The Day That Changed The World

Posted: April 09, 1997

As World War II wound down in 1945, the Seven Wonders of the Borough of Brooklyn, in no particular order, were these:

1. The sprawling St. George Hotel. With 1,400 rooms and a 50-yard indoor saltwater swimming pool, the Brooklyn Heights landmark was America's second biggest hostelry. All seven visiting National League clubs stayed there.

2. The Williamsburg Savings Bank. Unlike the relatively modest edifices of the compact Borough Hall business district, the WSB, topped by a clock tower, was the only skyscraper for miles around.

3. The Brooklyn Dodgers. The borough's spiritual ground zero. Although rococo Ebbets Field was on the border between the Flatbush and Crown Heights neighborhoods, the ballclub offices were miles away in a modest brownstone at 215 Montague St., the main drag of Brooklyn Heights.

4. Plymouth Church of The Pilgrims. In the turbulent decades leading to the Civil War, the small Heights house of worship was a safe house on the Underground Railroad. The pastor was famed abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher.

5. The pre-Revolutionary War period mansion at the foot of Montague Street overlooking the East River where General George Washington was headquartered during the Battle of Long Island.

6. The Ferris wheel and parachute jump that dominated Coney Island's boardwalk amusement oasis, Luna Park. The original Nathan's hot dog stand was nearby, serving pungent, grease-dripping cylinders to die for, slathered with a mouth-puckering horseradish mustard. Sauerkraut was optional.

7. An amazing oak tree - ``The Big Tree'' - on Grace Court in The Heights across the street from Grace Church. It was mature when the Dutch settlers arrived in the 1600s and survived hurricanes, blizzards, droughts and urban development. It witnessed every minute of American history, White Man Division.

The Big Tree was middle-aged when George Washington, a wealthy Virginia slave owner, won the first major tactical battle of the escalating rebellion against the British regulars and their Hessian mercenaries. The breakaway republic that emerged from the Revolution was founded on the proposition that all menare created equal. What the Founders meant to say was ``all white men.''

The Big Tree was 75 years taller and wider when the Rev. Beecher used his church and the nearby homes of parisioners as ahalfway house for runaway slaves - mostly young males - on their way to Canada. The eloquent and fiery oratory that flowed from his pulpit helped move a divided nation toward an inevitable Civil War.

By the time a 26-year-old black man from Pasadena, Calif., named Jack Roosevelt Robinson visited the neighborhood in August of 1945, The Big Tree's root system had buckled the sidewalk and cracked the Grace Court blacktop. Henry Ward Beecher's church was just another nondescript, neighborhood church, the momentous events of its history marked only by a bronze plaque that had turned green years before. A few blocks away, in Boro Hall Park, a statue of Beecher surveyed the bustle of 1945 commerce. The mansion where Washington slept sat vacant in sad disrepair. The catacombs and tunnels that connected to its vast basement was a meeting place for neighborhood kids. They pretended it was Corregidor in the Phillipines and fought off imaginary waves of Japanese troops storming up the bluff that commanded the East River waterfront.

When Jackie Robinson slipped from a Yellow Cab in front of the Dodgers office three blocks from that dishevelled mansion and bounded briskly up one flight of steps leading to the second floor entrance, pedestrians stopped and stared. He was dressed in a conservative business suit, a very black man who moved with a curious, pigeon-toed grace. There were some businesses across the street - a beauty salon, a luncheonette, a greeting card shop and the store front of an auto insurance company. The offices of the liquor control board were nearby, as was the Montague Street stop of the BMT subway line, one of Brooklyn's busiest. He would have been noticed.

The date was Aug. 28, 1945.

