Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jackie Answers the Phone

From my brother Jon Richards, creator of the cartoons that grace this blog, this reminiscence of Jackie Robinson, actually written as a gracious gift to this blog, but also published in the Santa Fe New Mexican:

During the 1972 season, Willie Mays was traded to the New York Mets for a ballplayer named Charlie Williams and $50,000. I took the occasion to write a magazine article about the trading of baseball superstars in their declining years. The list is long and eye-opening.

Among those who, in the days before free agency, wound up their careers playing in strange uniforms are such Hall of Famers as Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Dizzy Dean, Christy Matthewson, Tris Speaker, Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby and a raft of others.

Ruth at least left the Yankees of his own accord. But the Yankees didn't bother to retire his number. The legendary journalist Heywood Hale Broun was a boy at the time, and a die-hard Yankee fan.

"When George Selkirk trotted out on the field wearing number 3," he once told me, "I left Yankee Stadium and vowed never to go back there."

It was a little different with Jackie Robinson, the pioneer who baseball honors this year on the 60th anniversary of his epoch-making arrival in the Major Leagues.

Robinson was traded from the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team with which he had broken the color barrier when he crossed the first base line at Ebbetts Field on April 15, 1947, the team for which he had done so much and endured so much, the team for which he had played his entire career.

He was traded across town to the hated New York Giants. He was traded for a journeyman relief pitched named Dick Littlefield, and a reported $35,000. He didn't go.

In researching the Mays article, I tracked Robinson down for an interview. He had a construction company then, and I reached him at a New Jersey building site. He answered the phone himself, which floored me so much I could hardly think of what to ask him.

Jackie Robinson! At the other end of the telephone line!

The irony, he told me, was that he had already decided to retire after the 1956 season, his tenth with the Dodgers. He hadn't made the announcement yet because he had a deal with Look Magazine for the story.

That irritated some people, including the veteran sports columnist Red Smith, who wrote that for "peddling a news story, the rights to his retirement, no defense is discernible ... He has embarrassed the Dodgers, dislocated the plans of the Giants, and deceived the working newspapermen whose friendship he had and who thought they had his confidence ... . But for the Dodgers, the Jackie Robinson of this last decade would not have existed."

But for Robinson, the Dodgers of that decade would not have existed, not as we remember them, not as the Boys of Summer, who had capped the Robinson years with the franchise's first ever World Series triumph in 1955, a year before the trade.

"I saw it coming," Robinson told me. He and Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, who had bought the team from Branch Rickey and who would break the hearts and the spirit of the borough of Brooklyn in another year by removing the team to Los Angeles, did not get along. Robinson was a Rickey loyalist, and that sat ill with O'Malley.

Robinson suspected some other reasons for the trade. There was still plenty of racism in baseball a decade after he ended its apartheid. When a top star finished his playing days it was common practice for the organization to find him a job, managing or coaching or in the front office, if he wanted one. But for a black star, Robinson said, it was a different story.

O'Malley and the Dodgers did not want the embarrassment of having to face that delicate question when baseball's first black superstar reached that awkward age.

So Jackie Robinson said "no thanks" to the New York Giants, and packed up his equipment bag, and moved away from baseball. He became a successful businessman, and a major civil-rights leader. He died young, at 53, from heart problems and diabetes, a year after that afternoon when we talked on the phone.

Once, 10 years earlier, I had stood next to Jackie Robinson, backstage at the Ed Sullivan Show, where I was working and he was appearing.

We were among a knot of guys hanging around the security guard's desk watching the New York Mets, then in their first hapless season, on TV. Jackie shook his head.

"What a bunch of clowns," he chuckled, as Rod Kanehl in center field played an innocent pop fly into a triple.

Al Jackson, a pretty good pitcher, was on the mound for the Mets that night. He was an African American, and without the man standing next to me, he wouldn't have been out there.

Sunday is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie first stepped onto a Major League baseball field, and honored baseball by his presence.

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