The Ground Ball That Changed America

When Jackie Robinson made the putout on Dick Culler's bouncer, the beginning of a game became the beginning of segregation's end.

Posted: April 08, 2007

First of eight parts

Wars can change the world. So can elections, revolutions and great inventions. But sometimes all it takes is a little ground ball to third base.

On the warm afternoon of April 15, 1947, at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, the Boston Braves' Dick Culler led off a baseball game with a soft bouncer to third. The Dodgers' Spider Jorgensen fielded it and, with a slight hesitation that perhaps was an unconscious nod to posterity, threw to first.

Waiting there in the speckled light, about to leap into history, crouched a pigeon-toed, 28-year-old rookie. The color of his crisp opening-day uniform was the same as Jorgensen's. But unlike the 49 other players, three umpires, two batboys, and handful of coaches, all of whom were white, the rookie's skin was a dark, regal ebony.

The 25,263 fans, many of whom also were black and until that instant had had little reason to trumpet that fact, inhaled as he stretched for the toss. The ball smacked into the rookie's mitt. Umpire Al Barlick snapped a thumb past his right ear. A great roar was unleashed.

The long wait, baseball's public disgrace, was over. The rookie, a handsome, intense Army veteran named Jack Roosevelt Robinson who had been carefully groomed for this pioneering role by Dodgers president Branch Rickey, had become the first black man to appear in a major-league baseball game in the 20th century.

Though he would continue to endure the racist taunts of fans and opponents, a boycott threat by some Dodgers teammates and discrimination in virtually every city he visited - including Philadelphia - Robinson's appearance had transformed a crusade into a reality. Yes, certain teams were slow to integrate, including the Phillies, who broke their own color barrier on April 22, 1957, with the signing of John Kennedy.

The little-used third baseman, who has but five major-league games to his credit, is all but forgotten.

Not so Jackie Robinson.

By playing with a daring dignity that day and for another decade, he would elate and empower blacks, help trigger the seismic changes of the civil-rights era, and force all Americans - even those with no interest in sports - to confront their nation's most confounding problem: race.

"Robinson," said his biographer David Falkner, "was a link, and a crucial one, between despair and a movement."

Now, 60 years later, Robinson's debut is recalled alongside the Emancipation Proclamation and the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision as a civil-rights monument.

"Its greater importance might be in how it opened eyes," said Jonathan Eig, whose new book, Opening Day, attempts to strip away some of the accumulated mythology about the man and the event. "Factory workers suddenly saw that they could work alongside a black man. White kids began to root for Robinson without even considering his race. And fans at ballparks who experienced those kind of racist taunts for maybe a first time were forced to examine their own views."

Next Sunday, 10 years after Robinson's No. 42 was permanently retired by every big-league team, baseball will mark the 60th anniversary with a VIP-filled ceremony at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. That same day, in Philadelphia and the 13 other cities where games will be played, pregame commemorations of Robinson's achievement will take place.

"Jackie's legacy has inspired so many of our players over the last 60 years," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said, "and I believe that his influence will continue to be felt for decades to come."

Major impact

In 1947, baseball was so thoroughly embedded in America's psyche that Robinson's landmark example quickly reverberated from coast to coast. A man whose motto was "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives" would have a major impact on future generations, black and white.

"In terms of baseball," said Hank Aaron, baseball's home-run king, "Jackie Robinson was our Dr. King."

Looking to Robinson's courageous example, other big-league teams, some more rapidly and more willingly than others, followed Brooklyn's lead.

By July of 1947, Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians had integrated the American League. By 1959, when the Boston Red Sox at last yielded, there were no more all-white teams. In the 16 seasons between Robinson's debut and 1962, black players would win the National League's Most Valuable Player Award 11 times. Robinson, the rookie of the year in 1947, won it in 1949.

It was as if he had set a row of dominoes tumbling. Basketball, football, tennis and other sports soon featured black stars. The Supreme Court officially outlawed segregation in 1954. A year later, Rosa Parks refused to move to the rear of a Montgomery bus, and Martin Luther King, a young Baptist minister who idolized Robinson, organized a boycott.

Parks, streets, and elementary, middle and high schools would be named after Robinson. A namesake foundation carries on his legacy by encouraging and supporting young black scholars. There are countless books, documentaries and scholarly treatises that chronicle his life and its historic aftermath. Even now, 35 years after his death at 53, his face and that high-pitched voice are instantly recognizable.

"Let's face it, baseball was at the very core of American life," said Roger Wilkins, the civil-rights leader and 1960s Justice Department official. "And all by himself, enduring all that he endured, Jackie Robinson proved what African Americans were capable of accomplishing. Every American, the low and the mighty, had to take note of that."

Disturbing ironies

Yet, six decades later, there are disturbing ironies to his story.

In the years after Robinson's entry, almost every big-league team had a few African American stars. Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson and Ernie Banks spearheaded a revolution in the sport.

Gradually, though, their numbers - at virtually every baseball level - began to diminish.

While 75 percent of players in the NBA and 70 percent in the NFL are African American, the percentage in baseball has slipped to below 9 percent, the lowest total since the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport began compiling statistics two decades ago.

"It's not just a problem," Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia told reporters this spring, "it's a crisis."

Robinson's arrival killed the Negro leagues, then among of the largest and most successful black-owned enterprises. On the other hand, it created millions of new major-league fans among African Americans, many of them becoming lifelong Dodgers supporters.

It also created for history its own set of heroes (Robinson, Rickey, Pee Wee Reese) and villains (most notably Phillies manager Ben Chapman and Robinson teammate Dixie Walker, who proposed a boycott rather than play alongside Robinson).

On the field, Robinson was transforming as well. His competitive fires, hell-bent style on the bases, and speed helped enliven the somewhat plodding game that had developed in the wake of Babe Ruth and the glorification of the home run.

His story also allowed fans and sportswriters to recognize the links between baseball and the real world. Looking back on the day Robinson shattered baseball's color line, it's remarkable to see how little attention the historic event generated on sports pages.

Mentioned in passing

Ebbets Field, despite the unusual presence of a large number of black fans, was just three-quarters filled. Most of the sportswriters there mentioned only in passing the most significant element of the Dodgers' 5-3 win.

The Inquirer's wire-service story, for example, was buried well down the first sports page, beneath an account on the opening of Pennsylvania's trout season.

"For a lot of writers, an issue like race just wasn't on their radar screen," Eig said. "They weren't programmed to pay attention to that type of thing. A lot of them probably weren't even sure it was something they were supposed to be writing about."

One of Robinson's teammates that day was Eddie Stanky, a feisty second baseman who had grown up in Kensington.

Though the cover of Eig's book shows Stanky posing with his arms draped around Robinson and Reese just before the April 15 game, it's safe to assume that many Americans of the era were at best ambivalent about race.

But Robinson, more than anyone else, would change American attitudes on the subject. And he quickly converted his teammates, including Stanky, who after that pennant-winning season would be traded, opening up second base for Robinson.

"Dad talked about that first game and Jackie a lot," recalled Stanky's son, Mike, an executive with a laundry-equipment firm in Dallas. "He was so impressed by Jackie's raw ability and the way he dealt with everything he had to handle, that, despite what's been written over the years, they became really close.

"I think they both discovered that, despite their obvious differences, they were alike, very much alike."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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