April 15, 2011
Remembering Jackie Robinson, and the Man Who Taught Me About Him
April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day, the 64th anniversary of the day when Robinson broke baseball's color barrier by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's a day to pause for a moment to reflect upon Robinson's immeasurable courage in battling racism, and the impact his bold success had on this country, from the integration of the military to the Civil Rights movement to the election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency. Robinson's arrival in the major leagues forced America to live up to its ideals of equality, and his actions changed the course of this country's history in ways that continue to be felt, ways that eclipse even his on-field greatness.
In years past, I've written about my desire to see Major League Baseball step up to the plate in honoring Robinson's memory by donating a single day's worth of gate receipts — roughly 0.2 percent of industry revenue, according to my back-of-the-envelope calculations — to the Robinson Foundation, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, and other causes appropriate to the day. Unless I've missed something, such a contribution would be an order of magnitude and then some beyond the relatively paltry $1.2 million MLB donated to the Robinson Foundation to fund 120 $10,000 scholarships (one per team, per year) over a four-year period back in 2000. Compare that funding to the fact that Derek Jeter alone donated $250,000 to endow a Robinson Foundation scholarship in perpetuity, making him the first and thus far only player to do so, or the $1 million Mark Teixeira donated to Harlem RBI last week. The world has no shortage of worthy causes beyond Robinson and inner city baseball, but if even a few players can set an example on this front, why can't the industry back it with support at a level that's beyond token?
Rather than sound like a broken record on the topic — my arguments haven't budged an inch from last year — I wanted to share something of a more personal nature this time around. As I do every year since moving to Brooklyn in the winter of 2007-2008, I mark the day by taking a five-minute walk from my apartment to 215 Montague St., the site of the former Dodgers business office. On the wall of the bank now standing there, a plaque commemorates another momentous occasion, that of Robinson signing his first professional contract on August 28, 1945, "thus initiating the process of becoming the first African-American player on a major league baseball team — integrating the major leagues and making baseball truly the pastime of all the nation," as the inscription reads.
Every time I visit that plaque, I think not only of Robinson, but of my paternal grandparents, who faced discrimination of their own, and were sensitive to the struggle for equality even before Robinson hit the scene. My grandfather, Bernard Jaffe, was born in Brooklyn in 1908. A fine athlete, he played baseball at the University of Maryland, was said to have been offered a professional contract by the Washington Senators, but had other ideas about what he wanted to do in life. He got a graduate degree as a pharmacist, and worked for six months in Baltimore while hustling pool at night to help save up enough money to attend medical school. Unable to afford the exorbitant cost of a stateside medical school, and stymied by the quota system which limited the number of Jews, he managed to start his studies in — of all places — Hitler’s Germany, at the University of Göttering (sp?). The chutzpah! He knew little German when he came over, learning the language by reading newspapers and walking the streets.
After a year of med school, Bernie was advised to leave for his own safety, but not before managing to wrangle a ticket to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where he saw Jesse Owens show up Hitler by winning four gold medals. "I watched Jesse Owens win two events with Hitler and his storm troops in the stands," he wrote in his last letter to me, circa 1998 or 1999. "I have never forgotten that hectic event." He would go on to transfer to the University of Vienna, where he met Clara Gottfried (1912-2006), a woman four years his junior but a year ahead of him in medical school. They married in Vienna on March 29, 1938, and with the situation there worsening vis-à-vis the Nazis, began planning their exit. Upon finishing his studies, Bernie didn’t wait around to receive his diploma; a classmate named Dr. Samuel Schoenberg picked it up along with his own, and escaped by walking over the Alps into Switzerland. Bernie and Clara booked passage on a ship and reached the US on July 15, 1938. Alas, Clara's parents — and most of her extended family — did not make it out of Vienna, and died in concentration camps.
After a few years of bouncing around the States, first in New York City but then from base to base as Bernie worked as an Army doctor, the couple and their young son (my father) moved to Walla Walla, Washington in 1944. They were far removed from the big city when Robinson broke the color line, but continued to root for the Dodgers, and embraced Robinson's arrival from afar, following his exploits via newspaper and radio if not actually getting to see much of him on television, at least until his later years. I'm not sure Bernie ever saw Robinson in person the way he had Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott and other legends, but the pioneer's play and his plight left an indelible impression.
My father first taught me about Robinson during the 1978 World Series, when I was eight years old. The Dodgers went into that series mourning the sudden death of coach Jim Gilliam, a black teammate of Robinson's, and I suppose that may have stirred up his memories. He asked me if I knew who the first black player in the majors was; I thought for a moment and took a wild guess. "Dusty Baker?" I was already color-blind when it came to my baseball heroes; Davey Lopes was my first favorite Dodger, and I couldn't help but develop a soft spot for the outsized personality of Reggie Jackson even though he wore the enemy pinstripes.
Dad set me straight, but my grandfather had the larger store of stories about Robinson's skill, his courage, and his grace, and he shared those with me over the years while teaching me (and my brother) the fundamentals of the game as well as its history. I remember him recounting — in sanitized form — the tale of Dodger manager Leo Durocher's reaction to the infamous petition circulated by Dixie Walker among Robinson's teammates. I also recall him telling me of Robinson through a series of adventure tales he made up, centered around a globetrotting character named Jackson, who sailed the high seas, dined with royalty, and caught a ballgame every now and then.
Bernie passed away in November 2000. Less than six months later, with his memory still in mind, I began my adventures in baseball writing. I wish I had more than fragmentary recollections of the baseball stories my grandfather passed along during our days together, but the ones that he shared about Robinson remain among the most vivid. In their small way, they amplify the day's importance in my mind, and remind me why I write about baseball in the first place.
One final note on the day, and particularly the wearing of number 42 by all players, a move which annually draws a bit of ridicule as well as double-takes. Last year, Dodgers TV announcer Vin Scully — always worth the price of admission, but rarely more so than on this day — retold a story told by pitcher Carl Erskine, first in his book What I Learned from Jackie Robinson and then to the New York Times' Dave Anderson here — in which the Dodgers played a game in Cincinnati after Robinson had received a death threat. Police sharpshooters covered the ballpark, making for a tense situation. At a team meeting, outfielder Gene Hermanski offered a suggestion for the Dodgers manager (in the book, it's Burt Shotton, in 1947, in the Times it's Charlie Dressen in 1951; Hermanski was on the team until June 15 of the latter year, but the date of the former is more plausible given the initial tension). "Hey, Skip, I’ve got an idea," said Hermanski. "If we all wore 42 out there, they won’t know who to shoot.” The question introduced a bit of levity which helped ratchet down the tension; everybody, including Robinson, laughed. Read in light of that story, the act of every player wearing the number becomes one not just of unity but defiance.