The Last Wish of Jackie Robinson
By John Klima
Published Decmeber 13, 2007, baseballlibrary.com
Jack swore it was a home run, swore that his eyes had seen it correctly off the bat. Swore that he saw the ball almost apologetically inch over the top of the brick wall at Wrigley Field. Swore that his instincts and observations couldn’t possibly be wrong, for they had always served as his compass, the conductor between his convictions and the battles he chose. He was on his way to home plate to await the runner’s arrival when he caught third base umpire Bill Stewart acting far too pensive, contemplating what Jack thought to be right. The years had taught Robinson that apprehension was the surest way a decision would not match his beliefs.
Stewart ruled the ball had bumped the wall before escaping the park. He called it a ground-rule double. Robinson was furious. He charged out of the dugout and was nose-to-nose with Stewart. But something was wrong. His manager, coaching third base, didn’t step between his player and the umpire. Robinson looked behind him and saw three or four Dodgers perched on the top step of the dugout, but realized that they weren’t coming in after him.
“I sensed that I was alone,” Robinson would say later. “But I had to keep going.”
His manager thought Stewart’s call was right, but made no effort to save Robinson from an inevitable ejection. The next time Robinson saw Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, he felt enough comfort to express his insecurity.
“That was the last time you’ll ever see me fighting the team’s battles,” Robinson said.
O’Malley shook his head, knowing better.
“You’ll never stop fighting them, Jack,” O’Malley said. “And I wouldn’t want to have you any other way.”
Robinson always refused to stop fighting. This episode from a summer day in Chicago did not occur in Robinson’s rookie season of 1947, but, rather, in his final summer of baseball in 1956. He would leave baseball as he had felt that day at Wrigley Field – alone, isolated, ignored. He would doubt himself. His words from his final season drip with pain and insecurity, the conflict surrounding him. Had this pain been worth it? Had his instincts and his convictions guided him correctly? Had he hit the ball out of the park? Or had he narrowly missed what he set out to do, simply dinging a double off the wall?
History has been more polite to Robinson than many ballplayers were. Last April, Major League Baseball celebrated the 60th anniversary of his arrival, but each December 13th comes another reminder that once, all was not clear in Robinson’s mind and heart. On the anniversary of his trade from the Dodgers to the Giants, history has forgotten that the end was as painful as the start.
Had he fulfilled his purpose? Certainly there were more black ballplayers, but his fears were real. Had his efforts resulted in little more than a quota system? Were black ballplayers simply token hires? Had the social influence of dusting up a hundred middle infielders with spikes flying and fists clenched made society wipe dirt from its eyes? Had the bruises and the brush backs, the pain and the isolation, the fight, been worth it?
In his final year, it is likely that Robinson asked himself these very questions. He was a fading ballplayer and he knew it, fighting his body and age, fighting his front office, fighting pitchers who threw at him, fighting reporters who baited him, fighting, always fighting.
It’s too easy to forget how difficult his last year was, how it held memories of his first, how in 16 short years he would be dead. There is emotion in nearly every statement that is recorded. Let Jack speak. There are signs of conflict and worry, and as always, Robinson’s stubborn refusal to retire his values and ideals. Let Jack speak. The Dodger jacket, his glove, the Brooklyn hat, these are all items that could be easily put away with one swing of a hammer upon the wooden walls in his private study. The angst never left him. Let Jack speak.
History is polite, but sometimes it is best served honestly, as harsh as one man refusing another a drink of water, to remember that Robinson’s pristine visage was paid for in neglect, worry, doubt and insecurity, not only in 1947, but in the ignored 1956 season. Just as though he was certain the ball was a home run, he surely wondered if his eyes had not fooled him. Perhaps his last wish would be to know that he had truly seen the ball out of the park.
The 46th Street Eulogy
On 46th Street in New York City, Robinson spent a January day in 1956 speaking to a clinic of 120 educators at a Carnegie Endowment Center. It would have been hard to conceive that nine winters ago a black man could have been standing on a stage provided by the National Conference of Christian and Jews. Spring Training in Vero Beach was a few weeks away, and Robinson, still fresh in the glow of Brooklyn’s World Series triumph over the hated Yankees, spent almost as much time on the road in the winter as he did during the summer. He brought the same ferocity to his civic work as he did to his baseball playing.
“I went into the Brooklyn team with a chip on my shoulder,” Robinson began his speech, as he had started hundreds of motivational messages. “I took everything for three years.”
He left out the famous words of Branch Rickey who, after three years of protecting the most important player he ever signed, told him, “You’re on your own.”
“Then I decided to be myself,” Robinson said. “It was better for everyone.”
