Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers: The Inside Story

This article and other features about baseball can be found in the Post’s Special Collector’s Edition, Baseball: The Glory Years. This edition can be ordered here. 

*Editor’s note: We’re presenting this 1950 article with only minor cuts for length. For accuracy, we chose not to change certain words that might be unacceptable in a contemporary piece, but were in common use at the time.

Now that Jackie Robinson is one of the established stars of baseball, and Negro players are becoming commonplace in the major leagues, it is hard to realize that there was such a storm over the entrance of this pioneering player into organized baseball four seasons ago.

In fact, the general public never did realize just how violent a storm it was. Jackie Robinson came into the Brooklyn organization over the expressed opposition of much of base- ball’s top brass. There were official prophecies of rioting and bloodshed. And various ballplayers engaged in undercover protest movements. Some of this got into print, but much of it never went beyond the inner councils of the Brooklyn club. I served as assistant to Dodger President Branch Rickey during much of this period, and I feel that the full story should be told, not only for the enlightenment of the Brooklyn club in the days of heavy credit financing. He was consulted not only as a banker but as a former New York City police commissioner, a civic leader and a man with a deep knowledge of social affairs.

“We are going to beat the bushes, and we will take whatever comes out,” Rickey said, with a twinkle in his eye. “And that might include a Negro player or two.”

The banker eyed the baseball man for an instant, and then emitted a characteristic grunt. “I don’t see why not,” he said. “You might come up with something.”

After this, Rickey tested the various stockholders and board members of the Dodgers. This was the first step in a carefully drawn plan for tapping the ignored talent pool of Negro baseball players. Despite subsequent hue and cry to the contrary, this was not a long-range sociological scheme. The motivating force was and always had been better baseball players. Naturally, Rickey was conscious of the sociological importance of the move. But he had watched Negro athletes come to the front in sports like boxing and track and field. He simply felt that if they could be great athletes in other sports, why not in baseball?

By the middle of 1944 he had a fair idea of what Negro talent was available in the Caribbean countries, Central and South America, and Mexico. He was now scrutinizing the so-called Negro Leagues in the United States. He soon concluded that they were not leagues in the recognized sense of the word. The teams played an inconsistent number of ball games in league competition; those with the better rosters would play between 40 and 45 league games a year, while the poorer teams had as few as 25. The Negro teams played as many as 10 and 12 exhibition games each week — sometimes three in a single day. They did not have uniform player contracts. In fact, there were no contracts at all, except for a few box-office stars like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

Many big-league baseball clubs were profiting from Negro baseball. They rented their baseball parks to the booking agents for big Negro games at a guaranteed per-game minimum of $1,000, with the option of taking 25 percent of the gross receipts. Since the booking agents exacted an additional 15 percent of the top, the Negro teams were left with only 60 percent of the gross. Little wonder that they had to engage in those marathon schedules of exhibition games.

Not even Rickey’s trusted scouts knew at this time that he had any intention of bucking the color line. They were further thrown of the track in 1945 when, after the German surrender, Rickey spearheaded a move to form the United States League, a new Negro organization which was to have teams in key cities, including Brooklyn. For himself or for the Ebbets Field owners, he reserved a franchise and formulated plans for the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. Brooklyn scouts George Sisler, Wid Matthews, and Clyde Sukeforth turned in many reports on colored candidates, but with the understanding and assumption that they were scouting for the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers.

Meanwhile big-league club owners in general had become most conscious of the Negro question. At a joint meeting of the two leagues in Cleveland in the spring of 1945, a four-man board was proposed to make a thorough study and prepare a report. Larry MacPhail was selected from the American League and Branch Rickey from the National League. They were to choose two outstanding Negro figures to collaborate on the study and report.

This was a period when there was acute awareness of the Negro question everywhere, particularly among politicians. New York State expressed itself through the Ives-Quinn Law, a nondiscrimination project sponsored by Governor Dewey. In New York City, Mayor La Guardia formed the Anti-Discrimination Committee. Councilman Ben Davis, who was one of the 11 communists sentenced last fall by Judge Medina, was up for re-election in 1945 and made a special appeal to sports-minded voters. He issued a lurid but effective pamphlet showing two Negroes on the cover. One was a dead soldier lying in the leaves, obviously in Europe; the other pictured figure was a Negro baseball player. The caption read, “Good enough to die for his country, but not good enough for organized baseball!” Mayor La Guardia made a special appeal to baseball leaders and asked that the Rickey- MacPhail four-man committee for study be replaced by a 10-man panel to serve as subcommittee to the Mayor’s Anti-Discrimination Committee. Rickey and MacPhail had not yet selected the two outstanding Negro leaders to complete their panel, so they agreed to abandon the plan and become part of the mayor’s subcommittee.

