Musings: Jackie Robinson

He often said down through the years
    He never had it made.
He was tested, he was taunted,
In every game he played.
Not just on the field of play, 
    But in the game of life.
He knew very well the feel
    Of prejudice and strife.
He was on a baseball team,
    And yet, he was alone.
The very first black player
    The major leagues had known.
All eyes were upon him.
    Many wanted him to fail.
The pressure was enormous,
    For he knew he must prevail.
The racial slurs and insults flew,
    And, yes, he heard them all.
But he summoned all his strength to keep
    His eye upon the ball.
Centuries of bigotry,
    That’s what he would attack,
He took the country with him,
    Put us all upon his back.
He was more than good enough,
    Oh, how he played the game.
His running and his hitting;
    First ballot, Hall of Fame.
Because of him the racist walls
    Came tumbling to the ground.
Now players of all colors
    On every team are found.
One man can make a difference,
    For when all is said and done,
This game, the land, they’re better
    Thanks to Jackie Robinson.

Reprinted from Red Sox Rhymes: Verses and Curses with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

On January 31st, Jackie Robinson would have been ninety-eight years old. To commemorate his birthday the Red Sox each year send a delegation to schools in the area to tell the story of his impact on the game of baseball and on the country. This year that delegation included former mayor of Boston and ambassador to the Vatican Ray Flynn; former Red Sox player and coach Tommy Harper; George Mitrovich, who heads up the Great Fenway Park Writers Series and who originated the idea of an annual birthday tribute to Robinson (and who flies all the way from San Diego to participate in it); and emcee Adam Pellerin of NESN. Oh, and me. I show up every year to recite the above poem, which was written for these annual birthday tributes.

This year we visited East Boston High School and Charlestown High and the next day we took the show to McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket where members of the Toland  High baseball team were present.

The Red Sox, who were infamously the last team in the major leagues to add an African-American to their roster, are the only team in baseball to celebrate the great Robinson on his birthday (actually, a few days early this year).

St. Matthew must have had to Sox in mind when he wrote, “and the last shall be first”.

Perhaps Robinson’s most notable accomplishment was how he was able to ignore the racial epithets that were thrown at him in his first few years in the majors. He was a combative guy whose instinct was to retaliate when he was insulted, but to spend all his time brawling with bigots would have defeated his purpose, which was to integrate, at long last, the game of baseball.

Not that it was easy for those black players who followed him.

Mudcat Grant, who was a terrific pitcher back in the sixties, tells a wonderful story about the problems black players had to deal with. When he broke in with the Cleveland in 1960, both Indians and the Red Sox held their spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona. Each team had two black players on the roster; the Indians had Grant and Vic Power; and the Red Sox had Pumpsie Green and Earl Wilson. The two teams had an agreement to play an exhibition game in New Orleans when they broke camp and before they headed north to begin the season. They shared to same plane on the flight from Scottsdale. Upon landing there awaited two buses, one for each team, and a taxicab. The cab was for the black players who were not allowed to stay in the all-white hotel that housed the teams. They understood that was the way things were in the segregated south back then. But when they got to their hotel they discovered that their luggage had been sent to the white hotel.

As the junior man, Mudcat was deputized to take the cab over there and retrieve their bags. But when he arrived the bell captain blocked his entrance and told him that no one of his color (that’s a genteel way of putting what the guy actually said) was allowed to cross the threshold. Mudcat tried to explain the situation but the bell captain was unmoved and more than a little crude about it.

Just then around the corner came Ted Williams, who liked to take walk when arriving in a town. He asked Mudcat how he was doing and Mudcat explained that the bell captain wouldn’t let him get the luggage. Ted said, “Well you shouldn’t get the luggage. He should.” He turned to the guy and said, “You get Mr. Grant’s bags and put them in the cab for him.” It wasn’t a request, it was an order. And it was coming from the great Ted Williams.

It wasn’t public knowledge back then, but Ted was part Mexican on his mother’s side. He knew from first hand knowledge how Mexicans were discriminated against in his native San Diego. Thus, though a committed conservative politically, he was a great champion for equal rights.
At any rate, the bigoted bell captain dutifully picked up the luggage and put it into the cab. And, thanks to Ted Williams, Mudcat Grant had one hell of a story to share with his three pals back at the black hotel.