These days, Vic Lombardi is a golf pro in his native Fresno, Calif. In 1947, Lombardi was a 24-year-old left-hander in the Brooklyn Dodgers' starting rotation.
He had a new teammate, a rookie first baseman named Jackie Robinson. Robinson was a black man, the first in major-league baseball. Lombardi welcomed him."I had a lot of black kids who were my friends here, growing up," he said. "I wasn't prejudiced. The only thing I was prejudiced about was (jerks). And they come in all colors. If you're a good guy, you're my friend. If you're (a jerk), see ya later. It's that simple."
But it wasn't that simple with the '47 Dodgers and Jackie Robinson.
"There was," Lombardi remembered, "a lot of stuff going on that was really unnecessary."
A petition, penned by star right-fielder Dixie Walker, was circulated among the Dodgers at their spring base in Cuba. The petition, strongly supported by three of Walker's fellow Southerners--backup catcher Bobby Bragan, second baseman Eddie Stanky and pitcher Ed Head--declared the signees wouldn't play with Robinson if, as anticipated, club President Branch Rickey elevated him to the Dodger roster. The petition wasn't lacking for backing, although another Southerner, the respected shortstop Pee Wee Reese of Louisville, refused to sign.
Bragan, now living in Fort Worth and doing community relations work for the Rangers, tried to explain his thinking of 50 years ago:
"I was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala. You'd go to church and Sunday school on Sunday, and the bus station was across the street. And if you go over there, they have a `white' drinking fountain and a `colored' fountain. A white restroom and a colored restroom. Even at the lunch counter, you have a white place to eat a sandwich and a black one. So when you're born and raised in that kind of atmosphere, you don't feel the same toward the blacks as you do the whites.
"But Mr. Rickey called us all in, one by one. He told us in no uncertain words that, `The guy's skin color has nothing to do with his ability. If he can play better than the guy we've got, he's going to play. Do you understand that?' `Yes, sir.' `Would you rather be traded or stay here?' `I'd rather be traded.' `Well, if you stay here, are you going to play any different if he's on the team?' `No, sir.' `OK, good day.' That was about the gist of it."
Rickey's mini-conferences helped put an end to the mutiny. So did manager Leo Durocher's 1 a.m. "address" to his routed-out-of-bed players in the mess hall of the military base serving as the Dodgers' temporary spring home.
Durocher, only days away from being hit with a one-year suspension for associating with gamblers, told his ballclub Robinson was going to be a Dodger, that he would help put money in their pockets and that, furthermore, more black players were on their way. In closing, he said: "So I don't want to see your petition. (Bleep) your petition. The meeting is over. Go back to bed."
Although some resentment most certainly remained, it slowly would fade.
"Four weeks into the season, I'd say by the second road trip, Dixie Walker and Stanky and I and Ed Head were just as anxious as anyone to sit with Jackie in the dining car," Bragan said. "All that tradition I'd been brought up with went right down the drain."
Such was not the case, however, around the league. In the season's second series, the Phillies, led by their manager, Ben Chapman of Alabama, sent toward Robinson a stream of racial invective so harsh that even Stanky--who like everyone else was aware Robinson had agreed with Rickey's demand he not respond to racial insults--screamed at the Phillies' dugout, "Listen, you cowards, why don't you pick on someone who can fight back? What kind of men are you, anyway?"
In Philadelphia a week or so later, the abuse continued. During infield practice, the Phillies yelled out at Reese, asking him, in rather raw terms, how he enjoyed being teammates with a black man. Reese, whose father had worked as a detective for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and had shown his son "the hanging tree" where blacks were hung when they "got out of line," walked over to Robinson at first base and, in a quiet yet powerful reply, turned to the Phillies' bench and simply put his arm around Robinson.
Remembered Clyde King, then a young Dodger pitcher out of Goldsboro, N.C., "Guys in Philadelphia were yelling stuff at our bench, but it just made us rally around Jackie."
Said Gene Hermanski, the '47 Dodgers' left-fielder: "If you're playing sandlot ball back then, you're playing weekends. So, they give you the needle. You don't mind that. You don't play again till next weekend. But this was day in and day out: `You black SOB!' `Stick it in his ear!' That went on constantly. The guy had a lot of guts."
Not to mention remarkable self-control.
"I remember a ball he hit into left-center one day at Ebbets Field," King said. "and he slid into second. And the second baseman had the ball in the web of his glove and turned around and pretended he didn't know Jackie was there. And he hit him right in the face with the glove. We could hear the impact way over in our dugout. Robinson didn't say a word. Got up, brushed himself off and stole third on the next pitch. That's the way he answered.
"Now, if Jackie had gotten up and wanted to fight, our whole bench would've been out there. But because he didn't, everybody was calm. He was an inspiration to us that way."
He turned out to be an inspiration in many other ways as well. Said Reese, years later, to author Roger Kahn:
"People tell me that I helped Jackie. But knowing my background and the progress I've made, I have to say he helped me as much as I helped him."
Then there was Red Barber, the Dodgers' long-time radio voice. whose descriptions of Jackie Robinson's exciting play likely helped win over some who had doubted. Barber was born in Mississippi and raised in Florida. When Rickey notified him of his plan to hire Robinson, he went home and told his wife he wouldn't be able to work for the Dodgers anymore. Obviously, he had a change of heart.
"I know," he wrote in his autobiography, "that if I have achieved any understanding and tolerance in my life, if I have been able to follow a little better the second great commandment--which is to love thy neighbor--I thank Jackie Robinson.
"He did far more for me than I did for him."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times