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Courage in the Crucible
Jackie needed to quell his anger the first couple of years, a task which only someone of his inner strength and vision could have coped with at that moment. When I reflect and wonder what it must have been like for a man who should have been at the -happiest of moments in his life to still have to deal with racial indignities on a daily basis, it is mind-boggling. Most mortal men would have cracked.
Carl Erskine, former Dodgers teammate
He had been hoodwinked, lured to 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn under a false pretense. And now Jackie Robinson was in Branch Rickey's office, and Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was standing in the middle of the room, calling Robinson a nigger.
This was August 18, 1945, and one of the most famous and most important meetings in baseball historyand perhaps the penultimate test of the courage of Jackie Robinsonhad begun with a small lie and was continuing amid epithets and insults.
Robinson had suspected something was up from the moment he met Clyde Sukeforth at Comiskey Park in Chicago four days earlier. One of the Dodgers' top scouts, Sukeforth had come to see Robinson, then the shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, at Rickey's behest, telling Robinson that Rickey was starting a new all-black team, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. Rickey wanted to interview Robinson for a position on the team, Sukeforth said, and if Robinson was unable to get to Brooklyn for the interview, Rickey was willing to come to him. That last partRickey was willing to come to himwas what had made Robinson suspicious, had made him wonder what this meeting was really all about.
'I played against Jackie Robinson for four years. I thought he was the most courageous and disciplined player I had ever played with or against.'
Joe Presko, Former Major-League Pitcher
In Rickey's office, moments after Sukeforth introduced the two men to each other, Rickey asked Robinson a simple, direct question:
'Do you know why you were brought here?'
'To play for the Brown Dodgers,' Robinson answered.
His answer was incorrect.
'You were brought here,' Rickey said, 'to play for the Brooklyn -organization.'
Not the Brown Dodgers. Rickey was asking Robinson if he was interested in becoming a Brooklyn Dodger.
'The one regret I have in baseball is not writing Jackie Robinson while he was alive and telling him how much I respected and admired him for the way he played and the courage and strength he had.'
Roy Smalley, Former Major-Leaguer
After a long silence, Robinson said yes. Rickey knew Robinson was a passionate, tempestuous man. During a three-year stint in the army, Robinson one day refused to sit in the back of an army bus, became involved in a dispute with the bus driver and faced a possible court-martial. But after being arrested by military police and charged with disobeying and showing disrespect to a superior officer, Robinson had been acquitted. Now, Rickey wanted to test him.
'I know you're a good ballplayer,' he said. 'What I don't know is whether you have the guts.'
So Rickey rose from his chair and morphed into every foulmouthed, bigoted character his imagination could conjure. He was the sportswriter who teased Robinson with questions, the waiter who wouldn't seat him, the baserunner who spiked him and called him a 'nigger boy.' He did all this to gauge Robinson's reaction. If Robinson couldn't take such abuse from Rickey, he certainly wouldn't be able to take it from anyone else, and Rickey's great notion of breaking baseball's color barrier might fail. Never has there been more at stake in a game of make-believe.
Anger smoldered within Robinson, but he remained quiet for a while.
'Mr. Rickey,' he said, 'are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?'
'Robinson,' Rickey shot back, 'I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.'
'To see what is right and not do it is a lack of courage.'
Confucius, Chinese Philosopher
Consider that anecdote for a moment, and ask yourself this question: Could you have done what Jackie Robinson was being asked to do? Understand: Rickey was asking Robinson to do more than merely bridge the separation between blacks and Major League Baseball, to tolerate the slurs, the smears and the occasions when opponents deliberately tried to hurt him. He was asking Jackie to quell his very nature, to be the opposite of the fiery, combative person he had always been. Robinson was an eye-for-an-eye sort of man, and Rickey was asking him to turn the other cheek. He was asking him to conquer himself.
'Courage is the main quality of leadership, in my opinion, no matter where it is exercised. Usually, it implies some risk, especially in new undertakings: courage to initiate something, to keep it going.'
'Jackie was under pressure every minute,' former Negro League great Buck O'Neil wrote in his autobiography, I Was Right on Time. 'That's why Branch Rickey picked him, because Jackie had been under pressure all his life, and the amazing thing was that, knowing Jackie's disposition, he did take the things he took. Because Jackie was fiery.'
'It is important to remember that this was no docile foot-shuffler the Dodgers were going to put into the crucible,' author Donald Honig wrote in his book Baseball America. 'This was an angry, seething, highly competitive athlete with a razor-sharp resentment of ingrained, infuriating injustices. . . . For years, he was going to have to abide by the vow he made to Rickey to remain mute and passive no matter what came his way.'
Imagine the courage required to take that vow. Imaginewhen all you want to do is scream, shout, punch, kick, fight backholding your tongue and unclenching your fist. Imagine subjugating your personalityeverything that makes you youfor a greater good, for a higher cause, and imagine what Jackie Robinson went through while doing it. He did it for the entire 1946 season, with the Montreal Royals, and for his first two full seasons with the Dodgers. Almost every day for those three years, he had to withstand every scenario Rickey had acted out that day in Brooklyn.
And he still was named the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1947.
And its Most Valuable Player in 1949.
And was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
'Courage,' actress Ruth Gordon once said, 'is very important. Like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.' Robinson's courage, then, had to be stronger than any muscle in his body, or any muscle in anyone else's body.
'One man, with courage, makes a majority.'
President Andrew Jackson
'He teaches us that, at the moment of our challenge, we can duck from it or walk up to the challenge and win,' David Robinson, Jackie's son, told me. 'We face those moments daily, so it's important to seize them. It's not easy, but you have to do what you feel is right.'
'When I think of Jackie Robinson, I think of courage,' author Roger Kahn, who wrote The Boys of Summer and numerous other books about baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers, told me. 'I saw him take so much garbage, but yet he stood up to it. He would get angry, but later when I spent time with him at his home, he was a lovely, sweet guyjust wonderful to be around.'
'The true meaning of courage is to be afraid and, then, with your knees knocking and your heart racing, to step out anyway.'
After the space shuttle Columbia crashed in February 2003, author Peggy Noonan wrote: 'We forget to notice the everyday courage of astronauts. We forget to think about all the Americans doing big and dangerous things . . . members of the Armed Forces, cops and firemen, doctors in public hospitals in hard places.' Noonan is right, of course. We do forget about the people who, each day, display courage grandly: running into a burning building, risking themselves for the sake of exploration and knowledge, working long hours to heal and help the less privileged. 'Most forms of courage aren't especially visible,' sportswriter Frank Deford said. We get wrapped up in ourselves, in our jobs and our pursuit of material things, and we pay no mind to the daily displays of bravery all around us. Noonan could as easily have written the same words about Jackie Robinsona man who showed courage every day just by showing up at the ballpark, who carried that courage into every aspect of a life spent pursuing equality and justice.
It would be a mistake to think everyone in the Dodgers' organization initially regarded Robinson with the same respect that Rickey did. When Robinson joined the Montreal Royals in 1946 for his single season of minor-league play before joining the Dodgers, he walked through the clubhouse doors and was spotted by his new manager, Clay Hopper.
'Well,' Hopper said, 'when Mr. Rickey picked one, he sure picked a black one.'
©2005 Pat Williams with Mike Sielski. All rights reserved. Reprinted from How to Be Like Jackie Robinson. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.