He had to be, but in doing this, he fell into the trap that eventually befell every black baseball player of his generation, and some would surely argue, of every generation. Robinson was gradually losing support, and not even a player of his stature could avoid such a fate. “The only suggestion I have is to judge people on their merits,” Robinson said. “Not as racial stereotypes.”
But as a ballplayer, Robinson was falling into baseball stereotypes: too old, too fat, too slow, not enough power, not enough arm. He could play multiple positions, and this might make him a fine utility man. No matter that Robinson stole home against the Yankees in the World Series only months before, a moment as defining for Robinson as was Moses’ stroll through the Red Sea. The Dodgers had already traded for a new third baseman, Ransom “Randy” Jackson, from the Chicago Cubs. When Manager Walter Alston signed his annual extension for the 1956 season, he inked his $32,500 contract and offered hints of doubt about the ability of what was supposed to be one of his most important players.
“Jack is of great value to us, if his weight is down,” Alston said, perhaps anticipating that Robinson would bring 15 banquet pounds to be burned at Vero Beach. And if that happened, so be it, because General Manager Buzzie Bavasi had just given him a second option. “If his weight is down,” Alston said, almost as if in warning tones, “That will make it all the better.”
But Robinson was a wise ballplayer. He knew when he arrived at Vero Beach that the Dodgers had essentially given away his position. Perhaps the thought that a veteran player usually earned the right to lose his job before a new player was brought in crossed his mind. Robinson spent the first day of camp prepared for a season that the Dodgers were already formatting to be one of his last.
The writers were more interested in what Jackson had to say. Shy and reserved, Jackson had never seen so many reporters crowded in front of his locker. He was diametrically opposed to Robinson, who invited attention with his candor. Perhaps, as Rickey might write, this was by design. It was somewhat strange that the Dodgers acquired an infielder only a few years younger, and whose demeanor was the complete opposite of the intense Robinson.
“I’m not one of those fire and vinegar guys,” Jackson said, sounding embarrassed. “It just isn’t my nature. I try to be a relaxed ballplayer. My voice travels about six feet and falls off.”
But that was a comment Robinson couldn’t miss. Not only had the Dodgers traded for someone younger, they had clearly traded for someone who would not be heard and wouldn’t mind if he wasn’t seen.
Shortstop Pee-Wee Reese didn’t abandon Jack. Again, it seemed as though it was 1947 again. Reese supported his friend. The Dodgers seemed to be asking the same question nine years later. Was Robinson’s talent worth his mouth? Ten seconds into Spring Training, Robinson was again cut off. It was as if his speech on 46th street was a eulogy.
“I don’t know much about Ransom Jackson,” Reese said. “I’ve played with Robinson for several years and he has been a great competitor and a great player. We don’t know how far he can go, how much he can play, but in condition I’d say Jack will play anywhere he wants to – whether it’s third base or left field.”
Robinson did not easily give up. Some players age differently. Some lose their legs first. Others, their bodies go. Still others, the ability to hit fades first, and the player is cast to the slaughterhouse. Robinson hit from the start, and though he was whittling off the weight from his winter on the 46th street circuit, he still caused enough havoc on the base paths to warrant annoyance from opposing pitchers.
He saved special venom for the Milwaukee Braves, whose pitching staff, especially Lew Burdette, he believed had put a price on his head. In an exhibition game in Mobile, the heart of the Deep South and a short drive away from the turmoil festering in segregated Birmingham, the teams nearly fought twice. When Robinson faced pitcher Bob Buhl in the third inning of a meaningless game, Buhl reached back and saved his best fastball for Robinson’s right arm, forcing Robinson to drop his bat, wince, and observe a welt that rose immediately.
Roy Campanella shouted at Braves catcher Del Rice, believing that Rice had ordered Buhl to hit Robinson. From the bench, Don Newcombe shouted at Joe Adcock, and Adcock yelled back. Robinson walked to first base and gestured to Buhl that he understood the unspoken code of ballplayers. He had thrown in front of Robinson, not behind him. Buhl’s heart had not been in something he was ordered to do. Jack looked at the Braves bench. Burdette sat there, arms folded, with a great big smirk on his face. It was 1956. It could have been 1947.
Alston would still not commit to Robinson. The black press monitored his commitment. “We will have a third baseman,” Alston said in reply to a black reporter. “I believe he will be a good one, but I don’t know whether it will be Robinson or Jackson, and if I did know, I wouldn’t say now.”
This was not the kind of fervor that Ransom Jackson was familiar with, but for Robinson, it was common ground. He continued to hit, run and play defense. And when the Dodgers played the Yankees for the final time in Spring Training, Robinson forced Alston to answer his own question. In Miami, Robinson went 3-for-4 against the Yankees, in what would be the final meeting of the two teams until October.