Rickey now decided that the time had come to accelerate his own Negro program. He combed his numerous reports on Negro prospects for a ballplayer who would meet the primary conditions of his plan — a Negro ballplayer who would measure up both on and of the field. Two very strong reports had been turned in on the late Josh Gibson, the veteran catcher who had hit so many amazing home runs in Negro games played in the Washington Senators’ ball park. But he was decidedly a veteran, and the reports on his activities of the field were not encouraging. Another prospect was a giant of a youth named “Piper” Davis, an in elder with the Birmingham Black Barons. His speed and throwing arm were good, but his hitting did not have high promise. The ancient pitcher, Satchel Paige, was never considered as a candidate.

All in all, the best prospect seemed to be a shortstop on the Kansas City Monarchs by the name of Robinson. A Sisler report declared unequivocally that he could run exceptionally well; that he had a slightly better-than-average arm, although not a good one, and that he had tremendous possibilities as a hitter. Sisler also expressed the belief that Robinson’s ultimate position would be on the side of the in field that required the shorter throw, the first-base side. Matthews’ report stressed Robinson as a hitter with a high potentiality, who protected the strike zone better than any rookie Matthews had ever seen. He concurred with Sisler that Robinson was very fast, and he also agreed, much to Branch Rickey’s dismay, that the boy might not have a strong arm. Throwing is the No. 2 factor in the Rickey scouting system, which has three chief yardsticks: Can he run? Can he throw? Can he hit with power? Despite the reservations about his throwing, Robinson was Rickey’s choice. And so a third scout, Clyde Sukeforth, was dispatched with orders to “ bring him in!”

Robinson’s expressed reaction to the first approach by Sukeforth — made in Chicago in late August of 1945 — was one of acute distrust. It seems that many impractical jokers had made a point of representing themselves among colored players as big-league baseball scouts. And several Negroes had made unrewarding trips to big-league training camps for what they believed were bona de tryouts. Branch Rickey had entertained a pair of them at the Dodgers’ Bear Moun- tain training camp during March of that year. Three Negro players had managed tryouts with the Boston Red Sox in the spring of 1945, but this was tied to a Sunday-baseball bill before the Massachusetts legislature. A legislator swapped his Sunday-baseball vote in Boston for a condition relating to compulsory tryouts for Negroes. An enterprising colored newspaperman, Wendell Smith, heard about it and wrote for a trial with the Red Sox in behalf of three colored players.

On April 16, 1945, the Negroes worked out with the Sox at Fenway Park. Hughie Duffy, a former great out elder, supervised the trial and pronounced it “all right.” Nothing was ever heard from the triumph. It is interesting at this point to note the identity of the three players. They were Marvin Williams, 20 years old, a second baseman from Philadelphia; Sam Jethroe, 26, of Erie, Pennsylvania; and Jackie Robinson, 26, of Pasadena, California. It is of further note that today Robinson’s contract is virtually beyond price, while the contract of Jethroe was purchased from the Dodgers’ organization last fall by the Boston Braves for a sum in excess of $150,000. Only Williams never made the big time.

So it was hardly surprising that Jackie Robinson was skeptical when Clyde Sukeforth first approached him in Chicago. There was skepticism on Sukeforth’s side too. Jackie had just injured that questionable throwing arm, tumbling headlong on his shoulder during a game. But Sukeforth felt that Robinson was good enough to bring in. He had checked well in all departments, particularly of the field.

Robinson had a good American-boy background — poor parents, working his way through school, tremendous athletic achievement, college experience at UCLA, Army service with an honorable discharge as a lieutenant in the cavalry, professional-football experience, track and field achievements, and a record as one of the great basketball stars on the Pacific Coast.

