Advertisement
Share

CROSSING THE LINE

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They didn’t get it.

On April 15, 1947, the Fourteenth Regiment band played and opening day bunting flapped. Jackie Robinson took his position at first base in the first inning at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to become the first black player in major league baseball.

But they didn’t get it.

Danny Litwhiler, the Boston Braves’ starting left fielder, didn’t realize until last month that he even played in the game.

The cozy home of the supposedly best fans in baseball was nearly 7,000 short of a sellout.

Advertisement

Good luck finding any photos of Robinson’s first at-bat, or game programs, or foul balls. One collector swears there is only one remaining ticket stub, as if few realized this was a memory worth saving.

Not even the New York Times understood.

In its game account and accompanying column, Robinson’s achievement was not even mentioned. The star of the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory was Pete Reiser. The story was suspended Manager Leo Durocher.

This spring, as we celebrate the anniversary of one of the most important dates in the history of civil rights, it is important to remember when this date wasn’t so important.

This was no D-Day. This was no foot on the moon. There was no ticker tape.

This was no triumphant finish, but a beginning. A raw, pained beginning for which there may still be no end.

To this day, Brooklyn first baseman Ed Stevens wants the world to know something.

“Jackie Robinson did not win a job from me that first year,” Stevens, 72, said. “It was given to him.”

To this day, second baseman Eddie Stanky says it was simply another afternoon.

“A big thing for Jackie, maybe,” said Stanky, 80. “But I can’t give you much information because I’m writing a book.”

Rex Barney, a pitcher on that team, laughed.

“Stanky is not writing a book,” Barney said. “He just doesn’t want to talk about it, because he was one of the guys on the team who made it tough for Jackie because he was black.”

To this day, few know what happened to Robinson after he retired.

Or, what didn’t happen.

Jackie Robinson may have been a Hall of Famer as the first black player, but his color essentially prohibited him from becoming the first black manager. Or the first black baseball announcer.

He worked in New York for Chock Full O’Nuts and the Freedom National Bank of Harlem. He was a part-time commentator for Long Island University basketball games.

This yearlong national celebration being endorsed by everyone, including the President?

It might not have been endorsed by Robinson.

From the moment he stepped into the batter’s box against Johnny Sain on April 15, 1947, that game became a metaphor for the difficult times that were to follow.

He played flawlessly at first base, even though he had never played the position. He set up the game-winning rally. He scored the eventual winning run.

Yet the New York Times called his afternoon “uneventful.”

And columnist Red Smith referred to him only as “that dark and anxious young man.”

To properly honor Robinson’s first game is to do so soberly.

To properly celebrate is not to celebrate at all, but simply remember.

“It was Mr. (Branch) Rickey’s drama and . . . I was only a principal actor. As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world . . . I know that I never had it made.”

--Robinson from the book, “I Never Had It Made.”

*

The change began at the end of spring training, 1947. The Dodgers were finishing their work in Havana. Durocher, who shortly afterward would be suspended for gambling, brought them into the clubhouse for a meeting.

“We’re bringing up Jackie Robinson,” he announced.

The older players immediately broke up into circles, some talking of accepting him, others vowing to ignore him.

Stevens, a first baseman beginning his third season, didn’t belong to the veteran cliques. He didn’t think much of it until opening day in the Ebbets Field clubhouse.

That’s when he saw that Robinson, a second baseman, was going to take his spot in the lineup.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, he’s playing first base?’ ” Stevens recalled. “I was a better fielder. I had hit 10 home runs the year before. I couldn’t believe it.”

Robinson walked over, shook Stevens’ hand, then played so well, Stevens was sent to the minor leagues before being traded in the off-season.

Robinson played so well, it was the longest off-season of Ed Stevens’ life.

“Everywhere I went in my hometown [Galveston, Texas], I was ridiculed. Everyone said to me, ‘I can’t believe you lost your job to a nigger,’ ” remembered Stevens, who batted .252 with 28 homers in a six-year career. “I told everybody, ‘I didn’t lose nothing, it was given to him.’ ”

Stevens added, “Look at how bad he did when he started [0 for 20]. And they didn’t send him down? Somebody was determined to keep him in the big leagues.”

They just didn’t get it.

Robinson made one more stop before taking the field on opening day. Spider Jorgensen, a rookie third baseman who had just been recalled from Montreal with Robinson, didn’t have the proper glove.

“Jackie just walked right over with his infielder’s glove, said, ‘Here, use mine,’ ” Jorgensen recalled.

From that moment, Jorgensen was ignored by the veterans who also ignored Robinson.

“I was considered an outcast, an outlaw, an informant,” he said. “I was considered too close to Jackie.”

The cold shoulder was lifted after Jorgensen drove in six runs in one game. Robinson only wished it could be that easy.

“Baseball, like some other sports, poses as a sacred institution, dedicated to the public good, but it is actually a big, selfish business with a ruthlessness that many big businesses would never think of displaying.”

--Jackie Robinson, from his book.

*

Robinson took the field for player introductions, standing next to pitcher Ralph Branca.