After nine years, Robinson was fighting as though it was his first. Perhaps this was exhausting. Alston relented, gave Robinson his job back, and offered a compliment in strange fashion. “When Jackie puts his mind to it,” Alston said, leaving one to wonder how he could question if Robinson ever used less than his entire being, “He can beat out anybody.”
The black press wasn’t so sure that the Dodgers were keeping Robinson because they wanted to, and, in the spirit of their hero, they were fearless to say so.
“Jackie was supposed to be gone,” wrote the Chicago Defender. “Just be gone, or in the words understood on the street, scram.”
“He ain’t scrammed a bit. Except in the games the Dodgers have been booting around in the Citrus Circuit, Mr. J had played third base, left field and first base, and if you think that isn’t getting around, ask any other Dodger star – Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Pee-Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, for instance, to step out of their accustomed sports and take over another chore.”
The Defender also pointed out that Robinson had money to play for. Completing his 10th season in baseball would make him fully vested in baseball’s pension plan. The first black player in baseball would also be the first black player to have a check awaiting him in later years. “Every fan in baseball, whether they like the old coot or not, should rise and doff his hat to Jackie Robinson at the end of this season,” the Defender insisted.
When the Dodgers traveled north to Ebbets Field to begin the season, Robinson allowed himself a moment of satisfaction. His career had been about what his Spring Training had been about. The only difference is that it was much easier said on 46th street than it was on the field.
Robinson stepped onto the grass at Ebbets Field and, as always, his senses and instincts guided him.
“I can tell that the season’s about ready to begin,” he told Arthur Daley of the New York Times. “The wind just shifted. It’s not blowing out of left field, making it tough on the right-handers.”
The wind would soon change direction on Jackie Robinson.
‘You’re damn right you can quote me’
The World Series flag was raised at Ebbets Field on April 17th. Don Newcombe pitched against Philadelphia’s Robin Roberts in a duel between the only 20-game winners in 1955. A typical cozy crowd of 24,326 was reported, and in the owner’s box, Walter O’Malley was already thinking how many more fans the Dodgers could draw if only they had a new ballpark. Robinson started at third, his old position, and went hitless in three at-bats. Roberts scattered nine hits in a complete-game 8-6 victory.
To get their first victory of the season, the Dodgers would have to go on the road to play their next home game. Playing the first of seven “home” games at Roosevelt Stadium, the Triple-A park in Jersey City, held vivid memories for Robinson. It was here in 1946 that he had made his professional debut as a member of the Montreal Royals. He was happy to be there in 1946, not in 1956. It’s certain that his teammates weren’t happy to be playing in front of a bush-league crowd of 12,000, but only Robinson would dare criticize the front office. He let it be known that he thought playing there was a stupid idea.
“You can take these Jersey City fans and give them back to the Giants,” Robinson said.
When the Dodgers came back to Jersey City, Robinson was remorselessly heckled, ridiculed by what the press sarcastically called “his friends.”
On April 20, Robinson had started the season 1-for-11, and already, General Manager Buzzie Bavasi’s patience was nearing an end. Bavasi was caught between public opinion and the shoddy performance of Jackson, his third base solvent. Bavasi had no room for Robinson’s Jersey City remarks. The debate served as a pleasant way for the evaluator and the subject to trade public shots.
“With the kind of playing he has been doing recently, he had better worry about the next three months,” Bavasi said, perhaps anticipating that Robinson would take this personally and perform in accordance.
Amid a horrible April in which Robinson hit a despondent .114 (7-for-61) in his first 10 games and didn’t score a run in Brooklyn’s first five games, arrived the first signs that the time to leave the game was nearing.
“I’m playing as well as I can,” Robinson bitterly replied. “If they can get anyone better, let ‘em. I won’t be playing after this year anyhow.”
“They” referred to Bavasi which, to the press, was more newsworthy than the admission that Robinson thought he might be finished after 1956. After so many years of covering his every move and quoting each indignant and defiant comment, Robinson’s hint at refuge went directly to the bottom of their notepads. That was the writers’ mistake of the year.
Bavasi had no interest in taking his words back, and replied as if he would be thrilled if Robinson left.
“The way he’s playing, he won’t have to worry,” Bavasi said. “He’ll be out of there in three months.”
“That’s a fine thing for Bavasi to say,” Robinson fired back. If baseball had taught him anything, perhaps it was that the best way to quell a threat was to create an ultimatum. “I’ve been hustling hard,” Robinson barked. “If he doesn’t like it, he can trade me.”
A day later, the two, realizing that this feud was in the papers more than either of them cared for it to be, retracted their statements and called a truce. But hindsight brings perspective. Robinson didn’t easily forget such words. Neither did Bavasi.
