Brooklyn and Jackie Robinson


Brooklyn NY was the epicenter of the US war effort of the 1940s: the battleship Missouri was built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; the great bulk of the troops who sailed to Europe passed through the Brooklyn Army Terminal in order to board ships waiting at the Brooklyn docks, the best deep water piers on the East Coast; the stevedores were working around the clock unloading and loading ships; masses of young Brooklyn men went to war in the armed services and the Merchant Marine while women joined the WACS (Army), WAVES (Navy), SPARS (Coast Guard) and the WAFS (Air Force), …

This writer remembers VE Day (May 8, 1945) and VJ Day (August 15, 1945): jubilant celebrations as the war wound down and finally ended. Men hung from running-boards gangster-style as cars went round and round in circles with horns blaring. Banners welcoming heroes home were soon everywhere stretching across from a rooftop on one side of the street to one on the other side. Hitler and Tojo were hanged in effigy from lampposts all over the borough. Rationing was ended. Mothers and aunts were delighted that nylon stockings could be found again; the black market went out of business. The professional baseball players too came home from the war for the 1946 season; and the 1946 National League pennant race would end with the Brooklyn Dodgers tied with the St Louis Cardinals. But “dem Bums” lost in the first ever Major League playoff series (0-2) – no surprise, it was that gift for being on the wrong side of baseball history that earned them the sobriquet “Bums” in the first place.

And something else was happening in the après-guerre that would transform the Dodgers from a very good team into a championship team and would have a dramatic impact on race-relations in the USA. On Oct 23, 1945 former Negro League star Jack Roosevelt Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and during the 1946 season, Robinson was soon leading Brooklyn’s top farm team, the Montreal Royals, to the championship of the AAA International League; his year there was simply phenomenal – he batted .349 and was named the league’s MVP. Robinson was thus the first African-American to play in so-called Organized Baseball since Moses Fleetwood Walker played catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association and the Syracuse Stars of the International League in the 1880s. Bringing Robinson on board was spearheaded by Dodger president and general manager Branch Rickey – a deep thinker of the baseball business. As minority shareholder in the franchise, for a project of this magnitude Rickey needed and obtained support from fellow owners Walter O’Malley and Jean McKeever. Robinson would prove an excellent choice: good-looking, a Californian, an exceptional athlete, mature, intelligent, well spoken, college educated (UCLA) with long experience playing on mostly White sports teams, an officer in the Army during the War. The heroic role of Black men and women in the armed forces and the civilian war effort demanded recognition and it was time for social change; other teams too were showing interest in bringing a Black ballplayer into the Major Leagues but baseball’s “noble experiment” took place in feisty ethnically diverse Brooklyn.

Fall 1946 saw the integration of the National Football League with the Los Angeles Rams’ signing running back Kenny Washington. The New York Football Giants followed the next year bringing defensive back Emlen Tunnell onto the squad, but the other teams waited until the 1950s to hire Black players – ironic, isn’t it, that now the majority of NFL players are Black. And the National Basketball Association was not integrated until the 1950-51 seasons when Earl Lloyd, Harold Hunter and Nate “Sweetwater” Clifton joined the league – even more ironic given the star Black players who have made the NBA the phenomenally profitable enterprise it is today.

Robinson grew up in Pasadena, California, in a relatively poor single parent household that included his older brother Matt who himself was a star athlete. In fact, Matt won a Silver Medal in the 1936 Olympics, coming in 0.4 seconds behind Jesse Owens in the final of the 200 meter dash – he and Owens were two of the American athletes dismissed as “black auxiliaries” in the Berlin press. Growing up in a White world, Jackie Robinson did encounter some racial hostility but also he went to integrated schools and played sports on integrated teams through to UCLA where he lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track. And he encountered racism in the US Army at Fort Riley, Kansas where the brass were dragging their feet on letting Black soldiers into Officers Candidate School (OCS); however, Boxing Great Joe Louis, who had volunteered for military service after Pearl Harbor, was also stationed at Fort Riley: Louis intervened, forcing the Army to follow its own rules and let Robinson and others into OCS. It didn’t stop there: Second Lieutenant Robinson was court-martialed at Fort Hood TX when he refused to go to the back of the bus he was riding on the base – the driver’s action was completely against military regulations and Robinson was eventually acquitted. So Robinson was both someone who was cosmopolitan and someone who had suffered the stings of racial prejudice. But, importantly, Robinson was able to rise to Branch Rickey’s challenge not to react to racial taunts and mistreatment but to turn the other cheek; toward the end of his baseball career he did become more outspoken, however, and all along he was a firm proponent of civil rights. The importance of Jackie Robinson to American history was captured by Martin Luther King: during a TV interview with Larry King, MLK protested that he himself could not be called the founder of the Civil Rights movement because that honor belonged to Jackie Robinson.