Robinson was not the first Negro - as former African slaves were called in those days - to bounce up the steps. As the last wartime season wound down, there was a sudden crackle of static in baseball's back channels. The Negro press, notably Pittsburgh's Wendell Smith, was pushing for an end to the infamous and unwritten ``Gentleman's Agreement'' that had kept major league baseball white since Moses Fleetwood Walker and other blacks were banned by the American Association in 1884. Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the racist commissioner, had died in 1944 and several owners, including a young maverick named Bill Veeck, openly discussed integrating their clubs with Negro League stars like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

When the Phillies were taken over by the National League after the gambling suspension of William Cox in 1943, Veeck put in a bid for the bankrupt franchise. His plan was to stock the Phillies with the brightest Negro League stars. The catchers would have been Gibson and Philly's own Roy Campanella, the infield would have included Robinson, Monte Irvin, aging Ray Dandridge and a hulking first baseman named Luke Easter. The outfielders would have included slugging Larry Doby and young Cuban phenom Minnie Minoso. Commissioner Landis vehemently rejected Veeck's offer, invoking his ``best interests'' powers.

During the years when Branch Rickey built the St. Louis Cardinals dynasty by methodically developing a farm system of minor league affiliates, the parable-quoting Methodist, whose strongest exclamation was ``Judas Priest!,'' showed few liberal tendencies. St. Louis was a strictly segregated city with traditions reaching southward down the Mississippi. Rickey made no attempt to eliminate the degrading Jim Crow bleachers in the outfield, where black patrons were admitted to watch Dizzy Dean and the rest of the Gas House Gang.

On the other hand, Rickey showed great interest in the thriving Negro leagues and their crowd-pleasing style of play. There would be a time, he confided to his inner circle of scouts and executives, when Negroes would be integrated into major league baseball. And, when the climate had softened, he was just the man to make this great leap of faith for the glory of God and the betterment of the National Pastime. He did not need to add that if organized baseball absorbed the best black players, the Negro leagues would soon go under, eliminating a formidable source of competition to the majors.

When Rickey replaced Larry MacPhail as president of the Dodgers in 1942, he was in the process of compiling a thick dossier on potential black major leaguers. It included their temperaments and off-field habits. Paige was the obvious choice to blaze trails, but Rickey doubted his flamboyance and serial womanizing would play well before white audiences. The great Gibson was even more unstable in his personal life and his skills were beginning to slip.

Rickey had a wonderful scout named Clyde Sukeforth tirelessly canvassing the Negro leagues and Caribbean. Through the summer of 1945, Sukeforth had filed glowing reports on the 26-year-old shortstop of the Monarchs, a college man from the West Coast.

Robinson, Sukeforth reported, not only spoke like a college man but had scarcely a trace of a``colored'' accent. This was deemed important.

And, Sukeforth reported, when Army 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson's refusal to move to the back of a bus resulted in his court martial, the evidence proved he had handled, with dignity, if not tact, an incident that preceded Rosa Parks by 11 years.

Robinson had been invited to visit Rickey under the same guise. The Dodgers were interested in forming a team - the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers - to play in the charter United Negro League. Salaries would be higher, travel better and the league would be more structured, with more scheduled games and less barnstorming. Gibson and Paige had both expressed enthusiasm, as had Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe.

Now, it was Robinson's turn. Rickey envisioned him as potentially the most influential black man since Dred Scott, and his cause the most significant since Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln freed the slaves, but in 1945 their ancestors still could not vote in many states. De facto segregation in the South and Jim Crow custom in much of the North had stratified them as a permanent underclass.

Even revered black educator Booker T. Washington endorsed legal segregation in his 1895 ``Atlanta Compromise'' speech, arguing that the races could be, ``as separate as the fingers on the hand,'' as long as economic equality was guaranteed. In Plessy vs. Ferguson, the Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings that ``separate but equal'' laws could be passed and enforced by states.

In that year, 1945, on that white street, in that white neighborhood in that mostly white borough, the presence of any black man or woman would have, and did, turn heads. Hundreds of thousands of Negroes lived in the section of upper Manhattan and South Bronx known as Harlem. But if you were forced to sum up Brooklyn's 1945 ethnic makeup in two words, they would have been: ``White Catholic.'' There were some growing Hispanic neighborhoods, but blacks had migrated in significant numbers only near the boundaries with Queens. They made up a miniscule percentage of more than two million Brooklynites.