These were the times that made Robinson wonder if there was any difference between 1947 and 1956. How could he forget? There would be times this season when Robinson wondered if he was all alone all over again.
There were signs that Robinson’s own clubhouse was distancing itself from him, growing weary of the daily distractions of Robinson’s opinionated and volatile self. His greatest gift was also his curse, and in any era, ballplayers are better at playing baseball than they are at playing politically conscious sociologists. It was as though his temper had sometimes become a running joke.
Robinson, Reese and Hodges had their lockers in succession in the tiny and smelly shoebox of a locker room. Alston, who rarely gave the writers anything to work with, left the press to converge on this trinity of stars, of which Robinson was the loudest.
The performance ensued hundreds of times. Robinson would emerge from the shower with his towel around his waist, often in some combination of moods, both annoyed and irritated, wearing his frustration as though it was skin. “(So-and-so) is the worst umpire I’ve ever seen, and more than that, he goes out of his way to pick on me,” New York World Telegram and Sun columnist Bill Roeder wrote, depicting Robinson’s words in what he said was a common scene.
When the writers, in need of anything, would circle, Hodges would bellow from the bottom of his throat, between puffs of his post-game cigarette and swigs of his beer.
“Why don’t you tell them the truth, Jack? You know you were out on that play!”
“Out?” Robinson would question Hodges indignantly, presenting the question to the writers. Roeder described in what is as close to a locker-room ethnography as can be found, “Robinson would shriek, and all around the room heads would turn and there would be knowing nods from Rube Walker and Furillo and a low whisper from Campanella while Robinson launched into a detailed and seemingly outraged attack on the umpire. He would usually wind it up by saying, ‘You’re damn right you can quote me.’”
But it soon became difficult to tell if this was humor or if his teammates were growing tired of Robinson questioning everyone and everything. Even Reese, who was Robinson’s strongest supporter, seemed to grow weary of Robinson’s constant battling, which in itself, created another battle.
After a game in St. Louis, Robinson was venting in the locker room after a game.
“Oh, why don’t you ever shut up, Robinson,” Roeder quoted Reese as saying. “You think you’re the only one who’s got troubles?”
Roeder also speculated that Robinson’s relationships with Newcombe and Campanella had become strained. His demeanor with Campanella had changed, perhaps, as an old rift between Campanella, a true product of Negro League baseball who had been trained by black baseball lifers, and Robinson, a self-made ballplayer whose roots were not ingrained in the Negro Leagues, resurfaced. While Robinson was forging ahead with a social doctrine, Campanella was still thankful for the Jim Crow Leagues that Robinson resented.
In the winter, Campanella had used the media to ask Robinson if he was truly grateful for what the game had given him, or if he was more concerned with what he had given the game. That was simply a different way of asking Reese’s question. Robinson responded to Campanella, and with time, one has to wonder if a feud within his own locker room could show that Robinson was alienated within Ebbets Field.
“I had never said Roy was washed up,” Robinson said. “I have never made such a statement. I have said that the Dodgers were understandably concerned about Roy’s hand.”
The writers, the necessary and unwanted third party ever present in lover’s spats, didn’t believe Robinson. A denial from him was as rare as a lunar eclipse. In a newspaper story to describe Robinson’s statement, one writer called it a “typical Robinson pop-off.”
Robinson channeled his aggression. He found his swing in the summer, and soon the Dodgers found themselves in another pennant race, this time against the Milwaukee Braves, whose veteran pitching complemented youthful power. As Robinson was known for his “pop-offs,” Braves pitcher Lew Burdette was known for his party hours, which is to say, all hours of the night. Thank goodness for day baseball.
Burdette raised hell on the road, and tales of his late-night antics in hotel lobbies, drinking in elevators and cussing and chasing still bounce through the game. By 1956, Robinson, to the eyes of many, was bouncing more than he was running, and Burdette enjoyed the opportunity. Robinson was rounder, becoming as plump as he was proud, cognizant of his diet, his age and his body. The two had a long-standing feud dating back to 1952. Burdette had once drilled a black hitter in the minors, and his taste for rousing Robinson never declined.
Robinson had a longer memory than most ballplayers. He didn’t forget the spring training game against the Braves when Buhl had hit him with a pitch and how he suspected that it had been intentional. At County Stadium in Milwaukee on August 26th, the Dodgers were in town for the second of a two-game series against the Braves, who had a two-game lead. Buhl beat the Dodgers in the first game, giving the Braves a three-game lead.
On August 27th, Robinson was hitting when he heard the unmistakable shriek of Burdette.
Nine years into the journey, it was difficult to believe that he could hear such a taunt again, but not surprising. When Robinson went back to third base, he readied his retaliation. Hodges, the first baseman, rolled him a routine ground ball and gingerly stepped aside.