For the fan in the trolley car in Brooklyn, Rickey (who was known to be very tight with money – his theory was that an underpaid ballplayer would play harder to prove he was worth more) was bringing a Black player on board simply to bring more of Brooklyn’s sizable population of Black citizens to Ebbets Field as paying customers. If that was his plan, it did work. What is more, White Brooklyn fans quickly warmed to Robinson and cheered him on; at some other cities, he would be jeered but his stoic attitude and support from his teammates helped get him through it.

When Robinson reported to Dodger training camp in spring 1947, the manager was the flamboyant and brilliant baseball man Leo “the Lip” Durocher, a charter member of the boisterous St Louis Cardinals’ “gashouse gang” of the 1930s, one notorious for his blistering English language invective (ironically his family were from Québec and little Léo only spoke French until he went to grade school in West Springfield, Massachusetts). An intense competitor known for his slogan “nice guys finish last,” Durocher supported Robinson to the hilt, stating the obvious – that Robinson would help the team win games – and threatening to trade any player who balked: star pitcher Kirby Higbe did and was sent to Pittsburgh along with some other players; star right-fielder Dixie Walker would be traded at the end of the season. But the team rallied around Robinson; the role of “the Little Colonel,” shortstop PeeWee Reese, a Southerner from Kentucky is one singled out in the 2013 Robinson bio-pic 42.

Durocher himself had enemies in Organized Baseball and was suspended for the 1947 season ostensibly for his association with gamblers, actors and other unsavory types – he did admit to knowing Bugsy Siegel, he was involved in gambling schemes with actor George Raft and he was having an affair with still-married Hollywood actress Laraine Day (the two eventually tied the knot in 1948). It was time for someone completely different and Rickey brought in an old colleague – calm, dignified baseball man Burt Shotton who took over as manager for the rest of the season; Shotton did have his own peculiarity though – he did not suit up for games but sat in street clothes in the dugout, sending sartorially correct coach Clyde Sukeforth out to the mound to talk to pitchers and all that.

“Us” Dodger fans from the neighborhoods of Brooklyn (and Queens and Staten Island too) loved the way Robinson played the game as we watched him on a blurry TV with a magnifying glass, listened to away games on the radio or, day of days, got to see him play at Ebbets Field. Robinson brought an especial excitement to the stodgy game of baseball: he played with a cerebral competiveness; he had both power and speed; he could hit the long ball and pile up RBIs; he could lay a bunt down the 3rd base line and beat it out; he could steal bases; he had quickness around 2nd base that made him and the shortstop PeeWee Reese a formidable double play combination. His base-running was daring; he wouldn’t just lead off first base – he danced up the line, taunting opposition pitchers to pick him off which would lead to errant throws to 1st Base that would put him on 2nd. His sliding into base was scientific – the hook slide, the pop-up slide, the head first slide, even the take-out slide. When at bat if the fourth ball got past the catcher, Robinson would race to first base, make the turn and dash on to second if the catcher was too slow in getting the ball back into the field of play; likewise he would go from 1st to 3rd on a sacrifice bunt if the defense wasn’t executed smoothly. Stealing home was his specialty – the most exciting play in baseball! Indeed Yankee catcher Yogi Berra never got over Robinson’s stealing home on him in the first game of the 1955 World Series to the point where there are multiple videos about this on the internet. For two, click HERE and HERE .

In that era, Baseball was the “national pastime” and something of a full-time summer job for a kid growing up in Brooklyn. We cherished our fielder’s mitts which we massaged dutifully with linseed oil and then left overnight with a baseball jammed in to form a proper pocket. There was no Little League then and, since boys in Brooklyn in that era were considered by society to be a subclass of the criminal class, baseball was organized for us by the Police Athletic League (PAL) – in the Bay Ridge section, Patrolman Flanagan and Sgt Panzarini would umpire the games. Occasionally free bleacher seat tickets to Ebbets Field were distributed at the Police Station, tickets which were quickly snapped up as word started to spread – these were charmingly called “knothole tickets” and during the game on TV and radio an announcer would always brag how many kids were in the bleachers with those tickets thanks to the largesse of the team.

