January 1, 2005


Model Ball Player (Red Smith, August 4, 1946)

By special arrangement with the Hudson Tubes, an expedition to this model political community was made today to get a look at Jackie Robinson, the model Negro infielder of the Dodgers' model Montreal farm. It was a brief look because Robinson, having jimmied an ankle sliding into third base, didn't play against the Itsy-Bitsy Giants. It is possible to report, however, that he looked good retrieving balls for the batting practice pitcher, being blessed with the sort of contours that make baseball rompers seem stylish.

Although he had been injured several times this season, Robinson is the second batter in the International League with an average of .352, the second base stealer with thirty-one thefts and, playing second base instead of shortstop for the first time in his life, constitutes one-half of the league's deftest double-play combination.

He is a major attraction at home and on the road and a major cog in a machine that had a thirteen-game lead this morning. He just got through winning three of Montreal's four games in Newark. The Royals have drawn 365,000 paid admissions on the road this year and expect home crowds to pass 500,000. At this time last season they led the league by fifteen games and had played for 124,000 witnesses on tour.

Clay Hopper, the Royals' manager, was warming up for a hitch on the mound while Robinson piddled around the infield, limping noticeably.

"Yes," Hopper said, "I think he's a major leaguer. He goes hard all the time and he has great hands for an infielder. He seems a little frail, though. Gets hurt. Maybe because he goes so hard."

Robinson, who weighs 190 pounds and was a rugged halfback at U.C.L.A., chuckled at the word "frail" when he came off the field. After his chores behind the rubber he strolled into the outfield to shag a few flies, flung a ball to a crowd of clamoring kids in the bleachers, and paused on the way in to autograph score cards for two Negro fans.

"I'm not brittle," he said. "Football never hurt me. Anybody hitting a bag the way I did the other night would have hurt his ankle. Anyhow, that ankle always has been bad. It's been broken but I played six years of football with the ankle taped and it never bothered me."

Last winter he told Al Laney that racial discrimination wouldn't disturb him; his only doubt then concerned his ability to play well enough.

"I know now I can play International League ball," he said.

He hasn't heard what plans Brooklyn may have for him for next year, although now and then Hopper has told him scouts for the parent club were watching him. For that matter, Branch Rickey brings his brain bund to most of Montreal's night games in Jersey City and Newark.

As for his color:

"There's been no trouble at all. I haven't heard anything worse than you hear in college football. In any game they'll call you names if they think they can rile you. That's just competition. Same as they get on Ed Stanky, of the Dodgers. Syracuse was a little rough early in the season but when I didn't pay any attention they dropped it.

"Then one day in Syracuse I hit a home run and that seemed to get 'em started again. I was talking back until I realized I was just encouraging 'em. One of the umpires got kind of sore and shouted something to the Syracuse bench and I told him to forget it. That was all."

He shares the club's accommodations everywhere save Baltimore, where he occupies a different hotel. This, he concedes, might create a problem on a club with a number of Negro players.

"Depends on the type of fellow. I don't drink or stay out late and I don't think Hopper knows where I stay in Baltimore. But if a manager had a lot of players living out like that, he might have trouble controlling some of them."

"Some people," he was told, "think the battle against Jim Crow is won. Now that you've made the grade, they believe there'll be no further argument about it."

"I think it's won, for now," he said. "But it could easily start all over if something should happen."

"Do you see any material difference between this baseball and the Negro National League?"

"Only in the organization of teams, accommodations, parks and such. The baseball here is better than down the line. That is, there are more good players. Negro kids used to give up in school or on the sandlots, figuring there was no future for them. Now I think they'll produce more good players."

"Did it bother you when Montreal's exhibition games in the South were canceled because of you?"

He laughed. "Not me. It wasn't my problem. They have their laws down there. I don't happen to think much of 'em, but as long as they have 'em you have to observe 'em."

Since the season opened, Robinson has not hit less than .330. He is not a powerful hitter, "legs out" a good many hits on sheer speed, excels at beating out bunts. He has made 106 hits and scored seventy-eight runs in 301 chances, with three triples, three home runs and fifteen doubles. Batting second, he has knocked in forty-four runs. He was shifted from shortstop to second base because his arm isn't particularly strong.

Club followers believe pitchers throw at him occasionally, but probably no oftener than at other dangerous batters. One day when he was pinked on the wrist and the umpire called it a foul ball, the first out of the dugout to protest the decision was a Texan.

In the recent Newark series he doubled in the ninth to win one game, saved another with a diving catch of a low line drive near first base when the bases were filled, doubled in the tenth to win a third game. He enjoys playing before big crowds, such as he saw in college, seems to rise to these occasions. Trapped in a run-down on the baseline one day, his sparkling footwork kept him jockeying safely until almost the entire Baltimore team got into the play. When he finally was retired, a full house in Montreal cheered as though for a home run.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 1, 2005 12:25 PM

While Jackie Robinson deserves even more credit than he is given for the trials he went through in breaking baseball's 'color line,' Branch Rickey's role is overstated and his fair-mindedness about as real as Saddam's Elite Republican Guard.

Rickey brought in Robinson for one reason, and one reason only. Money. Beginning in 1946, the Mexican League, headed by millionaire Jorge Pasquel lured many major leaguers South of the Border, including two Dodgers, Luis Olmo and the very popular catcher Mickey Owen. Rickey was the cheapest of the cheap, famous for making his Cardinal players pay for the cleaning of their own uniforms. His decision to bring in Blacks was motivated by a desire to depress the market for ballplayers not out of any sense of fair play.

Posted by: Bart at January 1, 2005 12:44 PM

The great Robinson aside, nobody writes like Red Smith anymore. If they did, they would be unemployable because nobody would understand him: "his sparkling footwork kept him jockeying safely ..."

Even further off point, I have been looking at a Time magazine from May of 1965. The letters to the editor are better written than any periodical of significant circulation today. In addition, there's an article in that issue on pitcher Bob Gibson in which the writer casually employs the word "paroxysm," that alone would probably get a writer of today fired post haste.

Posted by: JimGooding at January 1, 2005 12:54 PM