Playwright Calls a Well-Timed 'Meeting' : Race: Tensions examined in "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting," about black players entering major-league baseball, contain some eerie echoes to L.A.'s anger.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tony Gwynn. Darryl Strawberry. Rickey Henderson.

Today, we take black athletes for granted, much as we take integrated schools and public facilities for granted.

But it's been only 45 years since Jackie Robinson became the first black to play major league baseball when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Brooklyn-based playwright Ed Schmidt looks at Robinson and Branch Rickey, and the pact they made in "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting." The show, which sets up a fictitious 1947 meeting between the historical figures of Robinson, Rickey and then-famous black figures Paul Robeson, Joe Louis and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, has its West Coast premiere Saturday at the Old Globe's Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

But this is not an aren't-we-glad-things-are- happy-now baseball show.

Schmidt's play is less about sports than it is about how these men felt about a system in which a white man held the power to give Robinson the chance he craved. And how he held that power on his terms as he made the decisions that would change their lives.

The issue of empowerment, justice and racial inequity is still a hot issue--as evidenced by last week's Los Angeles violence after the acquittals of the policemen who beat Rodney King.

It made for some tense moments during rehearsals, Schmidt concedes, in part because Schmidt is white in a room of black artists who don't want him to tell them how they are feeling.

"I made the comment a few weeks ago that there's tension and uncomfortableness in this 1992 room," Schmidt said. "I have had to step back and essentially step out of the room (as Mr. Rickey does in the play) and let them do their work, and let the director and the actors take over because they feel it in the gut much more than I do.

"It's fascinating how the play mirrors what's going on in the rehearsal room and how that mirrors what's going on 100 miles north."

It's also fascinating how such hot issues sell tickets.

At a time when most theaters in San Diego are having trouble filling seats, the Old Globe already has nearly sold out 20 performances of a 59-show run.

All this for a 29-year-old unknown playwright and a brand-new play.

Not really.

All this is for Jackie Robinson. And Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president and general manager. And a desire to understand how far America has come in racial equality and how far we have to go. Even in baseball, 45 years later, only a handful of managers, coaches, executives or owners are black.

Schmidt insists that no one is an all-good guy in his play. And no one is an all-bad one. And probably no one will agree with any of his depictions--exactly--but they will undoubtedly excite a fair amount of discussion and debate.

For Red Barber, who broadcast Brooklyn games before, during and after Robinson was signed, Rickey was a hero.

"He went against his family and all of baseball. He did it while Martin Luther King Jr. was in high school," Barber said from his home in Tallahassee, Fla.

"He could have wrecked the Brooklyn ballclub, but he made it go. He took the heat. Nothing would have happened for Jackie Robinson except for Mr. Rickey."

Barber acknowledges that not everyone liked Rickey, that some people called him a skinflint and others a hypocrite. It could be that he thought signing a black ballplayer was just a good business move. Bringing in Robinson, he may have figured, would lead to tapping more talent from the National Negro Baseball League and prove the path to a pennant. But Barber appreciated the resistance Rickey would be up against because Barber himself was so shook up when Rickey told him he intended to sign a black ballplayer.

Barber was born in 1908 in Columbus, Miss., and grew up in Sanford, in central Florida, where everything was segregated. When Robinson was signed, Barber wasn't sure he could overcome his upbringing and broadcast the game. But he did it--never once referring to the color of Robinson's skin.

And gradually, Barber underwent a revolution in his own thinking. That revolution may well have mirrored much of white America as it began to enjoy watching Robinson and later, other black athletes, play.

"As they said in 'South Pacific,' 'You've got to be carefully taught,' " Barber said. "But I got to thinking that I had no choice to the color I was born to--white or black. That was the beginning of my thinking."

Barber never covered the Negro League, which began in 1920 and dissolved in 1950. He expressed admiration for Robinson, but not surprisingly, retired Negro League players talk less about Rickey and more about the quiet heroism of Robinson and other Negro League players.

One term of the deal Rickey struck with Robinson was that, for his first three years as a Brooklyn Dodger, he would turn the other cheek when insulted or assaulted.

