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The Jack Robinson Story: Whose Greatest Moment?

Ken Burns gives baseball a lot of credit for breaking the color line. But whose color line was it?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ken Burns' PBS documentary on Jack Robinson was filled with the usual period photographs and talking heads, most of them interesting. It was a typical Burns product, informative and persuasive.

But Burns' declaration that the Robinson saga represents "baseball's finest moment" is questionable.

There were some inspirational heroes, to be sure. Robinson, himself, a player chosen for this role less because of his baseball skills than because of his intelligence and character; and Branch Rickey, the man who put the Great Experiment into action because of his cultural and religious convictions (and also because he saw an astounding pool of talent going unused that he could put to the Brooklyn Dodgers' use).

And, please, let's not forget the role of Kentucky's own Albert B. Chandler, a U.S. Senator from a Southern state, chosen to succeed the imperious Kenesaw Landis as commissioner of all of baseball, partly because (unlike Landis) he'd be easily manipulated by the team owners. (Wasn't his nickname "Happy," after all? Didn't that suggest the ultimate go along-get along politician?) It was Chandler who sided with Rickey, and against the majority of the other team executives. And it was he who helped defuse a players' rebellion – both on the Dodgers and on some of the other National League teams – after Robinson was brought up to the majors in 1947.

Which turns the focus to "baseball's greatest moment." Wasn't it "baseball" that had firmly opposed integration for more than a half-century? Wasn't it "baseball" that tried to dissuade Rickey from this impetuous move that threatened to overturn everything "the game had always stood for"? Wasn't it "baseball" that was all-too-compliant with the unembarrassed cries of "nigger!" from players, managers, teammates, fans and executives? Wasn't it "baseball" that did too little to avert the threats, violence, racism and ostracism that Robinson – and, by the way, other early black players – faced in those early years?

Robinson succeeded, in spite of it all, thanks largely to his own massive will. Thanks, as well, to Rickey's support, the support of some courageous teammates and opponents and, perhaps the unsung hero of it all, the beautifully intelligent and indomitable Rachel Robinson, still brave and articulate in her 90s. (Have you ever noticed how Rachel Robinson steadfastly refers to her late husband as "Jack," never "Jackie"? I've always felt that was her way of demanding the respect all adults are entitled to, a man's name, not a little boy's nickname.)

But did "baseball's greatest moment" suddenly, magically, courageously erase all prejudice and opposition? Hardly. Some teams joined the new movement, scrambling to sign some of the great black ballplayers available. Most did not.

Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, characteristically showed what he was made of by signing Larry Doby in the middle of that 1947 season, the first black player in the American League. (Poor Doby, a victim of timing. Nobody has ever produced a movie or documentary about his struggles, which must have been the equal of Robinson's. By the way, a Robinson curse bit Doby twice! In 1978, he was named manager of the Chicago White Sox – by Veeck, again – shortly after Frank Robinson had been named baseball's first black manager on the Cleveland Indians. Frank got the headlines, Larry got the sack. In the early '80s, Doby and I both lived in West Orange, N.J. I contacted him about perhaps writing a book on his experience. He was an angry, bitter man.)

Some other teams also followed suit. The New York Giants were early. So were the Chicago White Sox. The St. Louis Browns. And the Boston Braves. Others dug in their heels and resisted.

I remember, as a little boy in Chicago, hearing how Philip Wrigley and the Cubs were dragging their feet on acquiring black players, even as Robinson, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays, Sam Jethroe, Henry Thompson and Bill Bruton were making their stamp on the league's competitive balance. Across town, in the other league, Minnie Minoso had helped make the White Sox a strong pennant contender.

In late 1953, more than seven years after the Dodgers had signed Robinson, the Cubs announced their first two Negroes – a second baseman and shortstop named Gene Baker and Ernie Banks.

Baker was intense, even angry-seeming. Banks appeared to be a more relaxed, happy-to-be-here personality. The dour Baker was gone in a few years; the smiling Banks stayed 20 years and attained reverence in Chicago. (An astounding, wrist-snapping power swing didn't hurt, either.)

But the Cubs paid the price for those six years of waiting. As black players were determining the game of thrones in the National League, the mostly white Cubs languished near the bottom, year after year after year.

Baseball history buffs may remember how the National League dominated the annual All-Star Game in the 1950s and 60s. Here's an interesting, related factoid. From 1947 (Robinson himself) through 1964. a total of 18 seasons, black players were named Rookie of the Year in the NL 11 times and Most Valuable Player 11 times (Robinson was the first, again, in 1949). The reason I drew the line at 1964 is because that's the first year the American League finally named a black rookie of the year (a Cuban, Tony Oliva), the year after naming its first black MVP, Elston Howard.

And those black Rookie of the Year winners in the National League, the ones who represented a rising tide of talent that was propelling the league, did not include Campanella, Irvin, Banks, Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Lou Brock, Maury Wills, Joe Morgan, Bill White, Bob Gibson, John Roseboro, Jim Ray Hart, Curt Flood, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, Leo Cardenas, Jim Wynn, Vada Pinson, Tony Gonzalez, the Alou brothers, Willie Stargell, Cleon Jones, Bob Veale, Ferguson Jenkins, Al Jackson, Tommy Harper – the men who rushed through the open door and helped turn the tide in favor of the NL.

I was also, by the way, an eyewitness when the Milwaukee Braves came to Atlanta, the Deep South, bringing with them Aaron, their black superstar. That was 1966, 20 years after Jack Robinson's debut, and a scab had not yet entirely covered the sore. Atlanta put on a great face, to be sure, but Atlanta was still in Georgia, and even an athlete as great as Aaron took plenty of race-baiting abuse in his home city – especially when he challenged the home run record of the revered Caucasian, Babe Ruth.

Unfortunately, 25 years after "baseball's finest moment," that wasn't yet America's finest moment. Some black athletes feel we're still waiting for that. Others, by the way, don't know who Jack Robinson was.