Rickey wasted little time on Aug. 28, 1945. He knew from his exhaustive investigation of Robinson's character that he was, like Rickey, a Methodist who neither smoke nor drank. First, he told Robinson the United Negro League was a ploy, that the time had come to make major league baseball available to all Americans. He, Robinson, was a candidate to be the Black Moses, leading the grandchildren of slaves into the game's white clubhouses.

Then Rickey assumed a persona Robinson would see and hear often in the reality of men like Phillies manager Ben Chapman, a virulent Southern racist; the cruel Enos Slaughter, of the Cardinals; glowering Giants righthander Sal Maglie; and Alvin Dark, Maglie's peckerwood teammate from LSU. They represented a cast of hundreds who would taunt and shun Robinson in the trials-by-beanball-and-spikes that lay ahead. ``I've just called you an ugly, black nigger, and I've slapped you,'' Rickey thundered, grazing Robinson's cheek with an imaginary blow. ```What do you do?''

Robinson stared impassively at the old man. ``Turn the other cheek, right?''

``It is the only way this will work,'' Rickey replied. ``In time, I am sure you will be accepted as a ballplayer and as a man. But any retaliation, any indication that you can't take it, and they will exploit that weakness and this great endeavor will have failed.''

Robinson agreed to join the Dodgers organization and play for the Triple A farm team in Montreal the following season. It was not a Page 1 headline. George Burns and Gracie Allen were not preempted by the bulletin.

And nearly 20 months would pass before the actual Day of Jubilo, April 15, 1947, Opening Day in Ebbets Field. During the interim, Robinson, a middle infielder until then, was switched to first base after opening the Montreal season at second. The Dodgers correctly anticipated an opening at that position; The Rifleman, Chuck Connors, had been found wanting. Robinson's Rickey-selected roommate, a college graduate from NYU, was a journeyman shortstop named Al Campanis. Campanis never once suggested his roomie lacked the ``necessities.''

Robinson endured the whips and scorns of his time - particularly during an ugly spring training in Florida - and turned the International League into 500 miles of roiled basepaths. In retrospect, he was past his athletic prime by then. Since no pitcher EVER gave in to him at any level, because his pelt on their belts was a badge of honor, the International League batting title Robinson won with a .349 average represents one of the great baseball accomplishments of all time.

The 1947 Dodgers trained in Havana, Cuba. Robinson was there as a non-roster player and he was able to keep his eye on the prize with a relative absence of malice on that island. But shortly before he was promoted to the Opening Day roster, a player rebellion led by star outfielder Dixie Walker was stomped by manager Leo Durocher.

When the historic April 15 event transpired, Earth did not fail to complete its orbit around the Sun in the prescribed 24 hours and an infinitesimal millisecond. Robinson went 0-for-3 in his major league debut against the Boston Braves. In a borough of more than two million, just 25,623 fans showed up, leaving 9,000 empty seats in Ebbets Field.

Retired sports writer Jack Lang, the beat man for a Long Island daily that day, recently observed: ``New York City newspapers did not go overboard. There were eight city papers in those days, plus Brooklyn and Long Island dailies. Only two major columnists attended and wrote about the historic event. One columnist mentioned Jackie's debut just in passing. The New York Herald Tribune, one of the most respected papers of the day, sort of ho-hummed the event.''

Robinson earned one mention in the fifth paragraph of the Herald Tribune game story.

The dominoes that were set in motion that day fell all season. They still fall today. Six of the eight National League teams set attendance records in 1947. One came close. The eighth team, your team, the '47 Phillies, suffered an attendance drop of more than 100,000 fans.

After April 15, the ongoing media story became more about the dignity and courage with which Jackie Robinson continued to urn the other cheek - an act alien to his fiery spirit - than about the sociological phenomenon of his blackness.

And by the time Robinson had led the Dodgers to an unexpected pennant, there was an Eighth Wonder of Brooklyn. There as a black man, standing tall forever, who dwarfed the St. George Hotel, the Williamsburg Savings Bank and, yes, even The Big Tree that bore witness to it all.

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