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Crossing The Line

Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary Commemorative: Breaking
Barriers

Is It Possible That in 1947, No One Knew What They Were Witnessing?

March 31, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They didn't get it.

On April 15, 1947, the Fourteenth Regiment band played and opening day bunting flapped. Jackie Robinson took his position at first base in the first inning at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field to become the first black player in major league baseball.

But they didn't get it.

Danny Litwhiler, the Boston Braves' starting left fielder, didn't realize until last month that he even played in the game.

The cozy home of the supposedly best fans in baseball was nearly 7,000 short of a sellout.

Good luck finding any photos of Robinson's first at-bat, or game programs, or foul balls. One collector swears there is only one remaining ticket stub, as if few realized this was a memory worth saving.

Not even the New York Times understood.

In its game account and accompanying column, Robinson's achievement was not even mentioned. The star of the Dodgers' 5-3 victory was Pete Reiser. The story was suspended Manager Leo Durocher.

This spring, as we celebrate the anniversary of one of the most important dates in the history of civil rights, it is important to remember when this date wasn't so important.

This was no D-Day. This was no foot on the moon. There was no ticker tape.

This was no triumphant finish, but a beginning. A raw, pained beginning for which there may still be no end.

To this day, Brooklyn first baseman Ed Stevens wants the world to know something.

"Jackie Robinson did not win a job from me that first year," Stevens, 72, said. "It was given to him."

To this day, second baseman Eddie Stanky says it was simply another afternoon.

"A big thing for Jackie, maybe," said Stanky, 80. "But I can't give you much information because I'm writing a book."

Rex Barney, a pitcher on that team, laughed.

"Stanky is not writing a book," Barney said. "He just doesn't want to talk about it, because he was one of the guys on the team who made it tough for Jackie because he was black."

To this day, few know what happened to Robinson after he retired.

Or, what didn't happen.

Jackie Robinson may have been a Hall of Famer as the first black player, but his color essentially prohibited him from becoming the first black manager. Or the first black baseball announcer.

He worked in New York for Chock Full O'Nuts and the Freedom National Bank of Harlem. He was a part-time commentator for Long Island University basketball games.

This yearlong national celebration being endorsed by everyone, including the President?

It might not have been endorsed by Robinson.

From the moment he stepped into the batter's box against Johnny Sain on April 15, 1947, that game became a metaphor for the difficult times that were to follow.

He played flawlessly at first base, even though he had never played the position. He set up the game-winning rally. He scored the eventual winning run.

Yet the New York Times called his afternoon "uneventful."

And columnist Red Smith referred to him only as "that dark and anxious young man."

To properly honor Robinson's first game is to do so soberly.

To properly celebrate is not to celebrate at all, but simply remember.

"It was Mr. (Branch) Rickey's drama and . . . I was only a principal actor. As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world . . . I know that I never had it made."

--Robinson from the book, "I Never Had It Made."

*

The change began at the end of spring training, 1947. The Dodgers were finishing their work in Havana. Durocher, who shortly afterward would be suspended for gambling, brought them into the clubhouse for a meeting.

"We're bringing up Jackie Robinson," he announced.

The older players immediately broke up into circles, some talking of accepting him, others vowing to ignore him.

Stevens, a first baseman beginning his third season, didn't belong to the veteran cliques. He didn't think much of it until opening day in the Ebbets Field clubhouse.

That's when he saw that Robinson, a second baseman, was going to take his spot in the lineup.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, he's playing first base?' " Stevens recalled. "I was a better fielder. I had hit 10 home runs the year before. I couldn't believe it."

Robinson walked over, shook Stevens' hand, then played so well, Stevens was sent to the minor leagues before being traded in the off-season.

Robinson played so well, it was the longest off-season of Ed Stevens' life.

"Everywhere I went in my hometown [Galveston, Texas], I was ridiculed. Everyone said to me, 'I can't believe you lost your job to a nigger,' " remembered Stevens, who batted .252 with 28 homers in a six-year career. "I told everybody, 'I didn't lose nothing, it was given to him.' "

Stevens added, "Look at how bad he did when he started [0 for 20]. And they didn't send him down? Somebody was determined to keep him in the big leagues."

They just didn't get it.

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