The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron - Howard Bryant (2010)

PART TWO. MAGIC

Chapter 6. JACKIE

JACKIE ROBINSON did not go away easily. The spindly fingers of time caressing his shoulders, Robinson willed a last immortal charge, leading the Dodgers past the Braves for the 1956 pennant. Periodically, the old fire could sustain him, tricking him into believing his competitiveness meshed with O’Malley’s and Alston’s view of the future. And it was a fact: Even though he’d hit only .275 (his career average would be .311), played in the second-fewest games of his career, and wouldn’t even finish the season with one hundred hits, Jackie Robinson was brilliant in 1956, especially in those big games against Milwaukee, when it was clear that the difference between success and defeat would not be commodities as easily definable as simple talent or statistics.

Against the Braves, Robinson hit .347. In June, when the Brooks were struggling to stay afloat in a five-team race, he hit .321. In July, when most players and teams couldn’t keep their tongues from dragging the infield, the old man of the Dodgers led the club by hitting .368. Finally, in September, when it was time to win the pennant, Robinson hit .290 but scored seventeen runs and drove in twelve, his highest and second-highest totals of any month of the season.

He was stubborn and driven and dangerous, an asset to a team that lacked that furious thirst to compete, the critical difference to one that seemed oddly luckless, tougher than the Braves but insufficiently resilient against the Yankees. In a final World Series showdown with the Yankees, the last Subway Series for nearly half a century, Robinson was fierce and smoldering: a home run off Whitey Ford in the triumphant opener, two hits the next day as the Dodgers went up 2–0. As was the case during the season, he had a talent for discovering those lush patches of brilliance, as in the tenth inning of the sixth game, after the Dodgers had lost three straight and were facing the end, when Robinson singled home the only run of the game and pushed the Series to its winner-take-all conclusion. The finale, a 9–0 Yankee rubout at Ebbets Field, was explosive only in its confirmation of the Yankee mandate—over a ten-year period, the Yankees met the Dodgers in the World Series six times and lost but once, in 1955—and for being the final humiliation of Don Newcombe. Game seven ended Newcombe’s run as one of the signature pitchers of his time and sealed his reputation as a pitcher who came up the smallest when there was so much to be gained. Naturally, it was never that simple. Newcombe won 27 games in 1956 (the rare daily double of the MVP and Cy Young, too) and 123 as a Dodger, but in his career he never won a single postseason game.

In the end, Newcombe finally broke under the weight, and he would never be the same. Over the course of the Series, he punched out a fan after being tagged by the Yankees for six runs over the first two innings in game two, finished the Series with a 21.21 earned-run average in two starts, and, after being demolished again in game seven, left not only the field but the ballpark before the game was complete, disappearing for days before reappearing just before the team plane took off for an exhibition series in Japan. He would never win fourteen games again in a season and would never again pitch in the postseason.

Robinson, in the short term, did not fare much better. The two-out liner in game six (made all the sweeter because the Yankee pitcher, Bob Turley, intentionally walked Snider to get to Robinson) would be the last hurrah in a big-league contest. He went one for ten over the final three games, ending the Series when Johnny Kucks struck him out. On the Japan trip, a goodwill exhibition designed to spread the gospel of baseball, Robinson’s temper ignited in Hiroshima and made the lead of the United Press dispatch, “An outburst by Jackie Robinson highlighted the Dodgers’ 10–6 victory over the All-Kansai Stars today in the city that suffered the first atom bomb attack.” The story continued to state that Robinson’s “run-in with the umpire occurred in the third inning. He protested a decision so long and so loud that he became the first Brooklyn player to be ejected since the start of the Japanese tour.”

Robinson made two more pieces of news in Japan. The first was that he was not planning to retire to become manager of the Montreal Royals, the Dodger minor-league affiliate with which he began his career (Robinson was never offered the job). The second was that he said he expected to return to the Dodgers for an eleventh season in 1957. Walter Alston also said he expected Robinson back.

