The portrayal of Jackie Robinson during the 21st century is mostly wrong. He was famously gracious before, during and after he changed American society forever when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers 70 years ago this month, but he also was wonderfully radical. In sum, he was never that docile guy who took all of those racial slurs and other ugliness in stride.
Remember the title of Robinson's autobiography, which used nearly every paragraph to swing away at injustice with a Louisville Slugger disguised as his powerful words?
"I never had it made."
Imagine Muhammad Ali before Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe before Arthur Ashe, and Colin Kaepernick before Colin Kaepernick. That was Robinson, owner of a tongue that never spoke less than the truth from his perspective.
So you may join me in hugging just the thought of that new statue outside of Dodger Stadium, because it's a bronzed tribute to the most important athlete of all time. It's a 77-inch depiction of Robinson sliding into home plate as a rookie with the Dodgers. His No. 42 was retired 20 years ago by every Major League team, and baseball has a day in his honor each season. Not only that, but despite our history-challenged generation, most folks know by junior high school that Babe Ruth didn't break baseball's color barrier. It was Robinson, whose body, mind and soul helped make the game famous.
It's just that the Robinson we often see now wasn't the one who lived for 53 years before his death in October 1972. During his prime, more than a few people wanted this former Army lieutenant who was nearly court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a military bus to evolve into a silent national icon. Instead, he remained every bit of Jack Roosevelt Robinson, which meant that he welcomed controversy for the sake of keeping his convictions.
I thought about all of this after I recently became one of the few persons to hear a 55-year-old audio recording of the real Jackie. The tape belongs to Don Mesibov, an upstate New Yorker who stumbled into history during the early 1960s as a diehard fan of both the Dodgers and Robinson. Soon after Robinson was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in January 1962, he was honored in Boston, where Mesibov was a junior at Boston University. The aspiring radio announcer grabbed his recording device and rushed to Robinson's hotel in search of a pigeon-toed needle in a haystack surrounded by veteran reporters.
Mesibov found that needle. More specifically, he discovered a strikingly cooperative Robinson, who gave 40 minutes of his time to a young interviewer he'd never met. The segment aired several months later on the Boston University radio station, and that's been about it for public consumption, which is strange. The recording is flawless, and Robinson spoke eloquently about a slew of things, usually in blunt terms. About why he never thought he'd reach Cooperstown until it happened. About his love for wife Rachel, and for sons Jackie Jr., and David and for daughter Sharon. About the brilliance of Branch Rickey. About why he rarely ran against left-handed pitcher Warren Spahn. About his mindset as a baserunner that led to his swiping home plate 19 times.
"I could always tell when I had the opposition somewhat rattled," Robinson said, with the hint of a giggle on the tape. "When I saw that they were rattled, I got a big kick out of it, and I tried to carry it on. I often marveled at how some of the guys would get so upset that they'd want to, instead of throwing the ball at the plate, they'd have much preferred to have thrown it at me."
Robinson almost laughed again, but he turned serious, and he spoke about whether managing or coaching was in his plans after a post-baseball business career ("No chance," he said quickly). About the silliness of those questioning the guts of Hall of Fame pitcher Don Newcombe. About his ongoing pain over that Bobby Thomson game (you know, "The Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant …"). About the thrill of the Dodgers snatching a World Series from the Yankees in 1955 after so many misses. About his least favorite position after playing first, second, third and left in the Major Leagues.
"When I played second base, I became relaxed and at ease," Robinson said on the tape of his natural position. "Then I moved over to third base when I got a little older, and then they moved me to left field, and that was really tough. I couldn't play the outfield. I remember trying to run in for a ball in Philadelphia, and I was coming in fast, and I was running on my heels, and all of a sudden, it looked like the ball was bouncing up and down. When I finally got to it, I reached for it, and I thought it was down, but it was up, and then when I reached for it again, it barely just missed hitting on the top of my head."
I told you Robinson was honest. He spent the rest of the tape sliding spikes high on everything from his pick for the best clutch hitter among his legendary Dodgers of the late 1940s through the mid-1950s to why he thought then-President John F. Kennedy wasn't good for African-Americans. I'll use JFK as the closer. As for Mesibov's question on clutch hitter, he reminded Robinson during the interview that the Dodgers had the accomplished likes of Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and Carl Furrilo.
"One guy you left out that I like to say that I'd like to see up there," Robinson mentioned on the tape. "Billy Cox."
Billy Cox? No way. He was an infielder noted for his solid glove and his unassuming ways. He accumulated just 66 homers and 351 RBIs during his 15 Major League seasons that produced a .262 batting average. Still, Robinson was defiant, adding, "I'd like to see Billy Cox up there in a situation like that, and then I would like to see Jim Gilliam."
So this probably isn't a coincidence. After Gilliam finished all 14 of his Major League seasons with the Dodgers in 1966, his career numbers were similar to those of Cox (.265 batting average, 65 homers and 558 RBIs). Robinson stressed on the tape that he wasn't a fan of statistics, because he said, "I don't think they really tell a man's value to his ball team." In contrast, Robinson was more into character, because he was the epitome of the word. He was among the few former and current baseball players at the time to support Curt Flood during his exhaustive battle against baseball to end the reserve clause along the way to bringing free agency to professional sports.
As for JFK, Robinson was a Richard Nixon man. That stunned many, since Kennedy was a Democrat and the overwhelming choice of African-Americans, who were called "Negroes" back then. Nixon was a Republican, and he was vice president during the Dwight Eisenhower administration that preceded Kennedy's and was perceived as apathetic toward minorities, except for its 1957 role in integrating Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.
Robinson spoke at length on Kennedy versus Nixon. Let's just say if the man of the moment had opted to pitch during this portion of the interview, his blazing heat would have destroyed the radar gun.
"If the election were to be run tomorrow, and the conditions were the same, and if Mr. Kennedy had said to me what he said to me in Washington, and that was, 'Jack, my problem is that, coming from Boston, I didn't have the chance to know the Negro,' I wouldn't have supported him then," Robinson said on the tape. "Because as I looked at the senator, and he had been in the Congress and the senate for some 14 years and still didn't know the Negro, he couldn't possibly get my support to learn about me and my people in four years. Then when I talked to Mr. Nixon, I was convinced that he was sincere. He wasn't going out and doing the things I would have liked to see him do, and he wasn't saying the things, and I think this cost him the election.
"But he told me confidentially, and people on his staff told me, what Mr. Nixon was planning to do, and they told me that, the problem is, 'We don't think he can get the Negro vote. So therefore, we've got to try to win, but we promise you we're going to do certain types of things.' And he convinced me of his sincerity, so I supported him, because Mr. Nixon convinced me.
"I didn't support Senator Kennedy, because he told me he didn't know anything about the Negro. We're a complicated people, and I think that, if somebody doesn't know anything about us, it's not right to try to learn about us in four years, especially as President of the United States."
Yep, that was Jackie.
The real one.