Is everyone else finished talking about Jackie Robinson? Can I talk now?
I knew Jackie Robinson. I didn't just root for him. I knew him.
Oh yeah. I talked to Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson talked to me. We had a discussion. And I was privy to what he said to his teammates.
It is May, 1949, early in Jackie's best season, the season he'll hit .342 and be the league's MVP. You don't mind if I call him by his first name, do you?
I am 15 years old. My friend, Gary Evans, and I are rabid Brooklyn Dodger fans, even though we live 1741 miles west of Brooklyn down in southwest Kansas.
We are rabid Dodger fans for three good reasons:
(1) We are contrary. Everybody else in town roots for the St. Louis Cardinals. St. Louis is only 651 miles away.
(2) The Dodgers are very witty. They have the wittiest nicknames in baseball: Pee Wee Reese, Dixie Walker, Preacher Roe, Shotgun Shuba, Buckshot Brown, Pistol Pete Reiser, Cookie Lavagetto, Stinky Stanky. And they say witty things: When a reporter asks Carl ("The Reading Rifle") Furillo what the state of his health is, Furillo doesn't even have to stop and think. He says "Pennsylvania." We laugh and laugh.
(3) And since they brought Jackie up in '47, we've had another reason to be Dodger fans: They're the nicest team in baseball.
Not that we know any black people. There aren't any in our town. There's only one black face among the pictures of graduating seniors on our high school walls, and he's in the class of '28.
Still, when our English teacher reads us a chapter from Uncle Tom's Cabin , we pay attention. When our history teacher talks about the Civil War, we agree that the Emancipation Proclamation was a real nice idea.
So since the Dodgers have Jackieand then Campy and Newk and Joe Blackwe get the idea that we're probably morally superior to Cardinal fans.
And we decide we ought to tell Jackie about our moral superiority. So with my 19-year-old brother-in-law driving the car, we take off for St. Louis to see a Dodger-Cardinal game and to talk to Jackie Robinson.
It's a spiritual mission.
Oh sure, there are distractions and temptations along the way.
Our high school track coach tells us we can miss practice only if we stop and run a mile, so between Dodge City and Kinsley, we stop and run a mile.
We get lost in Kansas City for a while.
And we see a pretty girl in the backseat of a '48 Buick between K.C. and Columbia. It has Kansas license platesJohnson Countyso we wave, but she must not see us because she doesn't wave back. We take the license number so we can track her down and write her a letter: "We don't know your name, but we saw your license plate and tracked you down. If you'd like to write to us, we live in Plains, Kansas, and you can write to us there if you want to write to us."
The Truth, Mainly
But we never forget why we're going to St. Louis: to talk to Jackie Robinson.
When we get there, we pay a dollar each to stay in the YMCA. The next day we go to Stan Musial's restaurant for ham sandwiches before the game. We don't know yet that Musial is going to hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the Cards.
We are astounded at all the black faces in Sportsman's Park. They get as excited as we do when Jackie hits a single, gets to second by worrying the pitcher into a balk, then steals third and bangs into Whitey Kurowski real good. Whitey gets up, looks around, dusts off his pants and wiggles a tooth.
Then Jackie comes barreling home on a fly ball and knocks Joe Garagiola on his can. We whoop and holler along with the black fans behind us.
But the Big Moment comes later outside the visitor's locker room under the third base bleachers. Jackie comes out with Campy and Pee Wee. He's bigger than I thought he'd be. And blacker.
I have a catch in my throat, so Gary talks first.
"Uh," he says. "Could you, uh, sign this? You know, uh, a autograph?"
"Sure," Jackie says. He smiles at Gary.
"Uh," I say. "Mine too?"
"Sure," Jackie says. He smiles at me too.
Then there's the team discussion we're privy to.
"C'mon, Jack," Campy says. "We gotta go. C'mon."
"C'mon, Jack," Pee Wee says. "We're gonna be late. We gotta go."
"I'm coming," Jackie says. "Just a second. I'm coming."
That's it. We're just about wetting our pants. We thank him. Then we thank him again. We back away, thanking him. We'd bow and scrape, but we don't know how. We'd tug our forelocks, but we have flat top haircuts.
And all the way home we forget that we forgot to tell Jackie Robinson about our moral superiority. We just keep talking about how nice he is. Even though he doesn't seem anything like Uncle Tom.
Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes
to salvage clarity from his confusion.
His column appears on alternate Mondays.