|Just after signing with the Dodgers; an act|
that changed American society
In 1940, Joe Black was a senior at Plainfield High School in northern New Jersey. He was the star of the team, but his dream of playing in the major leagues was crushed one day in the team’s clubhouse. As Black relates:
“My junior year, I hit .357, my senior year I hit .380. And the scouts are signing guys, and nobody said a word to me. My foolish self, I went to a scout and said, “Hey, I’m the best hitter on the team. How come you don’t sign me up?” And he said the dreaded word. He said, “Colored guys don’t play in the big leagues.”
I said, “You’re crazy, man, you seen me playing baseball.” He said, “I didn’t say you can’t play baseball, but they don’t play in the big leagues.”
And they got silent in that clubhouse. I looked at the coach and the kids and I ran all the way home, about two and a half miles to my house from the field house and went up in the attic and I got my scrapbook. Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, Rudy York, Carl Hubbell, Harry Danning, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig – and he was right – there wasn’t a face of color there. And I tore them all up except Greenberg* and just laid in the bed and just cried.”
Joe Black had to play in the Negro Leagues because even though Hall of Fame Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis said in 1943 that, “Each club is entirely free to employ Negro players to any and all extent it desires,” blacks were not allowed in the major leagues. Or even the minors.
But as a rookie in 1952, he helped pitch the Brooklyn Dodgers to the national league pennant. What happened between that shattering 1940 day in the clubhouse and the 1952 World Series? Just one thing: Jackie Robinson happened in 1947. Jackie Robinson changed lives. Joe Black’s life would have been very different had Robinson not smashed through major league baseball’s color barrier. The daily existence of a Negro League ballplayer was very different from that of a white man playing professional baseball. And by ‘different,’ I don’t mean ‘better.’
|Joe Black pitching against the Yankees|
in Game One of the 1952 World Series
Professional sports are full of narcissistic, self-absorbed, shallow, people. I can look to my favorite football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and see several people I don’t want my son to look up to. It’s easy to pick out famous athletes in sports and see a lack of admirable qualities. Heck, the phrase “Manny being Manny” embodies EVERYTHING Jackie Robinson did not represent. But yet again, another team is ready to accept Manny into the clubhouse.
Robinson’s own words are carved on his gravestone, “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.” He was a great ballplayer who lost a couple of early years to society's rampant racism. But he still managed to make it into the Hall of Fame. What he did between the lines, while impressive, is just a small part of Robinson's legacy. No professional athlete had such far reaching impacts, on and off the field, as he did. The term “hero” applies to very few athletes. But Jackie Robinson was one in every sense of the word.
On a side note: Back in 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker played for Toledo in the American Association, which was a major league at the time. He is acknowledged as both the first black man to play major league baseball, and as the last one to do so before Jackie Robinson. Shortly after he left baseball, the de facto segregation of baseball was adopted by the various major and minor leagues and would continue until Robinson played at AAA Montreal in 1946.
|Moses Fleetwood Walker|
Thus, Robinson is recognized for breaking the color barrier, though Walker deserves mention.
*I wonder why Black kept Hank Greenberg's picture when he destroyed the others? A Hall of Fame slugger for the Tigers, the Jewish Greenberg had endured horrible insults and prejudice in the major leagues. Many believe of all the players who came before Robinson, Greenberg was subjected to the most racial abuse.
In 1947, the two men collided on a play at first base (Greenberg was with the Pirates by then). The next time Robinson reached first, Greenberg said, "I forgot to ask if you were hurt on that play." Robinson said that he was fine and Greenberg rplied, "Stick in there. You're doing fine. Keep your chin up."
Such a simple gesture, but a giant one in its context. Robinson called Greenberg his "diamond hero," and said, "Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg."
Robinson always remembered that kindness given in a season with very few of them.