Burdette shouted again, “Hey, watermelon!”
Robinson leaned over, picked up the ball, and fired it into the Braves dugout, intended for Burdette. The players scattered as the ball hit the back of the dugout wall and bounced back onto the field. Hodges picked up the ball like it was nothing at all. The crowd thought it was a wild throw. The reporters missed it. But Burdette knew better. He jumped off the bench and glared at Robinson, who was standing with his hands on his hips.
“Meet me outside!” Robinson shouted at Burdette, who ignored him.
“He didn’t accept the challenge,” Robinson said. “He has no guts.”
Told of Robinson’s comments, Burdette ignored them.
“It doesn’t take guts to get suspended,” he said. “Any moron can do that.”
That didn’t matter to Robinson, who explained his revenge in detail.
“I was tossing the ball to Gil Hodges at the start of an inning and when I heard Burdette say something about watermelons,” Robinson said. “I listened to Burdette more closely and he kept saying things that were a little uncalled for – not just ordinary riding.”
Burdette pleaded baseball’s Fifth Amendment, insisting he was not racially needling Robinson but chiding him about his weight.
“I saw his picture in a magazine and he looked hog fat,” Burdette said. “I was kidding him about the watermelon on his stomach.”
Robinson didn’t accept that.
“The next grounder Gil threw me I picked up and headed it past Gil into the dugout. I aimed it right at Burdette’s head. Lucky for him, it missed.” And, adding emphatically, Robinson reiterated, “You’re damn right you can quote me on that.”
One more hard 90
It was true that Robinson’s stomach was bothering him, but for more than his weight. The conflicts of a decade never seemed to leave, only to lift momentarily. In an August game at Jersey City, he removed himself because of stomach pain and became ill.
“I don’t think I ever felt that much pain before,” he told New York writer Dick Young. “I still don’t feel too good. I don’t feel the pain I had last night, but I just don’t feel strong. My legs and arms are weak.”
There were times in the past when he thought he might have an ulcer. This season, he wondered if he might actually be right. “I guess I’ll just have to go back to have it looked at again,” he said. A health condition that would bother him for the next 16 years was building.
Robinson had found enough with his bat to make the Dodgers look at him, once more, as their everyday third baseman. He came back from his dreadful April and hit .368 in July. After an average August, he picked up the pace again in September, knowing that this might be it.
Two years earlier, in 1954, Robinson had secretly signed a secret contract with Look Magazine in which he would bypass the baseball press and sell the exclusive right of his retirement announcement. When he was ready, he would make his move into his next stage of life. But much of that depended on this season and Robinson’s desire to lead Brooklyn back to the pennant and to the World Series. His new life and his old were now linked, and what happened on the field would now affect the timing of the social work he envisioned. Perhaps Robinson was motivated in a new way to finish 1956 as powerfully as he had started 1947.
Beginning with a three-hit game at Forbes Field on Sep. 22nd, Robinson found enough in his body and bat to help the Dodgers win their last pennant in Brooklyn. He went 9-for-29 in his final eight regular season games, hitting .310.
His dwindling power allowed him one last home run, against the Giants at the Polo Grounds in the second game of a double-header on Sept. 2, a shot witnessed by Willie Mays who also hit a home run. That was the last weekend that Robinson would play at the Polo Grounds.
Mays had been 15 years old in 1947, the son of a steel mill ballplayer from a time and place in Birmingham that once meant a certain fate: when you went to work in the mill, you never came out. Willie had escaped and he had Robinson partly to thank. Shortly after Mays had come to the Giants in 1951, he wrote him a thankful letter. Now, Mays had little idea that Robinson, playing third base on this Sunday in Ebbets Field, had decided that he was most likely playing his last game against the Giants. As he rounded third, Mays made eye contact with Robinson. Now it was a matter of respect and admiration, and always one of thanks.
Gratitude was Robinson’s emotion when the Dodgers held onto the pennant, beating the Braves by one game. That was especially wonderful for Robinson, knowing not only that his team had done it, but that Burdette would see no share of World Series money.
The Yankees awaited the Dodgers in the World Series. The annual rivalry was routine as trash in Times Square. Robinson had always harvested a healthy disdain for the Yankees, who he felt were anti-black. He had verbally sparred with their front office in 1954. Robinson began the series with his secret safely in mind, his plans determined. This would be his last chance to beat the Yankees. The Dodgers victory over the Yankees in the 1955 series was never enough. Win or lose, this was it.
Robinson would say later that it didn’t matter if the Dodgers traded him. He made the decision that all athletes must make, to quit before their game insists they leave. Perhaps Robinson anticipated that he would be criticized in the press. Robinson, again, was trapped in a conflict of his own making, burdened between the need to fight for his pride and his people, and the need to accept in his own mind that fighting baseball was no longer a winning proposition.
