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Monday, April 05, 2010

Stephen Jones: Another Opening Day

This is a post by contributing writer, Stephen Jones, who is a progressive political activist and a resident of Las Cruces, New Mexico.

I’m not much of a sports fan, generally, with one exception, that exception being baseball. Like many of us, I grew up with baseball in my veins. I love the rhythm of the game, the green grass of the field, the lack of a time clock, and the connections to the past that the game offers. “I see great things in baseball,” Walt Whitman wrote in the years following the Civil War. “It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism, tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set, repair those losses and be a blessing to us.” On opening day anything seems possible. At times, anything has been possible.

Branch Rickey was someone who also grew up with baseball in his veins. Rickey grew up in a typical rural community. An Ohio farm boy and the second of three sons, Rickey earned enough money to put himself through college by working odd jobs and playing baseball for some of the nearby semi-professional baseball teams that kept most American communities entertained in the days before radio and television. Eventually he would become a country teacher, then, as a graduate at Ohio Wesleyan College, an assistant teacher; eventually he would earn a law degree, but his heart was always with baseball. So Rickey took on the coaching job for the Ohio Wesleyan College baseball team.

On a spring day in 1904 the Ohio Wesleyan team, on a road trip, attempted to check into a South Bend, Indiana hotel. The clerk refused to allow the team catcher, Charlie Thomas, who was African American, to register. After arguing with the clerk, Rickey finally convinced the hotel to allow Thomas to sleep on a cot in Rickey’s own room.

After making sure the rest of his players were checked into their rooms and settled, Rickey went to his own room and found Charlie Thomas balled up in corner sobbing. “A day has never passed for me,” Rickey said forty years later, “when I haven’t heard that young man crying.” For four decades Branch Rickey waited, determined to do something about it. That opportunity came when Rickey became General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1946 he would sign Jackie Robinson to a major league baseball contract.

Jackie Robinson, who grew up in Pasadena, California, was an accomplished college athlete. Drafted into the military in 1942, he was assigned to a segregated Army unit in Kansas where he applied for Officer Candidate School (OCR). After several months of unreasonable delay he joined in an appeal, along with boxer Joe Louis, who was also stationed in Kansas, to the Secretary of the War. After the direct intervention of Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet officer, Robinson was admitted to OCS. After finishing OCS, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943 and reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas.

At Fort Hood Robinson, ran into trouble after he failed to join a segregated Army bus line, and refused to sit at the back of the bus. For his insubordination he was court-marshaled. After Robinson refused to plead guilty to a lesser charge, a panel of nine white officers acquitted him. He was given an honorable discharge.

At the end of the war, in order to earn some money, Robinson signed on to the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro Leagues baseball team, where he played shortstop for a season. It was at Kansas City that he gained the attention of Branch Rickey, who summoned him to Brooklyn.

On opening day in 1947 Jackie Robinson entered the field at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field in a Dodger uniform, standing alone, with the crushing weight of American history on his shoulders.

For Branch Rickey, signing Robinson was a gamble, of course, but also a statement of his values. For Robinson, Rickey’s baseball contract was only an opportunity. “I never had it made, but I had to try,” Jackie Robinson wrote. On opening day in 1947 Robinson and Rickey succeeded in changing history.

Most of us think of history as something which is made exclusively by elected officials, journalists, judges or the captains of industry. In fact history is made by average people like ourselves; sometimes by a veteran named Robinson and a farm boy named Rickey.

Every spring I look forward to opening day. I think of it as something of an un-official American holiday. A day when every team and every player is equal under the sun, and anything seems possible, just like it was in 1947.

Play ball!

To read more posts by Stephen Jones, visit our archive.

April 5, 2010 at 08:48 AM in By Stephen Jones, Contributing Writer, History, Minority Issues, Sports | Permalink


2010 Opener game against the Yankees in Fenway Park. Boston wins 9-7.
just sayin'

Posted by: mary ellen | Apr 5, 2010 12:10:58 PM

Singer Marian Anderson also made history in her own quiet way. She insisted that the concert halls where she sang have seating for Negros on the main floor, not just in the balcony. It was still segregated, the blacks on one side of the main aisle, the whites on the other, but it was a step forward.

In 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let her sing in Carnegie Hall, so she gave an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday. 75,000 people were there and millions of others listened in on the radio.

Posted by: Ellen Wedum | Apr 5, 2010 12:43:37 PM

Good to see a baseball post on DFNM! Thanks Stephen!

Posted by: Tim | Apr 5, 2010 1:15:23 PM