Claire Smith | Tribute a necessary occasion

Posted: April 16, 2007

The great Yogi Berra once said upon receiving an honor, "Thanks for making this necessary."

Yesterday, Jackie Robinson was honored by Major League Baseball as it said thank you. Not just to a brave pioneer, but to all those who 60 years ago combined like minds and an uncommon courage to help expunge Jim Crow from their playing fields.

Jackie and Rachel Robinson and an equally magnificent supporting cast gave this nation a peek at what was possible and helped start another, more transcendent, revolution called the Civil Rights era.

So, thank you, Branch Rickey for making yesterday a necessary occasion in which major-league players wore No. 42 just as Jackie Robinson did on April 15, 1947, when he debuted with your Brooklyn Dodgers. The Phillies and Astros, to a man, would have been among them were it not for the rains that washed away their game.

Not only did you defy many of your fellow club executives by bringing a black man to the majors, Mr. Rickey, you defied an era.

"Our country, our culture, sadly, was way back in the dark ages in 1947," reminded Branch Rickey III, president of the Pacific Coast League and grandson of the late Dodgers general manager.

"Our cultural misunderstandings and our prejudices were so much more extreme then, and civil rights was not even a phrase," he continued. "The idea of a black breaking into baseball was going to be opposed broadly.

"It was going to be a question of whether my grandfather could survive with his reputation intact."

Rickey, history shows, did survive. It also strongly suggests that neither Rickey nor Robinson could have done so alone.

Fortunately, they did not have to.

So, thank you, too, Happy Chandler, because when some players threatened a boycott if Robinson played, you, then the commissioner of baseball, threatened to show the conspirators the door. Even more ominously, you vowed to close it to them forever.

Boycott, dead on arrival.

Stan Musial? As the centerpiece of the 1947 St. Louis Cardinals, you let one of the game's more rebellious clubs know that you would play because integration was not somethingthat you - Stan the Man - would stoop to try to stop.

Then there was you, Bill Veeck, the Cleveland Indians owner who integrated the American League on July 5, 1947, by purchasing the contract of the talented Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles.

Like Branch Rickey, you proved time and again that your brilliant baseball mind was not limited to marketing and promotion advances - though the exploding scoreboard does remain a marvel.

Your plot to buy the Phillies in 1942 and fill the roster with the Negro Leagues all-stars may have been foiled by then-commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis years before. But no one could stop you from closely following Rickey's lead.

Once done, you, Bill Veeck, knew that the less-heralded Larry Doby was, in many ways, in an even more thankless position than Robinson. For the junior circuit was far more reluctant to integrate than its National League counterpart. And often the only commiseration Larry Doby could find came from family, his friend Jackie Robinson - and you.

You sensed when Larry Doby was at his loneliest and you swooped in, sharing your love of jazz, your enthusiasm - and your vision of what could be.

Other gestures, no matter how small, were also like nectar to the pioneers.

Dodgers shortstop and unquestioned team leader Pee Wee Reese, you quelled palpable unrest in Cincinnati when Robinson made his first appearance there.

The Queen City, after all, considered you, a son of neighboring Kentucky, one of its own, and your presence counted in that gateway to the South. So when you walked over to Robinson during pregame practice and draped an arm around the hectored and shaken rookie's shoulders, you quieted a crowd that bordered on a mob. And the photos of your doing so - transmitted around the world - were etched indelibly in sports history.

Joe Gordon? With one sentence - "Hey kid, want to have a catch?" - you let Larry Doby, your new Indians teammate, know that the daily rituals of a game not only might include him, but would.

Decades later, Larry Doby would get emotional recalling the relief he felt when he heard this one simple, universal baseball paean come from your lips. For, until it did, Larry Doby said he honestly did not know if he'd ever be able to play if he were not even permitted to warm up.

And you, Ted Williams? Your gift in 1947 was a welcoming handshake extended to Larry Doby the first time your Red Sox met his Indians.

Larry Doby, of course, knew of your fame. Who in baseball did not know the Splendid Splinter? But to know that you knew of him - and appreciated his presence - and welcomed him to your league meant the world to Larry Doby.

At that moment, a fellow major-leaguer felt like a peer. And that peer eventually went on to become your fellow Hall of Famer, just as did Stan Musial, Pee Wee Reese, Mr. Rickey, Bill Veeck - and Jackie Robinson.

This was the confluence of talent, goodwill and generosity that made April 15, 1947 and what it launched vital. As vital as yesterday's nationwide celebrations - and thank yous - were necessary.


Contact staff writer Claire Smith

at 215-854-4577 or smithc@phillynews.com. Read her blog at http://diamondinq.blogspot.com.

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