Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Jackie Robinson Day

Sixty three years ago today, the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their season by hosting the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. When the local nine took the diamond in the top of the first, they had a rookie, the reigning International League MVP, manning first base. That man was Jackie Robinson, and he was the first African American to appear in a Major League game since the 1880s.

Today, Major League Baseball will observe Jackie Robinson Day, commemorating the anniversary of Robinson's debut. Robinson will be remembered not just because he was the first, but because of the grace and dignity with which he carried himself during Branch Rickey's great experiment. He laid a firm foundation for those who followed, and assured once and for all that baseball's long-standing gentleman's agreement would be finally cast aside.

Three months after Robinson debuted, Larry Doby broke the American League's color line, when he debuted with the Cleveland Indians. Robinson's Dodgers won the NL Pennant in '47, but lost to the Yankees in the Fall Classic. The following year, Doby's Indians, fortified by 41 year old rookie and Negro League legend Satchel Paige, beat out the Yankees and Red Sox in a three team pennant race, and went on to capture the World Series.

Quickly, most Major League clubs followed suit. In 1948 the Dodgers added Roy Campanella and in 1949, Don Newcombe, both key cogs on five pennant winners. Over in Upper Manhattan, the Giants brought on Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson in 1949, and Willie Mays in '51.

But New York's other club was slow to change. The Yankees won the World Series, their seventh in twelve years, when Robinson debuted in 1947. After being usurped by Doby, Paige, and the Indians in '48, the Yankees went on an unprecedented, and as of yet unmatched, run of five consecutive World Series championships from '49 through '53, ousting the Dodgers in '49, '52, and '53, and the Giants in '51. The Yankees may have been slow to react to the changing times, but it was hard to argue with the results.

However, their extended run of success may not have been the only reason the Yankees were hesitant to change. It's been widely reported that George Weiss, the club's Hall of Fame general manager during that era, was a racist. According to Peter Golenbock's Dynasty, a socially lubricated Weiss once said at a cocktail party "I will never allow a black man to wear a Yankee uniform. Boxholders from Westchester don't want that sort of crowd. They would be offended to have to sit with [redacted]".

Weiss' stance cost the Yankees the opportunity to sign some incredibly talented Negro Leaguers, including Willie Mays. Instead they opted to sign lesser talent who would populate their farm system, but had little real chance of making the Major League club. But as long as the Yankees kept winning, Weiss had a plausible defense.

In 1954 the Yankees won 103 games, their highest total since 1942. It was only good for second place. Cleveland, with Larry Doby in the heart of their lineup and patrolling center field, finished at 111-43, a whopping eight games ahead of the Yanks. They would eventually fall to Mays, Irvin, Thompson, and the Giants in the World Series.

With the Yankees dynastic run of five consecutive championships at an end, they could no longer hide behind the excuse that they were good enough to win without African American players. The club was under pressure - from pickets at the Stadium to allegations leveled by Robinson himself. The Yankees had traded away their best African American minor leaguer, Vic Power, at the conclusion of the 1953 season. But they had another viable prospect waiting in the wings.

On April 14, 1955, fifty five years ago yesterday and one day short of the eighth anniversary of Robinson's debut, Elston Howard became the first African American to play for the New York Yankees, making them the fourth to last club to integrate. Like Robinson, Howard was the reigning International League MVP at the time of his debut. Like Robinson, Howard had the proper character to carry the burden of being the first Yankee to break the color line; his plaque in Monument Park aptly describes him as "a man of great gentleness and dignity".

Though blocked behind the plate by Yogi Berra, Howard was a valuable contributor to the Yankees as a back up catcher, and spent some time outfielder and fist baseman. By 1960, with Berra aging, Howard took over as the primary catcher. In 1963, he earned the American League MVP, becoming the first African American to do so.

After twelve and a half productive seasons with the Yankees, Howard spent the final year and a half of his career with the Red Sox. Upon his retirement, he immediately returned to the Bronx as a coach. He served on the staffs of four different managers from 1969 through 1979, earning two more World Series rings to compliment the four he captured as a player. Even when the Bronx Zoo was at it worst during those years, Howard remained a calming presence, perhaps best illustrated by his role as a peacemaker when Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson nearly came to blows in the Fenway Park dugout during the summer of '77.

Despite the turmoil and turnover that marked the Yankees of that era, Howard was a constant. Coaches and managers came and went, but Howard remained. There was a good chance that he would eventually become the first African American manager of the Yankees. Instead, Howard fell ill with myocarditis, a rare heart disease. It kept him out of the Yankee dugout for the entire 1980 season, and eventually took his life that December. The Yankees retired his number and dedicated his Monument Park plaque in 1984.

Major League Baseball owes a debt of gratitude to the likes of Rickey, Robinson, Doby, Paige, Campanella, Newcombe, Irvin, Thompson, Mays, Howard, and all the other men who were strong enough to change the game's bigoted practices. At the risk going all Ken Burns/George Will here, baseball has long been an integral part of the fabric American life, and the changes that these men precipitated within the game foretold, and perhaps even influenced, the changes that would take place in society at large over the following decades.

It's a shame that the Mets, with their Brooklyn Dodgers obsession and Jackie Robinson Rotunda, are not home today to commemorate Jackie Robinson Day. But all 30 clubs will mark the day in one way or another. Mariano Rivera remains the final grandfathered player in baseball to wear #42, retired league wide by Bud Selig in 1997 in marking the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson's debut. In years past, Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, and Robinson Cano - named for Jackie Robinson and who switched to #24 three years ago to honor him - have joined Mo in donning Robinson's number for the day. I'm sure we'll see them and others rightly pay tribute him in that manner again today.


  1. Great piece, Matt. Too few fans know or care to know the history.

  2. Thanks JMK. Jackie Robinson is rightly honored this day each year. But I'm a little uncomfortable with the way MLB exalts Jackie Robinson above all others. Yes he was the first, and yes he likely had to deal with more abuse than those who followed him.

    That said though, ignoring what Doby and the others experienced is short-sighted and discounts their contributions to the game. Every man who was the first to break the color line for his team walked the same steps Jackie Robinson did. Not that MLB should have days for each person, but they should do a better job of recognizing that integration only started with Robinson, it didn't end there.

    In 2007 the Cleveland Indians, thanks in no small part to CC Sabathia, honored Larry Doby by donning his #14 for a game against the Yankees

    In writing this last night, and noticing the proximity of the dates of both Robinson's and Howard's debuts, I thought it'd be great to see the Yankees honor Elston Howard in that way one year.

  3. It is writing like this that keeps me reading...that and the vulgarity! Awesome post!

  4. Sixty-three years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, it’s disappointing to see most African-American kids opt to play football or basketball. I’d like to see cities and towns across the United States do more to encourage them to think about playing baseball.