Lars Knudsen always invited us to a bar outside of Bristol Township when we had a particularly bad day. I believe the bar was called the Country Squire. Knudsen, McShea, O’Connell, and some others would go there at about 4 p.m. and sometimes stayed till two or three in the morning. I would go once in a while to keep my central office connections. On October 24, 1972, I was driving back from one of these drinking conclaves on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was about 2:00 a.m. when the news came over the car radio that Jackie Robinson had died. I burst into tears and pulled over to the side of the road. I stayed there for about 15 minutes to compose myself so that I could drive the rest of the way home.
I guess I was the right age to be a devoted follower of Jackie Robinson. I was a baseball freak from the time that I could remember. I am pretty sure that my father played against some of the teams in the Negro Leagues in the 1930’s. He had been dead for 4 years when Robinson became the first “Negro” player in the major leagues. His travails during his first years playing for the Dodgers are well chronicled. However, he meant something different to me. There was something so all encompassing about the guy. He was pretty much not afraid of anything. Even when Branch Rickey told him that he would have to turn the other cheek, he still exuded a confidence behind his silence. He was 28 years old and had been a star athlete in a number of sports. Baseball was not his best sport. He was an officer in the Army and had fought against discrimination in his own way- with his forward speech and an angry manner. He was brought up on court-martial charges for doing something right. He was acquitted and honorably discharged. He was a man’s man.
I was a Dodger fan through and through. I was proud when Pee Wee Reese stood up and told a hotel owner that the Dodgers would not stay there if Robinson could not be there with them. I guess my nascent “save the world” attitude found a home with Robinson and his teammates. By the time the Dodgers got into the World Series in 1949, I was in the hospital with polio. I listened to the games on the radio. Red Barber’s soft drawl was a counterpoint to the Robinson machinations on the field. No one has come close to the excitement of Robinson on base twitching and getting pitchers upset by his actions. He did steal home from time to time, so when he was on third base there was always the sense of anticipation. What would Robinson do? He brought back the stolen base, lost in baseball history from the early years of the game.
In 1952, I took my cousin Marty to a Dodger game at Ebbets Field. We go to the park rather early and were going in through the turnstiles when this large black man walked toward us in kind of an ambling pidgeon toed way and said “Hello kids.” I looked at the bright eyes and wide smile. It was Jackie Robinson in all of his glory. I said “Hello Mr. Robinson.” and he ambled by us to wherever it was he was going. My cousin Marty was stunned and could not speak for a little while. It was a signal moment for both of us. Not sure that Marty even remembers the moment, but it still is as clear to me now as it was at the time.
Jackie Robinson was so much more than a ballplayer. He gave so many people the opportunity to be themselves and to strive to accomplish things despite differences in their skin color, their race, their gender, their language, their handicapping condition. Yes, it all started with Jackie. His influence on the United States when so much further than just a black man playing baseball. The major leagues recognized this when they had all of their teams retire his number 42. He excelled at so many things, becoming the first African American executive at a major U.S. Corporation ( Chock Full of Nuts), his establishment of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and so many other things.
He began the movement for integration in this country. However, I will always remember him as that big guy who came into the ballpark that day in 1952, smiling and saying, “Hello kids.”