Jackie Robinson, accompanied by Clyde Sukeforth, appeared in Branch Rickey’s office in Brooklyn on the afternoon of August 29, 1945. Rickey rose from his chair behind the mahogany desk as they entered. He came out from behind the desk, held out his hand and said, “Hello, Jackie.”

Robinson was wary. He had heard a lot about Rickey, and much of it was unflattering. What did the man want? What, if anything, would he give in return? Finally, Rickey spoke.

“Do you have a girl, Jackie?” he asked unexpectedly.

Robinson opened his mouth to answer, but the words wouldn’t emerge. Finally he said, “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Rickey retorted.

“Well,” Robinson stammered, “the way I’ve been traveling around the country and not writing as I should — well, I don’t know if I have a girl or not.”

“Of course you have a girl,” Rickey scoffed, “and you need one. You ought to marry her quick as you can. But sit down. Make yourself comfortable. We have a lot of things to talk about, and we’ve got plenty of time to do it.”

With that, Robinson settled into an overstuffed leather chair that somehow failed to relieve his uneasiness.

“Are you under contract to the Kansas City Monarchs?” Rickey challenged.

“No, sir,” Robinson replied. “We don’t have contracts.”

Rickey nodded and his bushy brows mashed into a scowl. He toyed with his ever-present cigar, trying to find the right words for the beginning.

“Do you know why you were brought here?” he asked suddenly.

Robinson’s head moved from side to side. “Not exactly,” he murmured. “I heard something about a colored ball team at Ebbets Field. That it?”

“No. at isn’t it. You were brought here, Jackie, to play for the Brooklyn organization. Perhaps on Montreal to start with, and — ”

“Me? Play for Montreal?” the player gasped.

Rickey nodded. “If you can make it, yes. Later on — also if you can make it — you’ll have a chance with the Brooklyn Dodgers.”

Robinson could only nod at this point.

“I want to win pennants and we need ballplayers!” Rickey whacked the desk for emphasis. “Do you think you can do it? Make good in organized baseball?”

“If — if I got the chance,” Robinson stammered.

“There’s more here than just playing,” Rickey warned. “I wish it meant only hits, runs, and errors — things you can see in a box score. You know, Jackie,” he mused, “ a baseball box score is really a democratic thing. It doesn’t say how big you are, or how your father voted in the last election, or what church you attend. It just tells what kind of a ballplayer you were that day.”

“Isn’t that what counts?” the player ventured.

“It’s all that ought to count! Maybe someday it’s all that will count. That’s one of the reasons why you’re here, Jackie. If you’re a good enough ballplayer, we can make a start in the right direction. But it will take a lot of courage.”

“Yeah,” Robinson whispered. “It sure will.”

Sukeforth said, “It might take more courage for the Brooklyn management than for you, Jackie. Have you thought of that?”

Robinson shrugged. “I haven’t thought of anything. It’s all so sudden. It kinda hits me between the eyes.”

Rickey turned to Sukeforth. “Do you think he can take it, Clyde?”

“He can run. He can field. He can hit,” the scout said.

“But can he take it?”

“That I don’t know.”

Then began an extraordinary scene. Rickey leaned close to Jackie and spoke with a crescendo of feeling. “You think you’ve got the guts to play the game, no matter what happens? They’ll throw at your head!”

“Mr. Rickey,” Robinson said bitterly, “they’ve been throwing at my head for a long time.”

Rickey’s voice rose, “Suppose I’m a player in the heat of an important ball game!” He drew back and prepared to charge at the Negro. “Suppose I collide with you at second base! When I get up, I yell, ‘You dirty black —’” He finished the excoriation, and then said calmly, “What do you do?”

Robinson blinked. He licked his lips and swallowed. “Mr. Rickey,” he puzzled, “do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back?”

“I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back!” Rickey exclaimed almost savagely. He paced across the floor again and returned. “You’ve got to do this job with base hits and stolen bases and fielding ground balls, Jackie. Nothing else!”

He moved behind his big desk again and faced the cornered Robinson. He posed as a cynical clerk in a Southern hotel who not only refused sanctuary but handed out invective. What would Robinson do? He posed as a prejudiced sports writer, ordered to turn in a twisted story. How would Robinson answer the sports writer? He ordered the player from imaginary dining rooms. He jostled him in imaginary hotel lobbies, railroad stations.

