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Op-Ed

Jackie Robinson -- crossing the line

The man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier never forgot the indignities of his first trip to spring training.

February 27, 2012|By Chris Lamb

Twelve hours after they had landed in New Orleans, the Robinsons boarded a flight to Pensacola. When they landed to refuel, a flight attendant asked them to exit the plane. Once the Robinsons were on the tarmac, they were told that bad weather was expected so the plane needed to add more fuel. To counter the weight of the additional fuel, three passengers — the Robinsons and a Mexican woman — had to be removed. As Robinson listened to the explanation, he saw white passengers board the plane. Robinson felt a growing sense of rage, but remembering Rickey's words, he choked back the anger.

Instead of waiting for the next plane, the Robinson took a Greyhound bus across the state to Daytona Beach. They relaxed in reclining seats at the front of the bus. When white passengers boarded the bus at the next stop, the driver pointed a finger at the Robinsons and ordered them to the back of the bus. He called Jackie "boy." Robinson, knowing that an incident of any kind might jeopardize what was called "baseball's great experiment," did as he was told.

Nearly 36 hours after the Robinsons left Los Angeles, the couple — hungry, tired and angry — arrived at the Daytona Beach bus station. They were met by Wendell Smith and Billy Rowe, journalists with the influential black weekly the Pittsburgh Courier.

"Well, I finally made it," Robinson snapped, "but I never want another trip like this one."

Robinson stayed up into the early hours of the morning bitterly recounting what he and his wife had been through, seething over what the Greyhound bus driver had called him. "He was very annoyed and hurt," Rowe later remembered. "He had been called a 'boy.' This man had become a 'boy.'"

Robinson told Smith and Rowe he did not think he could get a fair tryout in Florida and said he wanted to quit and return to the Negro Leagues. Smith and Rowe talked with him, explaining — as Rickey had — that it was important for him to suffer certain indignities so other blacks could follow him. "We tried to tell him what the whole thing meant, that it was something he had to do," Rowe said.

Chris Lamb, a professor of communication at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, is the author of the forthcoming book, "Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball." Email: lambc@cofc.edu

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