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Jackie Robinson's Verdict of Honor

October 14, 1990|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

Times sports writer Shav Glick, who writes here about TNT's "The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson," was a classmate of Robinson's at Pasadena Junior College in 1938 and covered many of his athletic feats there for various publications.

When the black face of Jackie Robinson first appeared in a major league baseball game with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the impact on the civil rights movement was as significant as that of Martin Luther King Jr. and his march on Washington 16 years later.

King got the Nobel Peace Prize. Robinson got--or at least should have gotten--the everlasting gratitude of black athletes who became part of the American sporting fabric through his pioneering efforts.

The success of the Robinson experiment, as it was called by Dodgers President Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson to a contract in October 1945, hinged on Robinson's being able to "turn the other cheek" to the flood of racial insults and threats of physical violence from his teammates, baseball rivals and fans who had grown up in an all-white baseball atmosphere.

No one who knew Robinson as the combative, rebellious and provocative athlete that he was at football, baseball and basketball at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA thought he could maintain the patient, humble even humiliating role that Rickey insisted upon.

A little-known incident that occurred 16 months earlier in an Army camp at Ft. Hood, Tex., made it even more unlikely.

Robinson, a second lieutenant, was court-martialed and tried for refusing to move to the back of the bus even though buses had been ordered desegregated on military bases.

It did not receive the attention that the case of Rosa Parks did when she refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., a decade later, but the frightening thought about the Robinson incident is this: Had Robinson been given a dishonorable discharge in the court-martial, there would have been no contract signing, no wearing a major league uniform, no breaking of the color barrier, no National League Most Valuable Player honor and no Hall of Fame career.

The true story will be the subject of a TNT (cable) movie this week, "The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson."

"You had to live in those times to realize the significance of it," said Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, who acted as creative consultant on the production. "Mr. Rickey would never have spoken to him if Jackie had a dishonorable discharge. The impact of the trial verdict is immense."

Robinson, who played 10 years with the Brooklyn Dodgers, died in 1972. On the film's set, his widow gave the shooting a bit of nostalgia by wearing one of Robinson's flannel Dodger jerseys with the familiar No. 42 on the back.

This is not a documentary about baseball or Robinson's athletic career. It is about a man who refused to accept what he knew was wrong, both legally and morally, and fought against the prejudices of a Jim Crow atmosphere and the fear that he could not receive a fair trial.

"Jackie took a stand in hostile territory, and it terrified him that he could be railroaded," said Mrs. Robinson, who is played by Kasi Lemmons in the movie.

"I wasn't there. We were engaged and I was in San Francisco going to nursing school, but he called me every night and asked me to contact different people who might help him. He knew his (legal) rights, but he was afraid he couldn't get a fair trial in Texas and he didn't want to be stranded without help."

He had good reason. When his commanding officer backed him and refused to sign court-martial papers, Robinson was transfered to another unit where the papers were signed immediately; when an officer spoke up as a character witness, he was reprimanded for volunteering praise of Robinson; when the NAACP was unable to furnish him with a lawyer and the military court assigned him one, it was a Southerner who would not take the case, and one of the accusations was that he was "drunk and disorderly," when in fact Robinson never drank.

Despite these obstacles, Robinson was found not guilty and was transfered to Camp Breckinridge, Ky., where he was honorably discharged four months later.

"It was a tough experience for Jackie, but it prepared him for what he would face in baseball," Rachel Robinson said. "He learned early that what was going to happen wouldn't be fair, but to not fill himself with rage and hatred. Too many become paralyzed with anger and become cynical. If Jackie had done that, he couldn't have made it in baseball."

Andre Braugher, a New York actor who plays Robinson, was not yet born when Robinson's baseball career ended.

"I was never a baseball fan, and obviously I never saw him play, but Jackie Robinson is a legend, an icon," Braugher said. "However, I wasn't attracted to the role because of his athleticism. When I read the script, and read his biography, what I saw was a strong man, gifted and articulate, who fought for what is most precious--his manhood.

"He refused to believe or accept what other people thought of him, that he was inferior. Society in the '40s conspired to destroy this man, and others like him, but he refused to permit it. He fought and survived."

"The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson" airs on TNT Monday at 5, 7, 9 and 11 p.m.; Tuesday at 7 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Thursday at 8:30 p.m., and Oct. 21 at 1 p.m.

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