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For Robinson, Game Was About Respect

March 31, 1997|JIM MURRAY

Jackie Robinson was not an easy man to know. He was not an easy man to like. Jackie didn't care whether you liked him or not. What he wanted from you was respect, not affection.

Respect, he had. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, athletes in American history, Jackie could play any sport superlatively. Baseball was not even his best sport. Track probably was. If not, football. Basketball. They didn't have a sport he couldn't excel at.

It was nothing for Jackie Robinson to play both ends of a baseball doubleheader on the UCLA campus, and jump into a cab between games and go down to the Coliseum and win the Pacific Coast Conference broad jump and set a record or two.

He had been a great UCLA halfback, leading the team in scoring, total yardage and rushing yardage in 1940. He played professional football for a time for the old Los Angeles Bulldogs in a minor league against teams like the Hollywood Bears and the forerunners of the San Francisco 49ers, with players like the great Frankie Albert and Joe Perry.

It was his athletic prowess that made him a luminous figure in American history, the guy who broke the color barrier in baseball 50 years ago. But his fame and sophistication made it work. It wouldn't have if he had fallen short as an athlete--and it was widely predicted in the press at the time that he would. After all, Jackie was 28 when he made his historic debut.

Other great athletes from other sports had failed at the grand old game. Before Michael Jordan, there was Jim Thorpe. He could not hit the curveball either. But Jackie Robinson could.

His first day in organized baseball, with the Dodgers' Montreal farm team, he went four for five with a home run, two stolen bases and four runs scored. And he caused two pitching balks. Montreal won, 14-1.

Even racists were awed. There were no bigots on the Montreal pitching staff from then on.

He led the league in batting his third year in the majors. He batted .342, .328, .338, .308, .329 and .311 over a six-season stretch. He stole bases almost at will. He came up and the Dodgers started winning pennants. They had been in only three World Series in the 45 years before Robinson joined them. They were in six in the 10 seasons he played for them.

But it was Robinson's character and his dignity that made it work. Oh, I'm not talking about the biblical turn-the-other-cheek pep talk Branch Rickey gave him. One of the myths of the game is that Robinson was chosen by Rickey because of his forbearance, his ability to absorb slurs without hitting back.

What a crock! To anyone who knew him, the notion of Jackie Robinson turning the other cheek, putting up with insults, was laughable. I have never been able to find one veteran chronicler of the early Robinson days who remembers Jackie being anything but truculent and unbending in the face of slurs and insults.

Jackie made sure you treated him as a man. He didn't suffer fools gladly. He didn't want any sycophantism either. He was as deeply suspicious of the flatterers as he was the bigots.

Not for Jackie were sackcloth and ashes. Almost right off the bat, he took the stand that forced the Chase Hotel in St. Louis to accept black players or none at all. If you wanted a cringing, obsequious, humble servant type, you had come to the wrong place. Jackie wore no man's collar. Ever. Long before Rosa Parks, he had refused to move to the back of the bus--in the Army. He was court-martialed. He was acquitted.

He got almost paranoid when the Dodgers hired Roy Campanella, a black player who was almost his exact opposite in militancy. Once, when I wrote an admiring column about Campanella, Jackie dashed off an angry letter accusing me of attempting "to put me in my place." Jackie had experienced that kind of knuckle-rapping in the Eastern press.

I wrote to him that I had only written an admiring column on Campy because I thought him deserving of one. Jackie was not entirely convinced--his obduracy was monumental--but we became friends and I had to pass some strict membership requirements. Jackie did not let even imaginary slurs go unchallenged.

He was his own man. Because he was so resolutely in the battle and campaign for civil rights, it was assumed by the liberal left that he was one of them. He wasn't. Jackie was, of all things, a Republican. A Rockefeller Republican.

Certainly, he was a capitalist. When it came to fiscal matters, Jackie was just this side of Calvin Coolidge. Anyway, Jackie didn't like to be taken for granted.

He was also a patriot. He didn't forgive America, but he gave it its due. He had faith that democracy could be changed. Other forms of government, he wasn't so sure. They didn't impress him.

When Paul Robeson told a Communist Party gathering in Paris that in the event of war between Russia and the United States, American blacks would not fight against Russia, Robinson went before Congress to contradict him.

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