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Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary Commemorative: Breaking
Barriers

Negro Leagues

Segregation Definitely Wasn't Pretty, but Newcombe Still Has Some Fond Memories of Years Before Robinson Broke Through

March 31, 1997|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lou Johnson stands atop the Dodgertown press box in Vero Beach, Fla., watching the sea of white faces leave the Dodgers' spring-training game, and remembers.

Tears begin to well in his eyes. In a whisper, he says:

"If I had a wish, I would have God get all of the Negro league players, make them 30 years younger, and have them take the field again.

"This way, white folks could see them and what we're talking about. I'd love for those fans to stand up, cheer, show their appreciation, recognizing them for what they've done."

The Negro leagues were drastically different from the major leagues and, as some who played in both will attest, in some ways better.

The players were equals and there were no racist taunts. Players ate in the same restaurants, slept in the same hotels, dated whom they pleased and didn't worry about repercussions.

"It was the way baseball should have been," says Don Newcombe, who played for the Newark Eagles before becoming a Cy Young Award winner and most valuable player for the Dodgers. "People talk about how much better things were, once baseball was integrated. Come on, are you serious?

"You know what gets me? You hear all of the players today say how much they enjoyed playing with Jackie Robinson, and how much they admired Jackie, and how Jackie was their best friend. That's a bunch of bull. . . .

"They didn't want him here, they didn't want any of us.

"Where were these people when we arrived in St. Louis, waited for our luggage in the train station, and just hoped we got a cab while the rest of the team left for the team hotel in their air-conditioned buses and the fancy Chase Hotel? We couldn't stay at their hotel. We had to go to the Adams Hotel, a black hotel, where there was no air-conditioning, no restaurants, nothing.

"Not one of the white players on our team ever get off the bus in the morning and said, 'Can I go with you guys? Can I stay with you? Is there anything I can say or do?'

"No one said a damn thing.

"They acted like, 'Well, they're the ones who want to be here, so let them go where they need to go.'

"Jackie would just say, 'Bleep them. Bleep them all.'

"So me, Jackie and Roy [Campanella] would try to find a cab outside Union Station and go to this hotel. . . . It got so hot that we would soak our sheets in ice water, put them on the bed, and try to fall asleep. It got so loud with the bar downstairs it was impossible to fall asleep until 2:30 in the morning, when the music stopped."

The Dodgers remained segregated in St. Louis until 1954, when Newcombe finally had had enough. He had just returned from the Korean War, and told Robinson he was going to meet with the manager of the Chase Hotel.

"I told Jackie, I'm not living like this anymore," Newcombe said. "So Jackie went with me. I was just daring someone to throw me out of the hotel lobby. I sat in the dining room, got the manager, and we told him what we wanted.

"He said, 'Fellas, I don't have a problem with it. You can stay here. But the only thing is, I don't want you to use the swimming pool.'

"Jackie nearly fell out of his damn chair. Jackie said, 'Mister, I don't even know how to swim, so I'm not going to be using your pool, anyway.'

"Jackie and I went back to the [Adams] hotel, packed our bags. But Roy and Jim Gilliam wouldn't go with us. They decided to stay put. But Jackie and I couldn't pack fast enough.

"We went back to the [Chase] hotel, and I still remember walking in and seeing all of those white faces, and they said, 'Welcome to the club. You finally made it our hotel.'

"I'll never forget that as long as I live."

Newcombe and Robinson were proud that blacks from all around soon were staying at the air-conditioned Chase. They had integrated a hotel all by themselves. Yet the feeling of euphoria was replaced by anguish less than a year later when blacks quit staying at the Adams, causing it to to shut down.

"It was the same thing that happened to the Negro leagues," Newcombe softly says. "Integration ruined it."

*

There was Satchel Paige. There were Josh Gibson, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Roy Campanella. There was Buck Leonard . . .

There were plenty of players who might have been better than Jackie Robinson in the Negro leagues, but when it came time for Dodger President Branch Rickey to select a player to break baseball's color barrier, he chose Robinson.

"We had quite a few players better than Jackie," said Buck O'Neil, who managed the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson's team. "But most of these guys were older than Jackie. Major league baseball wanted a young player who could make an impact for a long time.

"It bothered a few of the fellas."

Paige, considered by many to be baseball's finest pitcher, black or white, perhaps was the most upset. He figured if anyone was going to break the color barrier, it should be him.

"Signing Jackie like they did hurt me deep down," said Paige, who died in 1982. "I'd been the guy who started all that big talk about letting us in the big time.

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