“It terrified the both of us,” said Rachel Robinson Sunday on Jackie Robinson Day at Keyspan Park — but her statement had nothing to do with threats against America from foreign enemies.
No, Jackie Robinson’s widow was referring to threats from one American to another, and the man who was threatened, her husband, was a former United States Army officer who had the audacity to believe that he had a right, like any other American who had torn up the Triple-A International League, to play big league baseball.
It was said that Jackie Robinson wasn’t afraid of anything, but that statement was a bit of hyperbole.
Ninety-five mile-per-hour fastballs at one’s head would scare anyone, and things were different in 1947. Although the batting helmet was first used by Negro league shortstop Willie Wells long before, no one in the major leagues wore them in Robinson’s rookie season.
Bravery is not predicated on being unaware of catastrophe, but of having the intelligence to recognize the danger and the courage to act in spite of it. That is what Robinson did, despite an inordinate number of pitches thrown at him because of the color of his skin.
Rachel Robinson was asked if she thought the pitches near Robinson’s head were designed to hit him or scare him. She just politely widened her eyes, in effect saying, “What difference does it make? It’s still frightening.”
In the face of bean balls and runners trying to spike him, Robinson hit .297 and was the National League Rookie-of-the-Year in ’47. But when the Dodgers added intimidating right-hander Don Newcombe in ’49, who “protected” Robinson by going after opposing team’s hitters, Robinson hit .348 and became the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
On Sunday, as Rachel Robinson spoke to reporters in the Keyspan Park Gallery, just outside the window was the sculpture of a turning point in history.
The sculpture commemorates a moment from Robinson’s tumultuous first season when Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers’ white captain, publicly showed his support for his black teammate.
Robinson had recently received death threats. Across the river from Cincinnati was Kentucky, then considered very much a southern state, and the home of Reese.
The Dodgers were in the field, and the abuse directed towards Robinson from the Reds, and from the stands, was enormous.
Although the details are lost to the mists of time, Reese apparently crossed the diamond from his position at shortstop to Robinson, who was playing first base. Reese put his arm around Robinson and offered encouragement, but the gesture, a white player putting his arm around his black teammate, was not only a comfort to Robinson, but important on the national stage, where Robinson had been under enormous strain.
“Pee Wee went over to stand with Jack, not because of anything black and white, but because Pee Wee was his friend,” said Rachel Robinson.
Sixty years after Robinson changed America, Jackie Robinson Day at Keyspan Park featured many in the stands wearing Brooklyn Dodger jerseys and hats, and some fans sporting jerseys with Robinson’s retired number 42.
When Robinson broke in with the Dodgers, no one suspected that 10 years later, the Dodgers would desert Brooklyn. Yet 50 years after that move, the Brooklyn Dodgers are still news, as recent books, articles, and an HBO movie can attest.
Part of that continued interest in the Brooklyn Dodgers is that they transcended baseball. Robinson’s success was the linchpin for other civil rights advances to follow. Indeed, Robinson’s public success may have done more to advance civil rights than any other action in American history.
“He knew that he had to do well,” said Duke Snider in the Baseball Almanac.
“He knew that the future of blacks in baseball depended on it. The pressure was enormous, overwhelming and unbearable at times. I don’t know how he held up. I know I couldn’t have.”
An important reason that Robinson held up was because Rachel Robinson was with him for the entirety of what some called “baseball’s noble experiment.”
And at Keyspan Park on Sunday, this partner in Robinson’s success was still working for success, discussing how the Jackie Robinson Foundation helps students afford college.
Even in death, Jackie Robinson is still changing our society for the better.
Each week, Ed Shakespeare, the bard of Brooklyn baseball, will take a page from his ancient ancestor and add a bit of iambic pentameter to all our lives. This week’s contribution, “The Words the Statue Speaks,” is a poetic tribute to the moment captured on the statue of Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson that stands outside Keyspan Park:
The statue sits outside the ballpark there.
It marks a moment, said to be in May,
Of Reese and Robinson, the Dodger pair.
“Forget ’em, Jack,” said Pee Wee on that day.
In Cincinnati, threats had come to light.
In Jack’s first year, he had to take it all,
Abuse so vile poured down, no chance to fight.
Yet statue shows his hand into a ball.
Said Reese, “Forget ’em, Jack,” except “forget”
The word was stronger, Anglo-Saxon sound.
Not white-to-black, but man-to-man, to let
His teammate know, words simple, not profound.
A watershed, a moment harkens back.
Just players’ words, a friend to teammate Jack.