My back pain has reached a level I haven’t experienced in quite a while. Because of that, I didn’t leave the house – and wasn’t sure I’d be able to post something today. Then I watched the first part of Ken Burns’ four-hour documentary on Jackie Robinson. What came to mind was a blog I’d done nearly eight years ago. It is being reprinted here with some alterations – with (my) permission. However, a trip to the doctor in a few hours will most likely shut me down for a couple of days, so expect the next post on Friday, April 15 (a day that does not evoke such wonderful memories for many).
If you were a kid growing up in New Jersey in the early ’50s, you rooted for one of three teams – the New York Yankees, the New York Giants or, my favorite, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although my father was a die-hard Yankees fan, he was a good enough sport (and good enough dad) to take me to Ebbets Field, home of my beloved Bums (my father always claimed I was brain washed by my mother’s side of the family, all of whom hailed from Brooklyn).
The first time we ever went to Ebbets Field, I was four years old. My father was a toll collector for the New Jersey Turnpike and my mother was a secretary, so disposable income at our house wasn’t exactly plentiful. Yet, somehow, my father scraped the money together for a couple of train tickets (by far the most economical means to get to the city) and two game tickets. We were watching the game from the nosebleed section (which was totally fine with me – hey, I was at a Dodger game!) To be perfectly honest, Ebbets Field was such a bandbox, any seat was a good one – unless you got stuck behind a pole.
I can remember many of the fans in our section being black and one guy, when he saw me, asked, “Hey, lil’ fella, who ya rootin’ fuh?” Now, one thing you’re going to get from a four-year-old kid is an honest answer (lying doesn’t become part of a youngster’s makeup until a few years later). I looked up, wide-eyed, and said, “The Dodgers!” This was shortly after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier and the country was still divided on the race issue (we’ve made progress since but it’s hard to believe that at this time in America . . . well, that’s another subject for another time). “Hey, get this kid a Coke – and a hot dog. Get his old man a beer.” We were subjected to the royal treatment.
I didn’t know why, but I figured out I must have given the right answer. We might have gotten chauffered back to Jersey if they would have asked who my favorite player was because Jackie Robinson was my childhood idol. All I saw was a guy who could hit, field, run bases, was strong and handled himself with so much class and dignity. I’m pretty sure I had no idea what class and dignity were at that point in my life, but I knew I wanted to be just like Jackie.
Don’t get me wrong: Erskine, Newk, Labine, Black, Spooner, Campy, Hodges, Gilliam, PeeWee, Cox, Amoros, the Duke, Furillo, all had their baseball cards on my bedroom wall, but it was Jackie’s that was front and center. Naturally, being a Jewish kid, Sandy Koufax soon jumped to the head of the class but not until years later. These Dodgers were the guys who won the first ever World Championship for the Dodgers in ’55 (a few years after this game). I can still remember the ground ball to PeeWee Reese who threw to Gil Hodges for the final out in Johnny Podres’ 2-0 shutout of the hated Yankees in Game 7 that begat a roar from my house (the neighborhood boys on either side of our house as well as the twins across the street were all Yankee fans. I’d finally gotten my chance to gloat.
The following year (my birthday is in June), my aunt, a good athlete and pretty big fan in her own right, mailed a birthday card with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the club requesting all the guys sign it for her eight-year-old nephew who “lived and died” with the Dodgers. They did. I can say in all honesty that opening that card and seeing all those signatures was, without a doubt, the major highlight in my life to that point. It remains ensconced in the top 10 to this very day – which says how much it meant to me and how I’ve lived less than wildly memorable existence. Somehow in the 20+ relocations I’ve made through the years, that card vanished – which easily places it in my top 10 regrets of all-time.
At that time, as I mentioned, I completely idolized Jackie Robinson – for his superior talent, the way he carried himself and because he was the best player on my favorite team. As I read about his life, I found out about how remarkable an athlete (football, basketball, tennis and track, in addition to baseball) he was, how intelligent he was and how courageous he was. He’d attended UCLA and starred in numerous sports there. Further research into his life explained his ultra-competitive and resolute nature. What had impressed me most was that Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Dodgers recruited him to be the first player to break the color barrier, not merely because of any of those traits listed above, but more so because he knew Jackie had the mental makeup to withstand all that was about to be leveled at him and, rather than physically fight back, retaliate by thoroughly defeating his opponents in the best way he could to make a point for all of mankind and especially, for his people. The documentary reveals how difficult that was, independent of his demeanor.
When I became a teenager and Jackie’s career was on the downhill side, his exit was the classiest move of all. The Dodgers traded him to the Giants, and rather than play for the bitter rivals, he retired. He walked away and never looked back. In my mind, he remains to this day without a peer.
If ever a line was appropriate for one person, Maxwell Anderson’s quote defines the legacy of Jackie Robinson:
“There are some men who lift the age they inhabit, till all men walk on higher ground in that lifetime.”