The Truth, Mainly - 04/23/2007

Where have you gone, Mr. Robinson?
by Leon Satterfield

My head's been in a time warp for more than a week now.

It's no trivial time warp. It's a baseball time warp. And it has to do with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I know, I know. Some of you out there are snickering because I don't even know the Dodgers are in Los Angeles, not Brooklyn.

But my time warp goes back 60 years to when they were the Brooklyn Dodgers, when the idea of their ever becoming the L.A. Dodgers was as wild as the idea that the Nebraska Cornhuskers would some day become the Hollywood Cornhuskers.

Back then the Dodgers were called "Dem Bums" even by their most loyal fans, and they played in Ebbets Field and they broke my heart by blowing the big games.

I was the only kid in my grade school class—I may have been the only kid in Southwest Kansas—who was a Dodgers fan. During the season I would spend at least 15 minutes every morning reading about the Dodgers—about Dixie Walker ("The People's Cherce") and Pee Wee Reese and Pistol Pete Reiser and Eddie (Stinky) Stanky and their manager, Leo the Lip Durocher.

They won the National League Pennant in 1941. Of course the Yankees beat them in the World Series, four games to one. But I was about to be hooked on the Dodgers by then—even when they lost the pennant to the St. Louis Cardinals with sickening regularity in '42, '43, '44, '46, breaking my heart each time.

But then—hallelujah!—it was 1947.

And if you read the April 12 Journal-Star sports section earlier this month, you know what happened in 1947: The Dodgers (still in Brooklyn where God intended them to be) signed up a guy named Jackie Robinson.

Robinson was a black guy. There had never been a black guy in the major leagues before. Only white guys.

He took a lot of crap from the fans of the other teams. And he drove the other teams' catchers and pitchers crazy when he'd get on base and do his little dance. He'd draw balks from the pitcher and steal bases on the catcher.

And he was named the 1947 Rookie of the Year. Two years later he had a batting average of .341, the best in the National League. And he was the N.L. Most Valuable Player.

But his greatest victory was against racism.

In the summer of 1949, I was 15 and a friend of mine and I talked my 19-year-old brother-in-law into driving us to St. Louis—the closest major league city then, about 650 miles east of where we were trying to grow up.

The attraction was that the Dodgers were playing the Cardinals in Sportsman's Park.

We stayed at the Y and got to the ballpark early enough to get seats behind third base. I forget who won, so it was probably the Cardinals.

What I do remember is that every time Robinson had a ball hit in his direction, or got up to bat, the Cardinal fans—white guys—behind us would holler "Black Jack! Black Jack! Black Jack!"

It was not a friendly yell.

Two or three times, Robinson got walked and he danced around first base, thereby worrying hell out of the white pitcher and the white catcher, then finally stealing second. That usually shut down the hecklers for a while.

And here's what we did after the game was over: we went down under the stands and stood outside the visitors' locker room, waiting for Robinson to come out.

When he did come out, he was with Roy Campanella, who came up a year or two after Robinson.

"Mr. Robinson," I think I said, "could we get your autograph?"

There were ten or twelve other people lined up to get his autograph"

"Come on, Jack," I remember Campanella saying. "We'll be late."

"Just a minute," I think Robinson said, and then he spent maybe five minutes signing his autograph.

Everyone asking for his autograph was white.

Campanella kept saying, "C'mon, Jack. We gotta go."

And all the way back to Kansas, we talked about how we couldn't get over how nice Jack was.

The Sunday after we got back, I, of course, went to church.

After the sermon, I hung around waiting for my parents to drive me home. I listened to the adults talking. One of them said that we ought to be thinking about what we should do if a Negro (except he didn't say "Negro") would ever want to attend our church.

I'll never forget what one of the major supporters of our church said: "The day a Negro [except he didn't say 'Negro'] walks into this church is the day I'm going to walk out." And that's when I had an epiphany: Religion and baseball morality aren't always the same.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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