Grace Under Pressure: Jackie Robinson

If we only thought of him as an athlete, Jackie Robinson would still deserve our remembering him. He was named baseball’s rookie of the year in 1947. Two years later, with a batting average of .342, and 37 stolen bases to his credit, the National League named him its most valuable player. He played in every All-Star Game between 1949 and 1954, as well as in six World Series.

‘Jackie Robinson’ documentary premieres on PBS
April 11-12, 2016

Below, co-directors Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, discuss their new film Jackie Robinson.

But his greater accomplishment was achieving this under the intense scrutiny and hostility aimed at the first black man in Major League Baseball.

Many Americans opposed the introduction of black players into the league — for 60 years, the sport was played only by white men. And not all the opposition came from fans. The introduction of black players into Major League Baseball provoked a storm of opposition in the upper echelons of the baseball leagues. As Arthur Mann wrote in “The Truth About the Jackie Robinson Case”:

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 baseball’s top brass. There were official prophecies of rioting and bloodshed. Various ballplayers engaged in undercover protest movements.

Mann’s article, appearing in the May 13, 1950, Post, gave readers a unique insight into the drama. He was an assistant to Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who recruited Robinson. Rickey’s idea was to bring Robinson up from a blacks-only team in Missouri to play for Montreal, then—if Robinson looked like he could handle the pressure—to the Dodgers.

The real question was not whether Robinson could play to the Dodgers’ standards, but whether he could handle all the extracurricular pressures—the opposition, taunting, and isolation that would greet the first black player. Rickey sent his manager, Clyde Sukeforth, to set up a preliminary meeting for August 28, 1945.

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 off 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, read considerable 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

“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 quickly. “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. That 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 boxscore 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 kind of 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 him. “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 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 flare — 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 fist 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 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 own eyes.

You don’t have to be a fan of baseball to appreciate what Robinson accomplished. Again and again, through that season and the next, he rose above his own doubts and those of his critics to show what grace under pressure looked like. In his first game as second baseman for Montreal, Robinson appeared before 25,000 people in Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, for his first official contest in organized baseball.

He opened in very humble fashion. In his first time at bat, he swung at a three-and-two pitch and grounded out to short. Then he muffed an early throw for an error on a potential double play, and not only lost both men but permitted a runner on third to score.

But then the fun began. In his second time at bat, with two Royals on base in the third inning, Jackie drove a hall into the left-field bleachers for a home run. In the fifth inning he bunted toward third and beat it out for a hit.

He stole second, went to third on an infield out and so tantalized the Jersey City southpaw, Warren Sandel, that the rookie balked and permitted Robinson to score. Jackie singled cleanly to left in the seventh, stole second and scored on a single. He bunted safely once more in the ninth, went to third on a single, and again so annoyed the pitcher that a balked permitted him to score. Montreal won, 14 to 1. Most of the 25,000 spectators stormed the field after the game, and it took Robinson five minutes to reach the clubhouse.

While this triumph was in the making, Robinson’s bride of a few months, his sweetheart from UCLA days, was wandering through the large crowd, her ears picking up the assorted comments, threats and intimations. She heard enough to frighten the daylights out of her. If this was the sentiment in Jersey City, she thought, what would it be like in Baltimore?

Though his performance on the field in Baltimore was not quite so outstanding, Robinson did have another impressive day. The Baltimore fans didn’t like him at first, and said so with cat-calls and jeering. But his speed afoot and his accurate bat won most of them over, and before the game was ended, they were cheering him loudly.

Occasionally, Robinson learned, to his relief, that he wasn’t the only player with guts.

One barrage was halted in 1947 with amazing suddenness, just as it got into full swing. The whole rival team started on Jackie, his color, his antecedents, his fans and his immediate family. And then out of nowhere came little Wee Reese from the shortstop position. The Kentuckian jogged across the grass and stood talking with the Negro.

“My head was swimming, and I don’t recall what he said,” Jackie declares. “Or even if he said anything. All I know is that the bench just went silent. And stayed silent. I’ll never forget Pee Wee for that.”