Phils hurled insults at the 'noble experiment'

Posted: April 09, 2007

Second of eight parts

It took only 18 days in the spring of 1947 for the Phillies to create a notorious reputation that even now, with African American stars such as Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, they are still struggling to shed.

Some of the ugly details about what transpired 60 years ago, when the Phils first encountered Jackie Robinson, have been forgotten or clouded by time.

But there's no obscuring the story's unsavory substance: In two early-season series at Ebbets Field and Shibe Park, the Phillies, goaded by racist manager Ben Chapman, cursed, taunted and threatened the Brooklyn rookie who so recently had integrated baseball.

In Philadelphia, the team's general manager allegedly urged the Dodgers not to bring Robinson here. The downtown hotel where the Dodgers stayed would not have him as a guest. In Brooklyn, less than three weeks earlier, Chapman and his players had ceaselessly spewed what one Dodgers official termed "racial venom."

"I have to admit that this day," Robinson wrote in 1972 of his first encounter with the Phils - April 22, 1947 - "of all the unpleasant days of my life brought me nearer to cracking up than I have ever been. For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought 'To hell with Mr. Rickey's noble experiment.' "

On Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, the Phils, like the rest of Major League Baseball, plan to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Robinson's landmark debut. In tribute, Rollins will join other prominent players who plan to wear the late Hall of Famer's No. 42.

The Phillies have long sought to make peace with the African American community. The franchise has invested in youth baseball programs for inner-city youngsters, made several African American players high draft choices, and reached out to black fans.

Yet it likely will be many years, if ever, before the events of 1947 and the team's subsequent foot-dragging on integration are forgotten.

"That period," Richie Ashburn, the Hall of Famer, said in 1995, two years before his death, "certainly wasn't the Phillies' finest moment."

Robinson had played in only four games when the Phillies arrived in Brooklyn on April 22 for a three-game, midweek series.

That Tuesday was unseasonably brisk and only 6,790 fans showed up. Things were relatively quiet - as they had been through Brooklyn's first four games, there and at the Polo Grounds - until Robinson came to bat in the first.

"His accounts in later years, and accounts by others who were there, say the Phillies mentioned Robinson's thick lips, thick skull, and sores and diseases his teammates and their wives would likely contract by associating with him," said Jonathan Eig, whose new book, Opening Day, recounts Robinson's debut season.

All agree the worst came from Chapman, the Phils' Alabama-born manager. As a Yankees outfielder in the 1930s, he had brawled with one Jewish player, taunted others, and regularly hurled insults at New York fans.

This time, the vitriol from the Phils was so intensely unrelenting that several fans seated near their dugout wrote commissioner Happy Chandler to complain.

The abuse continued the following day. Robinson, who had promised Rickey he would try not to react to the racism he encountered, quietly seethed. Finally, Eddie Stanky, the Dodgers' second baseman and a Philadelphia native, had heard enough.

"Listen, you yellow-bellied cowards," Robinson later quoted him as yelling. "Why don't you yell at someone who can answer back?"

The next day, Chapman didn't show up. He told his players he was sick, but it's likely Chandler had asked him to stay away.

Many newspapers and commentators leaped to Robinson's defense. Radio broadcaster Walter Winchell lambasted Chapman on his nationally broadcast show April 27. But some took the position of the Sporting News, which defended baseball's bench-jockeying tradition.

Chandler, according to author Jules Tygiel in Baseball's Great Experiment, contacted Phillies owner Bob Carpenter and warned him against a repeat when the Dodgers played in Philadelphia on May 9 through 11.

The Dodgers arrived here by train and checked into the Ben Franklin Hotel - all except Robinson, who took a room at the much smaller Attucks Hotel, which catered to African Americans.

Harold Parrott, the Dodgers' longtime secretary, would later claim in his book that he overheard an earlier telephone conversation between Rickey and Phils GM Herb Pennock, in which Pennock asked the Dodgers president to keep Robinson at home.

"Parrott is the only source we have," noted Eig. "He wrote that years later and, quite frankly, he hasn't proved to be the most reliable source."

Whatever transpired, Robinson came and Chapman apparently got the message. That Friday night at the North Philadelphia stadium, he told the Dodgers he wanted to pose for a peacemaking photo with the player.

The photo was taken, the two men looking pleasant enough, though they gripped a bat instead of each other's hands.

But Freddie Schmidt, a Phillies pitcher, told Eig that as the photographer snapped the picture, he heard Chapman say, "Jackie, you know you're a good ballplayer but you're still a nigger to me."

A mythology has grown up around those Phillies-Dodgers series. Some claim a black cat was set loose on the Shibe Park field. Others say fans here hurled watermelon chunks. If so, contemporary accounts ignored the incidents and Eig has never been able to confirm them.

Surely, other players and managers taunted Robinson, too. But perhaps the stories about the Phillies endured because the franchise was so slow in getting a black player of its own.

When the Phils won the pennant in 1950, beating Robinson's Dodgers on the final day, they became the last NL team to do so without one black or Latino starter.

It would be 1957 before they finally fielded a black player. By then, every team but the Tigers and Red Sox had integrated.

And while no one seemed to notice at the time, the details of infielder John Kennedy's Phillies debut proved ironic.

Kennedy's first game, as a late-inning pinch-runner for Solly Hemus, came on April 22, 1957, 10 years to the day after that infamous Phils-Dodgers meeting.

The Phillies' opponents were the Dodgers.

The location was Ebbets Field.


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

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