Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier on this day in 1947. As told in Robinson’s 1972 autobiography, his historic challenge to sports racism came closest to imploding a few days after his opening-day debut, when the Philadelphia Phillies came to play the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Often throughout his four-sport career at UCLA, and then later in the army, Robinson had reacted angrily to discrimination. Branch Rickey had drilled an “eyes-on-the-prize” attitude into him, but Robinson’s first at-bat in the series brought a deluge of racist taunts from the Phillies dugout, pushing him “nearer to cracking up than I ever had been”:
For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought, “To hell with Mr. Rickey’s ‘noble experiment.’ It’s clear it won’t succeed. I have made every effort to work hard, to get myself in shape. My best is not enough for them.” 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 could throw down my bat, stride over to that 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. I’d never become a sports star. But my son could tell his son someday what his daddy could have been if he hadn’t been too much of a man.
Restraint and retribution square off throughout I Never Had it Made, with the battle fought in the stands as well as on the field. Robinson gives much of the credit for his accomplishment to the black fans who flocked to see him, cheering him on but also biting their tongues:
The breakthrough created as much danger as it did hope. It was one thing for me out there on the playing field to be able to keep my cool in the face of insults. But it was another for all those black people sitting in the stands to keep from overreacting…. They could have blown the whole bit to hell by acting belligerently and touching off a race riot. That would have been all the bigots needed to set back the cause of progress of black men in sports another hundred years.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.