“Now I’m playing against you in the World Series!” Rickey stormed, and removed his jacket for greater freedom. “I’m a hotheaded player. I want to win that game, so I go into you, spikes first. But you don’t give ground. You stand there and you jab the ball into my ribs and the umpire yells, ‘Out!’ I are — all I see is your face — that black face right on top of me. So I haul off and I punch you right in the cheek!”

An oversized white st swung through the air and barely missed Robinson’s sweating face. The dark eyes blinked, but the head didn’t move.

“What do you do?” Rickey roared.

The heavy lips trembled for an instant, and then opened. “Mr. Rickey,” he whispered, “I’ve got two cheeks — is that it?”

Rickey nodded and blinked away the mist from his eyes.

There were still many details to talk about. They’d be busy for another couple of hours. But Rickey already had a deep conviction that this boy would be the right man both on and off the field. When Robinson left Rickey’s office, after three of the most amazing hours that he had ever experienced, he had agreed to accept a bonus of $3,500 and a salary of $600 a month, and had agreed to sign a Montreal contract if and when it was proffered to him for signature. And Rickey had promised that it would be offered before December 1, 1945. The salary of $600 per month was $100 more per month than he was receiving for playing with the Kansas City Monarchs.

Although Rickey planned to consummate the deal by December 1, he hoped to keep it quiet until after the first of the year and use it as fodder for the baseball writers. But events were to force his hand. First, there was that baseball subcommittee of the mayor’s Anti-Discrimination Committee, on which Rickey and the Yankees’ Larry MacPhail represented organized baseball. MacPhail was satisfied with the status quo in Negro baseball, whereas Rickey had the outstanding Negro player already in his hip pocket.

Until Robinson was actually signed, Rickey could hardly expose his secret, which had already cost his organization $25,000 in scouting expense. Yet he could scarcely take an active part in the deliberations and suffer the compromise that would result from sitting quietly by and letting MacPhail build up an enormous argument for helping Negro baseball by the simple process of letting it alone. Presently Rickey solved the situation as it grew hotter by resigning from the mayor’s subcommittee.

This resignation did not deter MacPhail in his avowed plan to get out a report of some kind, so long as it favored doing little or nothing about the Negro baseball situation. And so, without the authority of the subcommittee as a whole, MacPhail issued a premature report which challenged the Negro Leagues to “get their house in order” and then apply for admission to organized baseball.

Several members of the subcommittee not only failed to concur but openly denounced the premature report. A sports-writer member, Arthur Daley, of e New York Times, was particularly resentful.

But this was only one phase of a furor which seemed to heighten as the November Election Day moved closer. Governor Dewey’s Ives-Quinn Law Commission of five descended upon New York City in late September and summarily called upon the three presidents of the major-league baseball clubs operating in New York City to sign a pledge that they would not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or creed in the hiring or firing of employees within the confines of the Empire State.

For once, Larry MacPhail’s explosive nature was beaten to the fuse. It was the Giants’ Horace Stoneham who hit the ceiling first. He was an emphatic spokesman for the three clubs in denouncing the Albany committee, individually and collectively, for daring to try such coercive tactics. The Ives-Quinn Commission members returned to Governor Dewey without signed ammunition for the coming election.

Then Mayor La Guardia undertook to force the issue. Apparently he had a tip on the Robinson deal. Whether or no, in mid-October the mayor made a specific request of Rickey to let him, La Guardia, announce over his radio program that “baseball would shortly begin signing Negro players, and that it was the direct result of the Mayor’s Committee on Anti-Discrimination.” He assumed that the favor would be granted without further discussion.

However, Branch Rickey wasn’t having any of this. He sent word back to the mayor that he would like another week. Rickey then wired Robinson to proceed east and fly directly to Montreal, far from the New York political arena. There, on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 23, 1945, Jackie Robinson signed a contract to play for the Montreal Royals.

The first official protest against the signing was registered before midnight. It came from T.Y. Baird, white co-owner of the Kansas City Monarchs. In an Associated Press dispatch he declared that he would appeal to the new baseball commissioner, A.B. Chandler. He was quoted as saying, “Robinson signed a contract with us last year and I feel that he is our property. If Chandler lets Montreal and Brooklyn get by with that, he is really starting a mess.”

