Thursday, May 9, 2013

Letters from Tracy Mott and Bob Harris on "42" and the movement against racism

Tracy Mott, my friend and colleague in the economics department, wrote a letter adding some important observations about Jackie Robinson (see here). One concerns Hank Greenberg, the great first baseman of the Detroit Tigers and in his last year, for Pittsburgh (National League along with Robinson), who was subjected to anti-semitism in the late 1930s. When Jackie tripped over the bag, Hank offered him a hand and pulled him up. As "42" shows, being a baseball player enabled small gestures of decency to break the "color line" for Blacks and Jews...


Bob Harris, one of my companions on the Dorothy Cotton Institute delegation to Palestine last fall, sent me his own short essay on the forgotten Larry Doby, the great outfielder for the Cleveland Indians, who broke into major league baseball three months after Robinson, talked with Robinson on the phone constantly, and is yet a "dark star," a forgotten figure, about the original shattering of racism in 1947 and in "42."

There are books to be written about this breakthrough in sports and how it was part of the broad movement to break down the Nazified character - to use a pointed expression - of American society...



As a lifetime baseball fan (of the Milwaukee and then Atlanta Braves, who, as the Boston Braves, signed Sam Jethroe and a young kid named Henry Aaron, who started out batting cross-handed, soon after the Dodgers broke the line with Jackie Robinson, while the Boston Red Sox took until 1962 to sign a black player), I have some things to add. Robinson was a second baseman, but learned to play first because the Dodgers were set at second when he first came up. He then moved to second after Gil Hodges came along. You can read a lot about this in Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer. The story I heard about Branch Rickey was that, as a young player I think at the U. of Michigan, he was moved by a black player on the team who wasn't allowed to play in some places to vow to do what he could about that some day [amen! the movie says Rickey was then a coach I think]. Yes, it was profitable, too, but ....

There was a movie called the Jackie Robinson Story, made in the late 50s I think, with I think Robinson playing himself, which I remember seeing on late-night TV. That movie also used the line from Rickey to Robinson, "I want someone who has the guts not to fight back."

My ancestors from supposedly pro-Union East Tennessee fought for the Confederacy and so were later Democrats in Republican East Tennessee. They weren't poor whites, but I don't think it was only poor whites or all poor whites who espoused the Union side. There were some Union supporters who were tied to the North because of commerce on tthe Tennessee River and the area was not good for cotton cultivation. Many of those in the mountains just hid out (they were called "ridge-runners") from the whole conflict. In Middle and West Tennessee, where cotton was grown, there was much more Southern support among all levels of the population.

I don't think that Pee Wee Reese came from more privileged people. I think he was a decent person who took a courageous stand. At the 50th anniversary of Robinson's first game, the ESPN announcers interviewed Reese, and when they praised him for helping Robinson, Reese said, "Well, Jackie didn't need much help! He was the least afraid person I ever knew. He used to try to get Sal Maglie to hit him with a pitch to get on base." Robinson's widow Rachel was there and chimed in on how much she had appreciated Reese.

There is also a story about how Hank Greenberg, who had experienced some pretty bad anti-Jewish treatment in his early days with the Detroit Tigers, played his last year as a first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates in Robinson's first year in the league. Robinson got a hit and tripped over the first base bag. Greenberg held out his hand and helped Robinson up. When sportswriters asked Robinson about that after the game, Robinson said, "Class shows, and Mr. Greenberg has class."



"Dear Alan,

Enjoyed your comments on Jackie Robinson. I suggest that you look at my short piece on Larry Doby here.

Best Wishes,


"Baseball’s Forgotten Black Pioneer

April 17, 2013
Robert L. Harris, Jr.

- Amidst the hoopla surrounding the outstanding movie 42 and Jackie Robinson’s heroic integration of major league baseball in April, 1947, the media has all but forgotten Larry Doby’s integration of the American League less than three months later. Unlike Robinson who spent a year with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team, Doby moved directly from the Negro League Newark Eagles to the Cleveland Indians. In his first full season in 1948, Doby helped the Indians win the World Series, a feat that Robinson did not accomplish until 1955. Both Robinson and Doby encountered racial prejudice, racist slurs, and even death threats. In one instance while Doby was sliding into second base, an opposing player spat tobacco juice on him. Doby later acknowledged that Robinson received most of the attention because “the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.” And here we are more than sixty years later with a similar result.

Robinson’s story is certainly very compelling, but there is a class distinction between the two. Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College and later University of California, Los Angeles. He was a second lieutenant, 1942-1944, in the U.S. Army during World War II. Doby served in the U.S. Navy, 1943-1945, which did not commission its first black officers until 1944. A gifted athlete four years younger than Robinson, Doby was a New Jersey all-state star in baseball, football, and basketball. After high school, he received an athletic scholarship to play basketball at Long Island University but signed with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League in 1942. Doby rejoined the Newark Eagles after military service. The Newark Eagles, with a team that included Doby and Monte Irvin, won the Negro League World Championship series in 1946. Many Negro League players thought that Doby or Irvin (who joined the New York Giants in 1949) would be the first black players in major league baseball.

President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, however, selected Robinson, to break the color barrier. Robinson played only one season in the Negro Leagues at shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs. Throughout most of his career, he played second base, while Doby played center field and was touted by The Sporting News in 1950 as the best center fielder in professional baseball. Although Doby talked regularly with Robinson by phone during his first season with the Indians, the movie 42 is totally silent on their relationship. They encouraged each other and decided not to do anything that would ruin opportunities for other black players. Cleveland Indians Club President, Bill Veeck, selected Doby as much for his temperament as for his talent. Veeck’s baseball scouts assured him that Doby would not cause any problems on or off the field. Doby therefore did not have to undergo the same tests to which Rickey subjected Robinson.

The media in many respects has distorted Robinson by overlooking Doby. It has given us a singular hero rather than a broader and more complex context that is the essence of black life in America. In 42, we see how one black man confronted racism rather than the way in which black men have historically navigated the thickets of white supremacy.

Robert L. Harris, Jr.
Africana Studies & Research Center
Professor of African American History,
American Studies, & Public Affairs
Cornell University"


And Jim Wilkinson noted the carefully constrained geographic character of the original white Major Leagues:


I’ve heard good reviews of this movie but you convinced me to watch it. I’m going to put the original movie, where Ms. Jackie Robinson played Ms. Jackie Robinson, in my Netflix queue. Will be fun to compare them. I grew up watching Pee Wee Reese (that’s a lot of e’s!) and Dizzy Dean hosting the game of the week. I guess there are fewer and fewer people who can remember when there were 16 MLB teams. Always thought it ironic that the National and American Leagues didn’t extend west of the Mississippi or south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Senators being the exception.

Just realized St. Louis (how many people remember the Browns?) is on the west bank of the Mississippi. I have a BA in geography but I always loved history. Perhaps I should have combined them and majored in historical geography. Never thought about that in 1973. If I ever went back for a MA, I would major in Political Geography. Big surprise, eh?


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