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Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson

Breaking the color barrier in baseball

Created date

April 10th, 2015
Jackie Robinson--Hall of Fame
Jackie Robinson--Hall of Fame

It was 1972 and Jackie Robinson was losing his last battle. The player who endured so much during his career as the man to break baseball’s color barrier could no longer endure the battle he waged against diabetes.

His eyesight had deteriorated to the point of blindness, and he was partially crippled. When Roger Kahn, author of Rickey & Robinson (Rodale), thinks of the last days of the legendary Jackie Robinson, it seems so unjust.

“Well, I think in a word, life was unfair,” Kahn says when asked what his feelings were when Robinson died. “He couldn’t see. His body was betraying him, but he never complained. He had a tough time.”

Before diabetes took its toll, Robinson was left to his own devices in retirement.

“It would have been nice if major league baseball or the Dodgers would have offered him a job, but they didn’t. [Stan] Musial, the Cardinals took care of; Mel Ott, the Giants took care of; [Honus] Wagner, the Pirates take care of. My thought was, ‘I wish his life would have been easier.’”

Kahn’s book focuses on Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey and Robinson, the two men who together forced the gates open in 1947 for black players to enter the major leagues. 

Unique friendship

As a newspaper reporter for the New York Herald Tribune covering the Brooklyn Dodgers, Kahn built a bond with both men during his career. His relationship with Robinson was so strong that the two men collaborated on a short-lived magazine in 1953 called Our Sports, aimed at black fans and the sports they followed.

Friendships between writer and athlete, even now, are extremely rare. But back then, the Kahn-Robinson connection was as bizarre as could be considering the racism that existed in sports journalism at the time.

Sometimes, it wasn’t blatant racism as much as it was not giving Robinson his due. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 not only because he broke the color line. Robinson was a superlative player. He finished with a career .311 batting average and a .409 on-base percentage and stole 197 bases, getting caught only 30 times in his career. He stole home 19 times.

After Robinson retired, the two stayed in contact. Kahn tells a story of a visit he made with his son to the Robinsons' home in Connecticut.

“One time, I visited Jackie in Connecticut,” Kahn says. “I brought my son so he could meet him. We walked into his house and right near the entrance was a trophy case. In the trophy case there was a football signed by the 1940-1941 UCLA squad on which Jackie was the running back. My son saw the ball and asked if we could play catch.

“I explained that this ball you just admired and looked at, you didn’t play with. Jackie said, ‘The heck with that; you go ahead and have a catch with your son.’ So we went out in Jackie’s front yard, and the grass was very wet. I told my son, ‘Make sure you don’t drop it!’ Jackie was great with children.”

A very different environment

Baseball back in the 1940s through 1960s was a much different business than it is today. For one thing, the money the players were paid was paltry compared to what players make now. 

A Chicago Tribune article reports that in 1950, the average baseball player’s salary was $13,228. When Robinson entered baseball in 1947, he made $5,000, a pretty standard rookie contract. According to Forbes, the average MLB salary in 2014 was $3.82 million.

Another difference is the way writers cover the team. With today’s 24/7 news cycle, Twitter, Facebook, and a cell phone camera around every corner, one wonders how players like Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Duke Snyder, and others would have survived.

“If a guy was really out of line, missed curfews, and did it repeatedly, [today] I would then write it,” says Kahn. “If somebody like Mantle, who was trying to drink the country dry, did that today, I think that would have gotten into some of the press.”

As Kahn walks readers through Robinson’s career, he gives a vivid sense of the world the gifted ballplayer had to stomach to accomplish what he did.

After teams broke camp in spring training to prepare for Opening Day, many would go on barnstorming tours on their way north to their home cities. For the Dodgers, this meant train tours from Florida through many segregated towns of the South, where they would play exhibition games for extra cash. Kahn’s description says it all:

“But the next day, when we debarked in Montgomery, the racism surrounded all of us again, as strong and virulent as ever. I think a good description of life with the Dodgers in the South back then is contained in the current psychological term ‘bipolar.’ We had a pleasant integrated existence in the train. Then as soon as we stepped off—raw apartheid.”

An eye for talent and money

Rickey & Robinson also pulls no punches discussing Branch Rickey and the one defect that seemed to conflict with his moral compass driving for integration, and that was greed.

Rickey had a phenomenal eye for talent. He also had a keen ability to spot his chance to make a buck. One way he did that was to insert into his general manager’s contract a clause giving him 15% of a player’s contract when he made a trade with another team.

Enduring passion for the sport

Talking about Rickey & Robinson, it’s clear that the years have not dimmed Kahn’s enjoyment of the game. After covering baseball for as long as he did, the passion still radiates.

In 2013, the movie 42 was released, the latest attempt to chronicle the Jackie Robinson story on the big screen. The movie received positive reviews, but Kahn hasn't seen it.

“I didn’t see it for a number of reasons,” Kahn says, “At the time, I was writing Rickey & Robinson and I didn’t want any of that Hollywood stuff to get in.

“Anyway, I pretty much lived it.”