By Lenny Moon
The year was 1945 when Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey approached Kansas City Monarch’s star Jack Roosevelt Robinson about possibly becoming the first Black in the modern era to integrate Major League Baseball. The irony is that Jackie wasn’t the most skilled from the available Negro League talent pool. There were mega-stars such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, “Cool Papa” Bell and others from a skilled set standpoint were more deserving to be the first. But Rickey knew that the barrier breaker had to have a certain profile that superseded the ability on the baseball diamond.
Robinson had been a multi-sport star at UCLA, starring in football, track and field as well as baseball. The conundrum with this exceptional athlete was that he was court marshaled while in the military during a racial related incident. Rickey’s experiment was to select a quality Negro League product that was capable of “turning the other cheek” when the extreme racism that first Black player would surely encounter continuously. Jackie was called in for the famous “talk” and left the conference agreeing for the benefit of paving the way for other capable Blacks to have a path into MLB, he would concede and compromise his instinct to retaliate. Following some trying experiences in the Minor Leagues, Robinson was brought up to the big league club (then based in Brooklyn) on April 15, 1947 becoming the first Black major league baseball player; thus launching the now famous “Experiment”.
Also a consideration is the period of time in America in 1947. This era represented seven years prior to “Brown vs the Board of Education” (1954), predated the Civil Rights Act (1964) by seventeen years, and eighteen prior to the signing of the Voting Rights Act (1965) just to name a few. Needless to say, when Jackie was asked to take the passive approach and counter his instinct to retaliate during this turbulent era of our country’s history, then reflecting back on the sacrifice that he made was monumental. Opposing players would sharpen their spikes and purposely slide into the bag high, attempting to injure Jackie when he was moved from first base to second base. Opposing players and fans would hurl various methods of the usage of the “N-Word” as commonly as the air that we breathe. Even several teammates of Robinson were not willing to accept the fact that a Black player was now a peer and sharing a locker room. On paper, this experiment had a small chance of being successful considering the obstacles that stood in the United States back in 1947.
The experiment succeeded because Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey pushed the right button when he was advised by Pittsburgh Courier’s Wendell Smith, a noted Black sports writer, that Jackie would be his recommendation based on his previous coverage of the Negro Leagues. Because Jackie was willing the make the brutal sacrifice and “turn the other cheek” while earning Rookie of the Year honors, 18 additional former Negro Leagues players were attached to MLB rosters between 1947 and 1951. Notably, two were fellow Brooklyn Dodgers (Roy Campanella-HOF catcher in 1948 and pitcher Don Newcombe in 1949) to go along with the New York Giants signing of the legendary Willie Mays in May of 1951. When Robinson signed with Brooklyn, another dynamic occurred. Black fans impacted the turnstiles in droves, as Rickey predicted with their likeness now allowed to participate in their tax supported ballparks. Like the late congressman John Lewis willingness to have his skull cracked so we can now enjoy our constitutional right to vote, Mr Robinson compromised his dignity to open the door for other minorities to finally be able to utilize their God-gifted abilities without the previous restrictions.