Talking about everything but.

“We just had normal chitchat that day,” Branca said. “He never said anything about it. My main concern was, can he play?”

Robinson stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the first inning, the second batter of the game, facing Sain.

Who was thinking about everything but.

“It wasn’t that big of a deal at the time,” Sain said. “People ask me if I was worried about letting a pitch get away, hitting him, and I say no. I wasn’t even thinking about that kind of stuff.”

But he does remember this: After Robinson grounded out to third baseman Bob Elliott in a close play on his first major league at-bat, Robinson glared at the first-base umpire.

“I thought about that later and said, ‘This is the man for the job,’ ” Sain said.

Sain thought about it only much later, like everyone else.

As a big league pitching coach, Sain stunned his players 25 years ago when he announced that he had been the starter in Robinson’s first game.

“Willie Stargell couldn’t believe it,” Sain said. “I don’t know if anybody knew it.”

Sain then surprised himself when he began searching for a photo of that first at-bat. He has yet to find one.

“All those cameras there, and not one picture anywhere of that at-bat,” he said. “Hard to imagine. I guess nobody really knew what they were watching.”

“I’m not concerned with you liking or disliking me. . . . All I ask if that you respect me as a human being.”

--Jackie Robinson, from the book “Grand Slams and Fumbles”

*

Robinson flew out to Litwhiler in left field to end the third inning with no runners on base. It was an inauspicious beginning to an unusual friendship.

Litwhiler didn’t remember playing in that first game until the media began calling him last month, but he will never forget the following season.

After Litwhiler was traded to the Cincinnati Reds, team officials approached him before the Dodgers’ first visit there. Concerned about the racial tensions, the Reds wondered what Litwhiler thought about Robinson.

“I said if he can play, what’s the difference?” Litwhiler said.

“Good,” officials said. “Will you pose for a picture with him?”

So he did, and it appeared in the newspapers and the trouble passed.

When Litwhiler met Robinson during a speech 20 years later, the outfielder brought out that picture. Robinson gladly signed it.

“Now isn’t that something?” Litwhiler said.

In the fifth inning, with the score tied, 1-1, Robinson made his third consecutive out by grounding into an inning-ending double play after a diving stop by Brave shortstop Dick Culler.

That play was the focus of most of the newspaper’s coverage of him the next morning. “An unenviable distinction,” Arthur Daley of the New York Times wrote.

It certainly got the attention of teammates, who were already grumbling.

“He wasn’t speaking to some of them, and some of them weren’t speaking to him,” remembered Stan Strull, the Dodger batboy.

“Baseball is very vindictive. I think, very frankly, that a black man who is willing to accept their dictates and do what they want him to do can get along beautifully. But, if you’re a man and you stand on your own two feet, then look out.”

--Jackie Robinson, in the New York Times in 1971, 10 months before his death.

*

The Dodgers were trailing, 3-2, in the seventh inning when Stanky led off with a walk, and Robinson then did what he did best. He made something happen.

He bunted. He ran hard to first. First baseman Earl Torgeson grabbed it and threw wildly. Robinson hustled to second, with Stanky going to third.

Reiser then lined a double just inside the right-field foul pole. Two runs scored. The Dodgers took a 4-3 lead they never lost.

“Flatbush fans had no problem about dividing their cheers,” read the New York Times. “All of them went to an old hero, Pistol Pete Reiser.”

And that was that. Howie Schultz replaced Robinson for defensive purposes, the rookie returned to the clubhouse after the victory, dressed quietly and prepared for another game.

“I know I have a certain responsibility to my race, but I’ve got to try not to feel that way about it because it would be too much of a strain,” Robinson said at the time.

So he said nothing later when none of his teammates wanted to be the first to shake his hand after his first big-league home run.

“The whole world watching, and nobody shook it,” Stevens said. “I wish I had done something, I really do, but I was just a punk around there, I didn’t want to cause any trouble.”

Robinson also said nothing when teammate Dixie Walker refused to look at the cameras during many team photos in protest of Robinson.

Robinson finally spoke up the following year in spring training, when he held an impromptu clubhouse meeting in the Dominican Republic.

“Guys, I have proven I am a major leaguer,” he said, according to Barney. “I don’t care if you talk to me. But I am no longer a freak.”

Gene Hermanski, the Dodger left fielder in that opening game, was recently asked if he had any interesting stories about Robinson.

“I’ve got a funny one,” he said. “We’re in the showers that year, just me and him, and a shot of hot water hits his leg and burns it.

“He shouts, ‘Dang, that water gave me a strawberry.’ I laugh and say, ‘Jackie, no, it gave you a blackberry.’ He just looked at me and shook his head.”

They didn’t get it. Not then. Through 10 years and six World Series and an induction into the Hall of Fame, Robinson just looked at the world and shook his head. There is a chance he is shaking it still.

Hermanski, 76 and living in New Jersey, laughed.

“If you think about it, the guys who didn’t like Jackie, they were justified in their thinking,” he said. “I mean, that was the way they were brought up.”


Advertisement