In addition to PAL ball, we played hardball in empty lots, on the practice field of the golf course in neighboring Dyker Heights, on the infield of the half-mile track at Fort Hamilton High School, … . Softball was not much of an alternative – what with that oversized ball; but we couldn’t get enough of stickball – played in the street with a sawed off broomstick for a bat and a pink rubber ball, called a Spaldene in Brooklynese as it was made by Spalding, the sporting goods giant. To make it more interesting, stickball was banned for pedestrian safety reasons or whatever; the police would drive down the street looking to seize the precious bats: someone would yell “cheez it” as “the cops” approached, we would hide the bats under some cars or behind some hedges (this was Bay Ridge) and act as nonchalant as the Dead End Kids – all of which reinforced our sense of being future juvenile delinquents (JDs in police parlance – there actually was a thing called the “JD Card”).

And then in addition to stickball, there were punch ball, slap ball, box ball, stoop ball, wall ball – all versions of baseball that we would also play with a Spaldene. Then too we could play a game of baseball with a deck of cards or with any one of a number of proper board games. The penny arcades at Coney Island had ancient magical mechanical games where you could imagine yourself an All-Star. We spent the money we had from returning deposit bottles to delis and candy stores on baseball cards and we all developed a serious gambling problem as we pitched cards (“leaners” and all that) – it was much like pitching pennies, a vice we already had acquired; flipping cards was also popular, especially in other neighborhoods. Back then the World Series games were all in the afternoon and when the Brooklyn Dodgers were playing, the game was treated as a religious event at parochial schools: the nuns would let us bring portable radios to class and we would all, boys and girls alike, listen to the broadcast of the game rather than do long divisions or diagram sentences. Speaking of parochial school, Sgt Panzarini himself once came and lectured us on what a danger to the community stickball presented – line drives striking “little old ladies” and so on.

Officially Robinson was a rookie during that 1947 season – actually a somewhat old rookie at 28 years of age and one who had already been playing against top competition in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs and in the International League with Montreal. But in fact, this was a pattern for several years as Black “rookies” like Satchel Paige, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Hank Thompson and Monty Irvin came up: all were outstanding players in the Negro Leagues before making it to Organized Baseball – Campanella and Irwin had even played in the Mexican League. Apropos, in 1952 this writer asked one of the big kids on the block, Edmund Takla, why Dodger outfielder Sandy Amoros was being sent back to the minor leagues and Edmund responded simply and objectively that a Black player had to be an All-Star to stay with the team. In fact, Amoros was not on the team for the 1953 season but did return in 1954 in time to make baseball history in the 1955 World Series (video link in next post).

For the 1947 season, the flexible Robinson was assigned to 1st Base which solidified the Dodger lineup: reliable catcher Bruce Edwards, pesky 2nd baseman Eddie “the Brat” Stanky, future Hall of Fame shortstop PeeWee Reese, fellow rookie and fellow Montreal teammate Spider Jorgensen at 3rd, formidable outfielders Gene Hermanski and Pete Reiser in left and center fields and, in right field, “the people’s cherce” Dixie Walker – “cherce” being the phonetic spelling of the Brooklynese for “choice.” The star starting pitcher that year was twenty-one year old 21 game winner Ralph Branca (yes, that history-making Ralph Branca) while veteran Hugh Casey headed up the bullpen (yes, that history-making Hugh Casey who threw that infamous dropped third strike in that 1941 World Series game). In the end, the 1947 team won the pennant 5 games ahead of their perennial rivals, the St Louis Cardinals – a team with future Hall of Fame players like Stan Musial (who refused to join in a planned boycott against Robinson) and Enos Slaughter (who strove to make life hard for Robinson).

BTW, being a “rookie” worked for Robinson as he won the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year honors for 1947 – until the 1949 season there was only one award for the two leagues.

Winning the pennant meant that the Dodgers would go on to play cross town rivals, the New York Yankees in the 1947 World Series; Robinson would then be the first Black player ever to play in the Fall Classic; baseball history would be made in other ways too.

More to come. Affaire à suivre.



3 thoughts on “Brooklyn and Jackie Robinson

  1. The Brooklyn “Trolley” Dodgers.
    Thank you for the trip through memory lane.
    As a Bronx boy, and a devout Yankee fan, the Dodgers were the enemy that we seemed to face to face ever year in the World Series. There was an exception in 1951 due to the shot that was heard around the world by a certain Giant third baseman named Bobby Thompson. It took the Dodgers until 1955 to finally win a World Series, but I still remember it as a day of infamy.

  2. Thanks, Ken. Great memories of riding the trolley down Flatbush Avenue with my Aunt (a fanatic Dodger fan) and sitting way up in the bleachers’ cheap seats. Jackie was an amazing human being who made you proud to be from Brooklyn.

  3. Great article about Brooklyn at the time of Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. It was a great tribute when MLB retired Number 42 in honor of Jackie. Your description of being a kid in Brooklyn at that time–P.A.L. little league and playing stickball, etc. in the streets–brings back great memories. Thanks, Ken.

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