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Playwright Calls a Well-Timed 'Meeting' : Race: Tensions examined in "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting," about black players entering major-league baseball, contain some eerie echoes to L.A.'s anger.


SAN DIEGO — Tony Gwynn. Darryl Strawberry. Rickey Henderson.

Today, we take black athletes for granted, much as we take integrated schools and public facilities for granted.

But it's been only 45 years since Jackie Robinson became the first black to play major league baseball when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Brooklyn-based playwright Ed Schmidt looks at Robinson and Branch Rickey, and the pact they made in "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting." The show, which sets up a fictitious 1947 meeting between the historical figures of Robinson, Rickey and then-famous black figures Paul Robeson, Joe Louis and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, has its West Coast premiere Saturday at the Old Globe's Cassius Carter Centre Stage.

But this is not an aren't-we-glad-things-are- happy-now baseball show.

Schmidt's play is less about sports than it is about how these men felt about a system in which a white man held the power to give Robinson the chance he craved. And how he held that power on his terms as he made the decisions that would change their lives.

The issue of empowerment, justice and racial inequity is still a hot issue--as evidenced by last week's Los Angeles violence after the acquittals of the policemen who beat Rodney King.

It made for some tense moments during rehearsals, Schmidt concedes, in part because Schmidt is white in a room of black artists who don't want him to tell them how they are feeling.

"I made the comment a few weeks ago that there's tension and uncomfortableness in this 1992 room," Schmidt said. "I have had to step back and essentially step out of the room (as Mr. Rickey does in the play) and let them do their work, and let the director and the actors take over because they feel it in the gut much more than I do.

"It's fascinating how the play mirrors what's going on in the rehearsal room and how that mirrors what's going on 100 miles north."

It's also fascinating how such hot issues sell tickets.

At a time when most theaters in San Diego are having trouble filling seats, the Old Globe already has nearly sold out 20 performances of a 59-show run.

All this for a 29-year-old unknown playwright and a brand-new play.

Not really.

All this is for Jackie Robinson. And Branch Rickey, the Dodgers president and general manager. And a desire to understand how far America has come in racial equality and how far we have to go. Even in baseball, 45 years later, only a handful of managers, coaches, executives or owners are black.

Schmidt insists that no one is an all-good guy in his play. And no one is an all-bad one. And probably no one will agree with any of his depictions--exactly--but they will undoubtedly excite a fair amount of discussion and debate.

For Red Barber, who broadcast Brooklyn games before, during and after Robinson was signed, Rickey was a hero.

"He went against his family and all of baseball. He did it while Martin Luther King Jr. was in high school," Barber said from his home in Tallahassee, Fla.

"He could have wrecked the Brooklyn ballclub, but he made it go. He took the heat. Nothing would have happened for Jackie Robinson except for Mr. Rickey."

Barber acknowledges that not everyone liked Rickey, that some people called him a skinflint and others a hypocrite. It could be that he thought signing a black ballplayer was just a good business move. Bringing in Robinson, he may have figured, would lead to tapping more talent from the National Negro Baseball League and prove the path to a pennant. But Barber appreciated the resistance Rickey would be up against because Barber himself was so shook up when Rickey told him he intended to sign a black ballplayer.

Barber was born in 1908 in Columbus, Miss., and grew up in Sanford, in central Florida, where everything was segregated. When Robinson was signed, Barber wasn't sure he could overcome his upbringing and broadcast the game. But he did it--never once referring to the color of Robinson's skin.

And gradually, Barber underwent a revolution in his own thinking. That revolution may well have mirrored much of white America as it began to enjoy watching Robinson and later, other black athletes, play.

"As they said in 'South Pacific,' 'You've got to be carefully taught,' " Barber said. "But I got to thinking that I had no choice to the color I was born to--white or black. That was the beginning of my thinking."

Barber never covered the Negro League, which began in 1920 and dissolved in 1950. He expressed admiration for Robinson, but not surprisingly, retired Negro League players talk less about Rickey and more about the quiet heroism of Robinson and other Negro League players.

One term of the deal Rickey struck with Robinson was that, for his first three years as a Brooklyn Dodger, he would turn the other cheek when insulted or assaulted.

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