But beating the Yankees was like asking Miss America to give away her crown, no matter that the Dodgers had finally exercised their long-standing pinstriped woes in the previous October. The Yankees were younger, stronger, faster, more powerful, with four future Hall of Famers in their Game 1 lineup to match the four future Hall of Famers of the Dodgers. Robinson, playing third and hitting fourth, watched as Sal Maglie nipped the outside corner with a first-pitch fastball for a strike to begin the series. Four pitches later, Hank Bauer tapped a ground ball to third, where Robinson made the first of his last routine plays.
In his first at-bat of the series, Robinson found Whitey Ford to his liking, lining a home run eight rows deep into the lower left-field level at Ebbets Field and igniting what became a 6-3 victory. Like the great majority of the last games of his career, Robinson had only one hit, but like his life, his hits usually carried meaning, purpose and value.
Again, in Game 2, the Model-T of the National League handed it to the Chrysler of the American League. Robinson, as always, was one of the vehicles. After hitting into a double play and striking out, he singled twice and walked in consecutive at-bats to help the Dodgers take a 2-0 series lead with a 13-8 victory. The Dodgers completed a two-game sweep at home and took the subway to Yankee Stadium with thoughts of another championship.
But this series would follow an arch similar to Robinson’s own career, first fast and promising, full of vigor and energy, then slower and more painful. In Games 3 and 4, the Yankees won and Robinson knocked one hit in each game. The Yankees tied the series, 2-2, and gave the ball to Don Larsen for Game 5.
Perhaps history was trying to tell Robinson something, though Larsen didn’t fool Jack in his first at-bat. Robinson soundly hit a hard shot at third baseman Andy Carey. The ball was on top of Carey so quickly that he was fortunate to deflect it to shortstop Gil McDougald. Robinson never stopped running hard, but not even what black ballplayers called “knack” speed could help him beat out the play. In the fifth inning, Robinson flew harmlessly out to right field. In the eighth, he tapped a slow ball back to Larsen, who then set down the final five Dodgers to complete his perfect game to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the series.
Always in the middle of a moment, Robinson decided the last close game he would ever play in. Scoreless after nine innings of Game 6, Robinson lined a single to left field in the 10th inning to score Junior Gilliam with the winning run in a 1-0 victory.
Game 7 got away from the Dodgers when the Yankees scored four runs in the seventh inning. It seemed to follow a law of nature: there was always room for more heartbreak. Robinson knew the moment when he would walk away from the game was near. He had played pepper with pitcher Johnny Kucks all afternoon, first tapping back to the pitcher, who started a double play. He later popped a bunt attempt to Kucks and also drew a walk.
In the ninth inning with two out, there stood Robinson against Kucks, a pitcher who hadn’t recorded a strikeout. Ebbets Field was silent save for the Yankee fans and Brooklyn’s perfunctory tears. Robinson worked Kucks into a full count, but struck out. The ball scooted past catcher Yogi Berra, and so for the final time, Robinson burst down the line with all that was left in his body. Berra easily threw him out and Robinson peeled off, slowed into a walk, and prepared to vanish from baseball.
“It’s about time I started thinking about Jackie Robinson,” he would soon say, “and not somebody else.”
‘No sentiment in baseball’
The details made it hard to avoid the idea that Buzzie Bavasi had traded Jackie Robinson with the telephone in one hand and the hatchet in the other. On December 13, he gift-wrapped Robinson and gave him to the Giants for the modest sum of $30,000 and Dick Littlefield, a 30-year-old left-hander who had pitched for eight teams in seven years. Littlefield was nothing extraordinary. He had no chance of making the Dodgers rotation. The Dodgers liked the sound of $30,000 at a time when attendance was falling as swiftly as the paint chips at Ebbets Field.
Bavasi’s feud with Robinson had subsided in the papers, but not in their personalities. Bavasi got the final say, making his popular veteran expendable for Giant owner Horace Stoneham’s expenditure. In baseball dialect, this trade was Bavasi’s way of shoving Robinson off the team without concern. It is the classic baseball method for making a veteran position player persona non grata – trade him for a few bucks and a bullpen lefty who can’t possibly help you win the pennant.
Robinson played along at first, inviting photographers into his new retreat in Stamford, Connecticut. He smiled broadly and held a Giants pennant over his head. It didn’t make sense. The Dodgers were struggling to fill their park, and the majority of their attendance came from Dodgers-Giants games. Why trade him to a team that would benefit from his presence monetarily as well as give Robinson the opportunity to hurt them several times a season?
