Handling the pressure
Rickey turned out to be an accurate prophet. After a successful year in the minor leagues, Robinson made his major-league debut as the Dodgers’ first baseman in April of 1947. The first resentment he faced was from his own teammates. They didn’t like the idea of a black player taking a white man’s spot on the roster. Many were from the south and weren’t accustomed to equal treatment for blacks.
Dixie Walker, one of the top Brooklyn players, worried about the reaction back home in Hueytown, Alabama, if he played with blacks. He feared how it would affect business at his hardware and sporting-goods store. “I grew up in the South, and in those days you grew up in a different manner,” Walker said years later. “We thought that blacks didn’t have ice water in their veins and so [they] couldn’t take the pressure of playing big league baseball.”
On opening day, most of the players ignored Robinson. He arrived in the locker room to discover that he hadn’t been assigned a locker; his uniform was hanging on a hook on the wall.
Robinson’s first real test occurred in a three-game series with the Philadelphia Phillies. A flood of insults poured out of the Philadelphia dugout during the game. The Phillies insulted his appearance and yelled about the diseases he would pass on to the Dodger players and their wives.
Robinson took insults like these personally. “For one wild and rage-crazed minute,” he wrote later, “I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s noble experiment.’ I thought what a glorious, cleansing thing it would be to let go. To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create. I would throw down my bat, stride over to the Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”
But Robinson withstood the temptation that day . . . and for the entire season. Instead, he let his playing speak for him. It was more than his hitting and fielding, which improved throughout the season. He also disrupted the opposing team with his daring base running. He would take impossibly big leads off base, throwing pitchers out of their rhythm and shaking their confidence. This led to more walks and better pitches for his teammates to hit. He could take over a game even if he never got a hit.
Still, he paid a price for holding back his emotions. At home he became withdrawn from his wife, Rachel, and found it difficult to sleep. At one point he called his sister and said, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m quitting.”
He received almost no support from his teammates, who excluded him from social outings and hardly spoke to him on road trips. The players’ wives met regularly for shopping, knitting, and impromptu sleepovers, but Rachel was never invited.
Rooting for Jackie Robinson
But as the season progressed, things began to change. His teammates began yelling in his defense at opposing teams, threatening retaliation if the insults continued. He was greeted by well-wishers and autograph seekers wherever he went. White kids began selling, “I’m rooting for Jackie Robinson” buttons at Ebbets Field.
Most of the letters the Dodgers received were encouraging. One fan wrote, “You’ve got a lot more friends in this country of ours than enemies. The main thing to remember is that it’s the unthinking few who generally make the biggest noise.” Another said, “If your batting average never gets any higher than .100 and if you make an error every inning, [and] if I can raise my boy to be half the man that you are, I’ll be a happy father.”
Robinson also began to see the impact he was having on the culture. An owner of an electronics factory in New Jersey, for example, was inspired by Robinson’s example and decided to integrate his factory.
Late in the season, Brooklyn fans were angered when Enos Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals appeared to deliberately step on Robinson’s foot at first base. One fan, Doug Wilder, was at the game that day, and he felt this may have been Robinson’s greatest moment “in showing how he would rise over and over to be the person he was. . . . It was a tremendous lesson.” Later in life, Wilder went into politics in Virginia and became the first African American in the United States to become a governor.
Robinson was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year in 1947, and he helped lead the Dodgers to the World Series, where they lost to the New York Yankees. After the final game of the series, each of his teammates came by his locker to congratulate him for the season.
He had succeeded in integrating the major leagues; in fact, by the end of the 1947 season, there were other black players in baseball. But his greatest impact may have been in the broader American culture. As Arnold Rampersad wrote in his biography of Robinson,
Over a period of six months, from the first stumbling steps to the victories that closed the season, he had revolutionized the image of black Americans in the eyes of many whites. Starting out as a token, he had utterly complicated their sense of the nature of black people, how they thought and felt, their dignity and their courage in the face of adversity. No black American man had ever shone so brightly for so long as the epitome not only of stoic endurance but also of intelligence, bravery, physical power, and grit. Because baseball was lodged so deeply in the average white man’s psyche, Robinson’s protracted victory had left an intimate mark there.
Final post tomorrow…
Excerpted with permission from Stepping Up, by Dennis Rainey, FamilyLife Publishing.