Three days later, however, Baird wired Rickey that he had been “misquoted and misinterpreted,” and “would not do anything to hamper or impede the advancement of any Negro ballplayer.”

Meanwhile from distant points came hastily arranged comments which are interesting to review at this time.

The late W.G. Bramham, commissioner of minor-league baseball, contributed the following: “Father Divine will have to look to his laurels, for we can expect Rickey Temple to be in the course of construction in Harlem soon.”

Bramham augmented this glib remark two days later with a more sober expostulation — to wit, “It is those of the carpet-bagger stripe of the white race, under the guise of helping, but in truth using the Negro for their own selfish ends, who retard the race. It is my opinion that if the Negro is left alone and aided by his own unselfish friends of the white race, he will work out his own salvation in all lines of endeavor.”

Bob Feller, of the Cleveland Indians, having pitched three times to Jackie Robinson in an exhibition game, felt qualified to o er the following critique: “ Good field — no hit. Sucker for an inside pitch.” A few days later Feller enlarged with, “Jackie will be in a tough spot. I’m not prejudiced against him, either. I hope he makes good, but, frankly, I don’t think he will.”

Rogers Hornsby, one of baseball’s immortals, when questioned, said, “The way things are, it will be tough for a Negro player to become part of a close-knit group such as an organized ball club. I think Branch Rickey was wrong in signing Robinson to play with Montreal and that it won’t work out.”

From Birmingham, Alabama, came a crisp comment from Brooklyn’s most popular player, Dixie Walker, “As long as he isn’t with the Dodgers, I’m not worried.”

Virtually all newspaper opinion and interpretation was favorable to the idea of bringing a Negro into organized ball. But nobody seemed to take Rickey’s action at its face value. It was variously called the result of political pressure, a box-office novelty, a post-war publicity stunt. There was great surprise some weeks later when Rickey announced the signing of four more Negro baseball players: John Wright, a pitcher; Don Newcombe, a pitcher; Roy Campanella, a catcher; and Roy Partlow, a left-handed pitcher.

Rickey took quite a beating that first winter from some of the sports-page critics. His motives, his sincerity, his integrity, and even his methods were attacked. His repetitious insistence that he was after good ballplayers and believed he had them was ridiculed.

But the big test was not the printed word. Rickey felt that the great problem would come at Daytona Beach and other Florida towns where Brooklyn and Montreal were scheduled to play during the 1946 training season. All municipal regulations relating to permission or prohibition in the matter of colored athletes were examined. Neither Brooklyn nor Montreal was to violate any existing codes of conduct. Rickey dispatched his then presidential assistant, Bob Finch, to Daytona Beach shortly after the first of the year for the purpose of locating Robinson and his bride, Rachel Isum, and the second Negro with the Montreal team, pitcher John Wright.

Finch arranged to have the Robinsons and Wright quartered at the home of E.B. Brock, a well-to-do Florida Negro. The two players were to don uniforms at the house.

Not the least of Rickey’s concerns was his Montreal manager, Clay Hopper, a respected citizen of Greenwood, Mississippi. Hopper had been lifted by Rickey from Class B management and installed in Triple-A company at Montreal. Hopper had shown unusual skill in developing high-classification minor-league rookies.

Hopper had taken the news of Robinson’s signing with discreet and stoical silence. Now, at Sanford and Daytona Beach, he viewed the player for the first time. Not even Branch Rickey realized the depth of the problem to Clay Hopper. His unruffled demeanor gave no hint of the turmoil that must have tried his Southern soul. There is no record of bad manners or outward sign of antipathy toward Robinson or Wright.

Not until the man from Mississippi was seated next to Rickey one day during a game at Daytona Beach did Hopper weaken. They were watching Robinson star in an intrasquad contest, and Hopper had felt Rickey’s enthusiastic elbow several times in his ribs as Robinson went far afield for ground balls. The fourth and hardest jab punctuated a near-fantastic fielding gem by the Negro. “No other human being could have made that play!” Rickey exulted.

Hopper whirled about and grabbed Rickey’s coat lapels in his clenched fists. With his narrowed eyes close to Rickey’s, he exclaimed with deepest emotion, “Mistuh Rickey, do you think he is a human bein’?”

—“The Truth About the Jackie Robinson Case” by Arthur Mann, May 13, 1950