The Giants saw a need for Robinson at first base and were willing to play him there despite his limited power. Jackie Brandt, Bill White and Willie Kirkland, three of their regulars, had been drafted into the army. Robinson’s versatility would have also suited the Giants well, and he would have been adored by Mays. The Giants had success because they, following the Dodgers lead, allowed black players to help them win.
But Robinson’s mind was made up. He just didn’t tell anyone. The world found out on January 22, 1957 in the pages of Look magazine. Three years earlier, Robinson had started exploring options as to how to choreograph his departure and cash in. Now the time had come.
“I’ve made my living playing baseball for the last 12 years,” began the ghostwritten article under his byline. “Now, I’m quitting the game for good. There shouldn’t be any mystery about my reasons. I’m 38 years old with a family to support. I’ve got to think of my future and our security. At my age, a man doesn’t have much future in baseball – and very little security. It’s as simple as that.”
Then, he answered the next question, which he maintained until death.
“A lot of people will say I’m quitting because I was traded to the Giants. That isn’t true. I started thinking about retiring from baseball almost four years ago.”
He announced that he was becoming Vice President for a restaurant chain called Chock Full O’ Nuts, which he explained in his careful chronology, was a position he accepted before Bavasi traded him. Therefore, he was not quitting baseball. He was retiring. The trade would simply be nullified.
Robinson attempted this procedure amicably, but even when passive, he was defiant. “I’m through with baseball because I know that, in a matter of time, baseball would have been through with me,” he said.
Stoneham wasn’t entirely shocked. That should have been evidence that neither was Bavasi. The Dodgers GM was shrewdly trying to get something for Robinson while he could. The Giants planned ahead and agreed to the deal only with a contingency plan in place. The trade would be voided if Robinson retired. That way, there would be no messy trips to the Commissioner’s Office.
“That probably was what was on Robinson’s mind when he said he would think over the question of whether he would play for us or not,” Stoneham said after Robinson’s announcement. “When the deal was made, I spoke to Jackie and asked him if his contract was the cause of his hesitancy in agreeing to play for us. He said that wasn’t the case and I told him that we would have no trouble getting together on a contract.”
Robinson had cunningly manipulated his last transaction. The clause in his contract with Chock Full O’Nuts allowed him to play in 1957 and assured him the same $30,000 annual position would be there whenever he retired. Robinson also granted Stoneham an audience to convince him otherwise though, at this point, Bavasi was convinced this was all for show.
“We will do everything in our power to make Jackie change his mind,” Stoneham said.
“If he expects me to change my mind,” Robinson said, “He is going to be disappointed.”
Robinson was gone. He knew it the moment Kucks struck him out and he ran the last hard 90. He sent a letter of thanks, not to the Dodgers, but to the Giants, which was published in the New York Times. Even after he was tossed off the roster, Robinson drew Bavasi’s blood. He told the world, without saying it implicitly, that he would never allow Bavasi the satisfaction of determining the finality of his career. Robinson believed that was his choice alone, regardless of what any executive told him. In the end, he refused to let anyone determine his future.
“I had just been able to avoid what I dreaded most in baseball,” he wrote, “The moment when they would start moving me around. You start slipping and pretty soon they’re moving you around like a used car. You have no control over what happens to you. I didn’t want that.”
The press, with which he had cultivated many relationships, reacted like a scorned lover at Robinson’s decision to bypass them and accept a well-orchestrated payoff from Look. One final time, Robinson took bullet for doing something his way, though he tried to temper their rage with a pre-emptive strike.
“I’ve always played fair with my newspaper friends,” Robinson wrote. “I think they’ll understand why this was one time I couldn’t give them the whole story as soon as I knew it.”
Red Smith did the talking for the association of scorned lovers. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Smith cut at Robinson’s need to control his final move at the expense of the last scoop, suggesting that Robinson “deceived the working newspaper men whose friendship he had and who thought they had his confidence.”
“Of all the various qualities which Robinson has displayed in the past, the most attractive was candor. In the end it was candor that he sacrificed to mislead the club that brought him into baseball and paid him for eleven years, the club that committed itself in good faith to pay him this year, and the individual members of the press that have contributed hugely to his fame.”
“Because of his fiercely combative temperament rather than because of his color, Robinson has been frequently in the midst of controversy. A certain amount of adverse criticism necessarily resulted, but in the main he has had an extraordinarily favorable press, more favorable, perhaps, than that of any other sports figure.”
None of this changed Robinson’s mind. As always, his stubborn nature was his friend as well as his enemy. He had played his defection to perfection, and yet, he felt under attack, as though no one believed him, and frustrated by the press, whom he thought owed him a break after he vowed so many times that they could quote him.
“I wouldn’t play baseball again for a million dollars,” Robinson said, and this again was another indirect poke at Bavasi.
