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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : Oldest Dodger Helped Rickey Get Robinson


Few living Dodgers have not heard the words, or been touched by their legacy.

It is appropriate, then, that the oldest living Dodger was there.

It was an August afternoon, 1945. A Monday, if remembers correctly. Sukeforth had just brought a young shortstop, by train, to Brooklyn for a meeting with Dodgers' boss Branch Rickey.

Rickey wanted to sign the young man to a minor league contract, but he wanted to get one thing straight.

If Jackie Robinson was going to be the first black to play major league baseball, he has to be more than just a baseball player.

Clyde Sukeforth, now 88, stood in the back and listened.

"Rickey said it just like this," Sukeforth remembered. "He told Jackie, 'All my life I've been looking for a great colored player. I have reason to believe it is you. But I need more than a great colored player.

'I need a player who will be able to take insults and abuse. I need a player who, if a man slides into him with his spikes up and hurts him, he will not come up swinging. I need a man who will carry the flag for his race.' "

Sukeforth said he will never forget Robinson's response, and Rickey's reply.

"Jackie said, 'Don't you want a man with courage enough to fight back?' " Sukeforth recalled. "And then Branch Rickey said, 'No Jackie, I want a man with courage enough not to fight back.' "

Sukeforth said that Robinson's ensuing pause, which probably lasted no more than a few seconds, has with time become an eternity.

"Jackie waited, and waited, and waited before answering," Sukeforth said. "We were all just looking at him. Then he said he would do it. And the rest, well . . . "

The rest has been a big part of Sukeforth's history.

True, he was a backup Dodger catcher from 1932-34, and then again during the 1945 war-torn season. He was a Dodger manager briefly in 1947. He was a Dodger coach for the next five years. He played with Hack Wilson and Lefty O'Doul and Van Lingle Mungo. He was teacher of the Boys of Summer.

But he will always be best known as the Dodger official who scouted and helped sign Jackie Robinson.

In searching for the oldest living Dodger in celebration of their 100th anniversary season this year, the club could have found worse.

"Somebody called me a little while ago and told me I was the oldest," Sukeforth said from his home in the tiny coastal town of Waldoboro, Maine. "That's kind of hard to believe."

Sukeforth, who was born on Nov. 30, 1901, has never been to Dodger Stadium. He said the only person he knows in the current organization is Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda. He said he has not been invited to any centennial celebrations, nor would he likely attend.

"I've traveled all I care to," he said.

Yet, through Robinson, he will be forever linked to the richest piece of the organization's heritage. And he said it started on a simple assignment given to him in August of 1945 while he was scouting the Negro National League in the New York area.

"I was called in by Mr. Rickey one day, and he said, 'I want you to go to Chicago and see this ballplayer named Robinson,' " Sukeforth recalled. "Mr. Rickey told me he wanted to see how he threw from the hole."

Robinson was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, who had traveled to Chicago to play the Lincoln Giants. Sukeforth arrived at the Friday night game early, introduced himself to Robinson, and told him what he was looking for.

"First thing Jackie said was, 'Why is Mr. Rickey interested in my arm?' " Sukeforth recalled. "I told him that was a good question. I told him he should ask Mr. Rickey that question himself.

"Then he told me he had fallen on his shoulder two days ago, and was going to be out for a few more days."

According to the enterprising Sukeforth, it turned out to be one of the luckiest injuries in baseball history.

"My mind got to clicking and I thought, if he has three days off, maybe I can get him to New York right away," Sukeforth said. "So I met him at the hotel after the game, and he agreed to go to New York, so I made all the train reservations and a couple of days later we went. The whole way he would ask, 'Why does Mr. Rickey want to see me?' I could not give him an answer."

Sukeforth said that once in New York, he simply introduced Robinson to Rickey and stood in the background and listened.

Speaking like a typical scout, Sukeforth said that Robinson was not the best black player available then.

"Everybody knew he wasn't the best," Sukeforth said. "Guys all over the Negro League were wondering, why him? But he was one of the youngest and smartest and strongest. And that's what we're looking for."

Sukeforth was then assigned much of the legwork in preparation for Robinson's eventual step to the major leagues. He appointed several Dodgers to make sure Robinson was never alone or inactive at his first spring training, to avoid incidents. He also contacted many predominately black churches in New York and asked the congregations who come to Ebbets Field not to cheer for Jackie any more than they would cheer for anybody else, also to avoid incidents.

Appropriately, when Robinson made the Dodgers in 1947 after a year at triple-A Montreal, Sukeforth was named Dodger manager. But Sukeforth found the 'modern' ballplayer to be difficult and quit after just two games. Even though he says both were wins.

"Aw, it was just too much of a headache anymore," Sukeforth said. "I had managed in the minor leagues and the players were getting harder to manage every year."

What is it they say about some things never changing?

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