I owe Jackie Robinson an apology; we all do. But I get ahead of the story, which ends in Stamford, Ct. the night of Jack, Jr’s death and begins in the Flatbush Section of Brooklyn, NY about 8 years after my birth.
Oh in the 1950’s one could find a kid from a rich family that rooted for the Yankees or a kid that for no understandable reason rooted for the Giants, but Brooklyn by and large was was bonkers for their”Bums” those lovable, losers to the Yankees (until 1957), the collection of personalities that made up the Brooklyn Dodgers. There was spitball throwing Preacher Row. George “Shotgun” Shuba the greatest arm to be had in right field. Duke Snyder who competed with Mantle and Mays for “best center fielder in the league and who one day decided it would be a good idea to throw a baseball over the center field roof of Ebbbett’s Field and ended up on the disabled list. The unflappable gentle giant, Gil Hodges, with hands so big they didn’t fit in a first baseman’s glove, Peewee Reese who vied with the Yankees Phil Rizzuto as best shortstop in the league, Billy Cox at 3rd who used a glove that looked like it was made by Abner Doubleday and who I saw with my own eyes get a base hit on a pitched ball that bounced in front of him, and Dixie Walker behind the plate, famous for having a world series victory against the Yankees roll between his legs on a bad pitch. And believe me there were more. Into this menagerie was brought Jackie Robinson. And frankly the fans in Brooklyn were a lot more ready for Robinson than were most of his team mates and way more than the players and fans most everywhere else.
Understand baseball in those days. Most all players were part time athletes who had part time other jobs. Gil Hodges for instance was a car salesman. Oh yes, and they were white.
Ebbett’s Field was a band box surrounded by parking lots where the players parked with the fans. A kid could stand by the dressing room exit and chase the players to their cars getting autographs as they went–or knocked out of the way. It was an intimate experience inside the park and out, the stuff from which magic memories were made. And Robinson was no different. The guy who could make you bite you nails like they were being run through a saw mill as he danced and bounced and jutted to and fro taking a lead off the beat, while fan along with pitcher became totally distracted trying to figure out if he would take off or not. He was the same guy who burst through the metal door onto the sidewalk with the rest of the guys. And yes, I did get his autograph.
Something left my soul when he retired. He was sick, graying, had lost a step, actually many, to diabetes and also had lost second base to the new kid on the block, Junior Gilliam. I didn’t understand how one went from stealing second base to selling Chock Full of Nuts Coffee (well he didn’t really sell it; he became a VP there). He was in the headlines a lot and suddenly was getting bad press as a “radical” on race relations or as most in the streets showing their real stripes would say, “an uppity nigger.” But when Robinson endorsed Nixon my world collapsed, and he was off my radar screen–until Part Two of the recent, brilliant (aren’t they always?) Ken Burns documentary on Jackie Robinson.
That disinterest was interrupted for a bit while I was Executive Aide to the Mayor of Stamford, Ct. Everyone knew the Robinson’s lived in Stamford. Few knew the trail they took to get there and the trials they suffered en route. In my job I was the liaison to the Police Department. So I heard lots of “stuff” about the family. Most of it was about Rachel’s dignity, Jack’s health, Jack Junior’s drug issues, and how they shouldn’t be living in Stamford, Ct. Nothing however did I hear about how Jr. enlisted in the Army to save himself from himself, what Vietnam did to his head while a fellow soldier was shot dead next to him, another wounded on the other side of him, and his valiant, failed effort to save his life. Few, including me, knew that Jack had been clean for a few years and was in fact “paying his dues” helping others get clean. Thus when he wrapped his car around the bottom of a concrete overpass on the Merritt Parkway during the “wee hours” it was just assumed….. And the Robinsons, ever private said little. And I, living at the time with a roommate who was a Vietnam Vet, a pot head, and teller of stories about how to pass the time he’d shoot the heads off monkeys, couldn’t make the connection from those jungle stories to the young man who grew up in the shadow of someone who still today is a legend, decades after his death.
In my job I was also the liaison to the minority community and had a lot of “friends” in the black community. One hot summer’s day, I rode past one of them, wearing his obligatory army jacket and boots, trudging he was I assume to work. I slowed, rolled down the window, yelled “Hey Don!” with a warm, friendly smile and wave, and moved on. He didn’t acknowledge me. When we next met I said, “I saw you the other day and waved, but you didn’t wave back.” He looked at me and said, “The wave was nice. Giving me a ride to work would have been nicer.”
And so I learned that the learning curve between blacks and whites is steep, very steep, and takes a long time to navigate. It can’t be done without crossing the lines of society–having friends and business associates that you allow and who allow you to get past the “five o’clock shadow” when everyone leaves work and goes home. In doing so, you learn that not all black men can play basketball, that there are black families, in tact, pursuing the American dream. That mother’s love their children and fathers love their wives, and that the same damned things everyone in America wants:
a nearby grocery that sells excellent food at competitive prices,
an area park or two,
responsive health, safety, and community services
the ability to find a job, etc, etc, etc
You learn that yes there are many single mothers who game the system, but most everyone knows a generation on welfare is a generation lost, and few want to be in that lost generation. You learn the broader understanding of Fagan’s wail against the anti-Semites in Shakespeare’s, “The Merchant of Venice”. Fagan cried out, “If you prick me do i not bleed?” The answer, by the way, is “yes….”
So thank you Don (Raphael) and Ken Burns.
And to you, my one time and once again, hero Jackie Robinson my deep, profound and sincere apology.