Bavasi retaliated. This was no different from a purpose pitch, a slur or a dirty slide. The only thing worse for a baseball man’s ego than trading a player for junk is when the player would rather quit.
“That’s typical of Jackie,” Bavasi said, making sure the press wrote it the way he said it. “Now he’ll write a letter of apology. He has been writing letters of apology all his life.”
Robinson didn’t care anymore. This was the same adversity from 1947, only this time he didn’t have to watch his tongue.
“After I read what Buzzie Bavasi said, I wouldn’t ever play again,” Robinson said.
Bavasi even went so far as to defend the Giants, which was like Eisenhower defending the Communist Party.
“The Giants believed Robinson could help them and lost a valuable month in which they might have made another deal,” Bavasi said.
Robinson shouted back.
“I thought Bavasi was a better friend than that,” he said. “I’ve been as decent to him and the Brooklyn ball club as I possibly could be. For years I’ve agreed to go along with him in our salary talks even though I knew I was underpaid. Now, that’s my reward.”
Bavasi bristled, attacking Robinson at the very core of his identity.
“Jackie’s pretty proud of his reputation for saying exactly what he thinks, but he doesn’t like anybody else to exercise the same privilege,” Bavasi said.
“Who wants to be kicked from pillar to post?” he asked. “If the Giants couldn’t use me, they’d have shipped me somewhere else in a hurry. There’s no sentiment in baseball. It may be a sport to some people. It’s just a great big business so far as I’m concerned.”
Robinson’s decision to bypass the media cost him support in his last scuffle.
“He has always been too proud a man and too fierce a fighter to step gracefully aside,” wrote Arthur Daley in the New York Times. Daley, however, did add a parting shot at Bavasi.
“When the story broke the other day, a front-page headline on one afternoon paper screamed, ‘Jackie Robinson to Giants!’ Just below it was another headline, ‘Brooklyn Executive is shot to death.’ Fortunately, there was no connection between the two stories.’”
The verbal sparring was bothersome to Branch Rickey, who was now the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Unusually, Rickey made a public statement about a player that was not his own. But in many ways, Robinson still belonged to him. Before spring training, Rickey and Robinson secretly met.
Rickey chose his words and decided that the time was right to warn Robinson in print that, should he continue to fight with baseball executives, he would never be allowed in the game again.
“I was grieved at some of the statements he made,” Rickey said. “He is a man of explosive temperament, but he promised me the last time we were together three weeks ago that he would never issue a statement while angry. He’s kept his word.”
Robinson had once spoken ambitiously of becoming baseball’s first black manager, but this fight was too early, and he was too far along. But in 1956, he had played against rookie Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds who, in 1975, fulfilled Jackie Robinson’s ambition when he took over the Cleveland Indians.
But now, Jack’s official connections to baseball were over. He plotted his post-baseball life, and in 1957 he was named national chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was funny how his new job description sounded a lot like his old one.
The last wish of Jackie Robinson
You have to wonder if the 1956 Jackie Robinson would recognize the 2007 America. Had he been a high school or college athlete, would he even be a baseball player? Were he an old man of 88 years, born a year after World War I ended, would he have asked what his suffering wrought?
What would he think of Micheal Vick? Of Isiah Thomas? Of Kobe Bryant? Of Milton Bradley? Of Barry Bonds? Would he defend them? Would he consider them accountable? Would he ask if they were being unfairly attacked?
Would he wonder if the answer was in perception or in persecution?
How would he feel about the Jena Six, the rise again of young hate crimes in America, the nooses left on the doorknob of black professors at Columbia University, the nooses discovered hanging on trees at Cal State Fullerton?
The irony is that some of the most admirable young black athletes in America today are baseball players – C.C. Sabathia, Torri Hunter, Dontrelle Willis, Curtis Granderson and others. Jack taught that acting with dignity did not compromise the race, but rather, enhanced it. Would he ask if this has changed?
Would he wonder if the meaning of being black, for some, has overtaken the meaning of racial and gender equity, the very core of his meaning?
Would he ask kids if shoes make the man? Would he ask if bling is worth more than brains? Would he wonder if his persistence was wasted in recklessness?
We’ll never know. Perhaps the question is not should we remember his arrival, but should we not forget his departure? When he had given all he had to give on the field and fought as hard in his final year as he did in his first not to allow history to cover him in broad strokes?
You wonder if Robinson would fight today, or if, in some ways, he would have to fight harder in a different kind of battle. Would he again wonder if a home run has been called back, if nothing else, by the ignorance of the struggle that surrounded not only his monumental arrival but his forlorn departure? If there’s anything to be remembered from 1956 to 2007, perhaps this would be the last wish of Jackie Robinson. The fight was not as meaningful as what he fought for.