he could not refuse. A trade, of sorts.
For the BoSox to keep the long-held waiver in place, the team would have to allow three black baseball prospects to try out at Fenway Park. Yawkey, as the story was reported later, reluctantly agreed to the tryouts of Jackie Robinson, Marvin Williams and Sam Jethroe. His one condition was that all decisions about them would be the province of his baseball people.
Black ballplayers from the Negro Leagues from time to time had played at Fenway when the Red Sox were on the road. The color barrier was firmly in effect at this time, but owners thought nothing of picking up spare change through this business arrangement. Now they would have chance to break the big club’s color line at Fenway Park, or so was the understanding.
April 16, 1945 began damp and drizzly. At about 10:00 A.M. Muchnick and Smith were in the stands, They watched as the tryout got underway. Just back from army service in World War II, Jackie Robinson was set to play with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues that season. Marvin Williams was a member of the Philadelphia Stars. Sam Jethroe was an outfielder for the Cleveland Buckeyes.
Red Sox Manager Joe Cronin sat in the stands, according to one account, “stone-faced.'' Eddie Collins, the general manager, reportedly was unable to attend the tryout “because of a previous engagement.”
Near the end of the one-hour workout, according to Clifford Keane, reporter for the Boston Globe, someone called out, “Get those niggers off the field!”
Boston Red Sox immortal and Coach Hugh Duffy, 78, was one of those who conducted the workouts. Later that year he would be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“You boys look like pretty good players,” he was quoted as saying. “I hope you enjoyed the workout.” Later he remarked: “After one workout, it was not possible to judge their ability."
When the tryout was over, Robinson said: “It was April, 1945. Nobody was serious about black players in the majors, except maybe for a few politicians.”
According to United Press International, Jethroe and Williams “seemed tense and both their hitting and fielding suffered.” According to the Red Sox front office, the players were not ready for the majors and would not be comfortable playing for the team's Triple-A affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky.
According to Sam Jethroe, the entire experience was “a sham.” The Red Sox front office would never contact the players.
There was a need for players with the abilities of Jethroe, Robinson and Williams. As the 1945 baseball season began and the war still raged, Major League rosters were stocked with not quite ready for prime time players, a few underage ones and quite a few who were long in the tooth. But the game went on at Fenway Park in 1945 and other big league venues, as it had always gone on, only with white players.
By April of 1947, there were sixteen blacks in organized baseball, half of them in the Dodger organization. Branch Rickey had signed Dan Bankhead who would pitch ten innings late in the season. John Wright, Roy Parlow, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella were in the minor leagues Hank Thompson and Willard J. Brown would join the St. Louis Browns in July.
The Cleveland Indians had signed Larry Doby in 1947, and he would play in twenty-nine games for them.
But Jackie Robinson was the main man, the first of the black stars who would change forever the way things were in Major League Baseball. He was history's wall-breaker, history’s messenger.
The Pee Wee Reese Moment
As the story goes, during Robinson’s rookie season his southern-born teammate Pee Wee Reese stood up for him at a game in Cincinnati after hearing racial slurs. The little shortstop allegedly put his arm around Robinson and said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them,”
There is a statue of Reese and Robinson outside the playing field of the Brooklyn Cyclones in Coney Island to commemorate that moment in time that probably never took place. Rachel Robinson was opposed to that statue suggesting another moment be found. Her opposition went unheeded. There is no mention in newspapers, and according to Newsweek no mention of it can be unearthed. Ken Burns, creator of the documentary on Robinson, calls the moment “mythology.