An earth-shaking event in baseball was once again brought to the silver screen this past weekend to chronicle the breaking of the color barrier when Jack Roosevelt Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
The movie drew big crowds to box offices across America.
I didn’t have to see the movie because I lived the time when it happened. More importantly, I not only knew but was a close friend of the two Kentuckians who made it happen and put down a planned revolt by the Dodgers players to keep him out of the Major Leagues.
Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler, a two-time governor of Kentucky and also a U.S. Senator, was the baseball commissioner who gave the go-ahead to the Dodgers to sign Robinson.
“I didn’t want St. Peter to ask me why I had banned him from baseball,” Happy explained.
Because Happy had gone against the owners’ wishes to keep the game lily white, the owners ended his contract. He was known as “the players’ commissioner” because he supported a pension plan for the players. That also didn’t go over with the owners.
After Jackie joined the Dodgers, a majority of the team voted to strike and refuse to play with him – until another Kentuckian stepped up to convince his teammates to drop their attitudes toward Jackie. He was Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, the team captain, and the most decent of men.
His Dodger teammates thought so much of Pee Wee that they forgot about an uprising.
Pee Wee was a native of little Ekron in Meade County and a graduate of duPont Manual High School in Louisville, where he starred in baseball and later with the Louisville Colonels in the American Association. “The Little Colonel” played 16 years with the Dodgers, the last in Los Angeles. He is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Pee Wee is also credited with another famous event at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field when redneck fans were on Jackie mercilessly.
He stopped what could have been a riot when he walked up to Jackie and put an arm over his teammate’s shoulder. That silenced the crowd. That’s how much respect fans had for Pee Wee Reese.
I spent my summers in Cincinnati during the time of Jackie’s arrival. Crosley Field was among the smallest stadiums in the Major Leagues. Thousands of black fans from the South booked excursion trains from New Orleans, Birmingham and Atlanta.
The first thing I did when I got to Cincinnati was head to 307 Vine St., the Reds’ downtown ticket office. I got tickets in my favorite section, second deck, first section past first base. Every other fan in my section was black. You can imagine how proud they were of Jackie.
To find seats for the thousands of fans, the Reds put about 10 rows of chairs around the outfield wall, and in foul territory from third base and first base. That made for a lot of ground-rule doubles, but no one complained. They were there to see Jackie and didn’t care what else was on the field.
I saw my first game at Crosley Field in 1939, and to this day, I have never seen anything to match the Jackie Robinson days.
He played himself in the first movie made of his life. I saw it and I can assure you that he was a much better player than an actor.
Historian Ken Burns said Sunday that he will make still another “Jackie Robinson Story” in about two years.
Robinson was a fine athlete in much more than just baseball. He was a UCLA graduate and played football, basketball and track in addition to baseball. He served as an officer in the U.S. Army during World War II.
When Pee Wee died, his funeral was held at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville’s East End. As the crowd was leaving the church, someone told Pee Wee’s wife, Dottie, that Rachel, Jackie’s wife, was in a nearby car. The two widows embraced. Rachel never forgot Pee Wee’s support and kindness. She was a beautiful woman then and she still is at 90.
The current movie is titled “42,” Jackie’s uniform number. Only one Major League player is allowed to wear Jackie’s 42: Yankee relief pitcher Mario Rivera, who first wore the number in 1995, two years before its league-wide retirement in honor of Jackie.
Following the Yankee’s retirement after this season, no one will ever wear 42 again, except one day each season all Major League players will wear 42 in his honor (they did it Monday of this week).
This may surprise you, but color once again is a problem for baseball: Baseball is hurting for African-Americans! So few are now playing the game that Major League Baseball is struggling to come up with ideas on how black kids can be lured to baseball.
The problem is that most youngsters now want to be LeBron James or a National Football League star.
There are now more Latin players in baseball than African-Americans.
But another great prospect (from Lexington Catholic High), Ben Revere, is on his way. He made some Willie Mays-quality catches in Philadelphia’s center field against the Reds Monday night.