Robinson was a very proud man who entered the Army as an officer during World War II and was almost court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus at Camp Hood in Texas. He was a four-sport letterman at UCLA before the war.

But, as the insults and the ball flew at his head, he turned one cheek. And when the spikes dug into him, he turned the other cheek. And he kept turning until some thought he had no cheeks left.

Former Negro Leaguer Joe Fillmore, 78, played for the Philadelphia Stars from 1940-42 and from 1946 until the league folded.

"Jackie was everything that a man should be," Fillmore said from Los Angeles in a voice that faltered with age.

"He was intelligent, he had sense, he had the education--that's what they wanted. He had to take orders, let little things pass. Some people in life won't let things pass. It takes a very, very strong, intelligent man to take that.

"I didn't think Jackie could go through those things. They wanted to get him out of the way. They hurt him."

Fillmore's wife, Terri, who helped him through the interview, interrupted. "He couldn't have taken it," she said, referring to her husband. "But I couldn't have, either. This one here, he (prepared) the way for Jackie."

In the play, Schmidt has Robeson express a sense of loss for the Negro League, which he has Robeson (correctly) predict will fold a few years after Robinson is signed. He has Robeson take up for the league and the black owners of the teams and the black players who will be thrown out of work. He has Robeson asked why an entire team can't be elevated to major league status instead of just one player being picked.

Former Negro League ballplayer Sammie Haynes, 72 years old and blind from glaucoma, played for the Atlanta Black Crackers from 1938-42. He and Fillmore expressed no regrets for the league's demise. Schmidt acknowledges that, "amazingly," not a single former Negro Leaguer that he interviewed for research expressed bitterness.

For bitterness, one can refer to August Wilson's Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play, "Fences," in which he writes about an angry former Negro Leaguer who doesn't want to give his son a shot at integrated sports, because he never got his shot.

Haynes maintained a friendship with Robinson until Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 53. His voice cracked as he described what Robinson went through in those first three years.

"They segregated Jackie. He couldn't stay in the same hotel with the team. He couldn't dress with the team," Haynes said on the phone from his Los Angeles home.

Unlike Fillmore, Haynes said he didn't think Robinson was the best ballplayer he ever saw, just the best man for the job.

"We all thought Jackie was the right person to go," Haynes said. "He was not the best ballplayer, but he was a good ballplayer. He was able to take all the crap, and he was an incredibly clean liver. He didn't smoke, he didn't play around, he was impeccable and you needed a guy of that caliber."

In later years, Robinson got a rap from a later generation for being an "Uncle Tom"--because he stuck to his agreement with Rickey and for three years did not protest or fight back.

But Haynes, who was there, knew why Robinson didn't fight back. It wasn't to please the white folks. It was to prove that mixing blacks and whites could be done without inciting a riot. And that in turn would pave the way for a full-scale integration of major league sports. But it was hard going.

Haynes maintains it was those years of keeping his feelings in that did in Robinson.

"Jackie was a fiery guy. If you wanted a fight, he would fight," Haynes said. "But he had to couch his feelings, and it finally killed him. It wasn't easy, but Jackie knew he had to hang tough so other guys would have a shot."

Some of those "other guys" were Willie Mays, who played for the Birmingham Black Barons, and Hank Aaron, who played for the Indianapolis Clowns. Satchel Paige became a Cleveland Indian. But many older Negro League players moved into the minor leagues. Or left baseball, like Fillmore and Haynes.

In the play, Schmidt creates one totally fictional character, Clancy Hope, who met the men at the fictitious meeting he sets up in 1947 and then reflects back on that meeting from the viewpoint of the present day.

"It's been 45 years since Mr. Rickey called his meeting," Clancy says. "Forty-five years, and, in that time, as you can see, a lot of things changed. And a lot of things didn't."

* Performances of "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting" are at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 and Wednesday matinees on May 20, June 3, June 10 and June 17. Through June 21. Tickets are $18-$29.50. At the Cassius Carter Centre Stage in Balboa Park, 239-2255.

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