Ex-Met remembers his boyhood idol and hero

Posted: April 10, 2007

EAST ELMHURST, N.Y. - Ed Charles compiled a .263 batting average over an eight-season major-league career. In his final year - 1969 - the third baseman nicknamed "The Glider" helped the "Miracle Mets" win a World Series.

Charles, an African American, knows none of that would have been possible if not for Jackie Robinson, the man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier 60 years ago.

In a recent Q&A, the now 73-year-old Charles spoke to how profoundly the man who remains his hero affected him and countless other major-leaguers.

Question: You actually saw Robinson play 61 years ago. Tell us about that.

Answer: The Dodgers assigned his contract to Montreal, their triple-A affiliate [in 1945]. Montreal's spring training was in Sanford, Fla., but due to the hostility there, they decided to move the base over to Daytona Beach [in 1946].

It so happens that their practice field was right in the black community, directly across the street from where I lived. I used to watch him as soon as I got out of school instead of going home. Other kids used to run after him and try to get his autograph. I was too shy. I just admired him like he was God.

Q: What did he mean to a boy of your age?

A: He gave you a reason to hope that things were going to get better. I was a kid that said, "If Jackie can make it, maybe he can open the door for a flood of blacks to make it into Major League baseball."

Q: Were there fears for Robinson in the black community?

A: We didn't want anything to happen to Jackie. In fact, if anything happened, you probably would have had a race riot. There was a lot of tension.

Q: Describe your sense of what he experienced as the lone pioneer.

A: He had the weight of the race on him, [but] he knew that every black person was pulling for him.

Q: What did you like about his game?

A: He took it to the opposition. He was daring. He didn't sit back and wait. After he made it there, he was very aggressive. He was talented . . . and fancy!

Q: You were grown when you finally met Jackie Robinson. What was your reaction?

A: It was like I was still that little 12-year-old kid. I was trembling like a little kid and I was 39 years old! I was nervous, man. . . . But I walked up to him and said, "Mr. Robinson, thank you for what you had to do for us." I just went off."

Q: What was your reaction on Oct. 24, 1972, when you heard that Robinson had died?

A: It was like boom! Like somebody tore my guts out. I cried like a little baby. All that was flashing through my mind was, "Why, God? Why does this man who has endured all that he did, why did he have to go so young?"

And this is no joke, the inspiration for [Charles' poem] "Jackie Robinson - Superstar" came, like somebody was directing me to write right after he died. It just flowed out.

Q: Can you compare Robinson to other athletes of his era?

A: We used to hug the radio when Joe Lewis was fighting. But no athlete at the time made a contribution like Jackie.

He brought the whole country up to another level, the radical part and stuff like. He impacted the way America does business. He started the whole civil rights movement. He was the front-runner before Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and all of them.

Q: Was there a time that Robinson, Branch Rickey and the integration of the game seem forgotten?

A: You are talking about the '60s. At that point in time, they had kind of gotten used to things. There were a lot of blacks in the game. Occasionally you would have a little recognition but not to the point that it is today. All of a sudden it's like baseball discovered that we needed to focus on this man and do the right thing.

Q: Do you recall the time when Robinson actually seemed to fall out of favor with some blacks?

A: In the '60s. I couldn't understand why there was a lot of hostile feelings toward Jackie among blacks coming from the political arena. They didn't like the fact that he was a Republican. I was like, give me a break! But that's a fact.

Q: What do you think Jackie Robinson would say if he saw baseball struggling to get young black men to play the game?

A: He would definitely be disappointed. But then again I think he would understand what's taking place and would bring it to the attention to the parents. A lot of kids aren't playing because they don't have playing fields. Jackie would work toward trying to get blacks back in the game.

Q: What would you say about some young African Americans not even knowing about Robinson and his contributions?

A: They don't know because they are not being taught. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing. Schools are focusing more on global history than they are American history. You got people here that don't know any American history, any black history or nothing else.

In Memory of Jackie Robinson

This poem was written by former major-league player Ed Charles on Oct. 24, 1972, the day that Jackie Robinson died.

Jackie Robinson - Superstar

He accepted the challenge and played the game

with a passion that few men possessed.

He stood tall in the face of society's shame

with a talent that God had blessed.

He banged out hits and aroused the fans

with his daring base-running skills.

This great, great player and proud black man

Many bigots did threaten to kill.

But he continued to pursue the impossible dream

with an intensity that at times was most startling.

He hissed at obstacles and tormented the opposing teams

to the delight of his vast, vast following.

He was a "spirit aflamed" though preordained

by God and destiny it seemed.

To shoulder the burdens of a race contained

and lift them to lofty esteem.

He ripped up the sod along the base lines

for the likes of you and me.

This man from Georgia courageously assisted

in the dawning of a new era for thee.

Yes, he made his mark for all to see

as he struggled determinately for dignity.

And the world is grateful for the legacy

that he left for all humanity.

Thanks, Jackie, whereever you are.

You will always be our first "superstar."

For history shall record and eternally proclaim

your great deeds in its Hall of Fame.

So go now and rest for a while

for again you shall come a "spirit aflamed"

in the bosom of another black child

that God and destiny shall name.

Contact staff writer Keith Pompey at 610-313-8029 or kpompey@phillynews.com.

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