And then, eleven days before Christmas, the Dodgers traded him to the New York Giants. “Dear Jackie and Rachel, I do know how you and the youngsters must have felt,” Walter O’Malley wrote Robinson on December 14, 1956. “It was a sad day for us as well. You were courageous and fair and philosophical on radio and television and in the press. It was better that way. The roads of life have a habit of re-crossing. There could well be a future intersection. Until then, my best to you both, with a decade of memories. Au revoir, Walter O’Malley.”

If he had been caught unawares by the trade—the word he often used for the press was shocked—it was only because he forgot that first great rule of baseball, and maybe of life in the competitive world: There are going to be a lot of folks waiting for you on the way down. Baseball always had a way of reminding players that at the end of the day, they were just ballplayers, a reminder that the players always seemed to forget when they were at their weakest. Players had the shortest shelf life; they were, on balance, the easiest to replace, and would live on, if they were lucky and good, in the memory of the people who watched them and enjoyed their play. The real game took place far from the pitching mound, away from the batter’s box. That game was invitation-only, and most players, especially the superstars, were not invited. Ruth had left the game a whimper of his bombastic self, a panhandler for a coaching job, who would come up empty until the day he died. DiMaggio, too, would cut an awkward figure when it was time for him to leave the game, and so it would be for Jackie Robinson.

LOOKING BACK, it required an impossible leap of imagination to think of the retirement of Jackie Robinson as anything other than a moment of statesmanship, but the truth was just the opposite. In the winter of 1956, while Henry was basking in the afterglow of his first batting title, Robinson was at best remarkable, dynamic, polarizing. He was, for the first time, vulnerable: Age and sharply declining skills were unable to protect him from his controversies. On team letterhead that contained a photo of the 1955 title team—the team that won Brooklyn’s only World Series, with Robinson injured and on the bench in game seven—Alston wrote to Robinson on December 18, 1956.

Dear Jackie,

I appreciate your letter very much and I’m glad to know how you feel. As far as I’m concerned there was never any serious trouble between us, and what little we did have was greatly exaggerated by the press.

I have always admired your fine competitive spirit and team play. The Dodgers will miss you, but that is baseball. Good luck to you and your family in the future.

Sincerely,  
Walt Alston

FEW TEARS INSIDE baseball were shed when Robinson made his retirement official in January 1957, but Robinson’s walking away from the game had a tremendous effect on Henry. The two did not share many conversations and were not great friends, but Robinson was a nearly mythic figure for Henry, and his retirement seemed, in an indirect way, to close the first chapter of Henry’s baseball life. It was Robinson who had hatched the dream of playing major-league baseball, against white competition, succeeding in what had once been the foreign, prohibited land of white baseball. And here Henry was, twenty-two years old, winner of the batting title, fast being considered in a league with Mays, Musial, and Mantle at a time when Robinson was closing the book on his career—one ending and the other just getting started.

O’Malley may have admired Robinson, but he never exactly enjoyed him. There was no money in it for Walter. Robinson was part of the old regime, a Rickey hand, and O’Malley had never received any residual benefit from Robinson’s pioneering. History never credited O’Malley with any portion of the Noble Experiment. Alston and Robinson were never exactly warm. Robinson was a Charlie Dressen man, and Alston kept trying to replace him by trotting out new candidates for his position, as he did when the Dodgers acquired third baseman Ransom Jackson from the Cubs in 1956. Robinson muscled and flexed and reduced Jackson from an all-star in 1955 to a part-time player. Randy Jackson would be out of the league after 1959. “And when Jackie wants to try extra hard,” wrote Arthur Daley in the Times, “he’s a matchless performer, the best money player in the business.”

Certainly the skill to defeat an opponent physically and psychologically could have helped a club. Henry W. Miller of 29 Lincrest Street in Hicksville, New York, thought so. After the Dodgers won the title in 1955, Mr. Miller wrote a letter to Joe Brown, the Pirates general manager—the same Joe Brown to whom Ed Scott had written four years earlier about a younger Henry—suggesting the remedy for the sagging Pirates was Jackie Robinson … as manager.

“Thank you for your letter of October 25 in which you recommend Jackie Robinson for consideration as manager of the Pittsburgh club,” Brown wrote in response three days later. “You were most kind to offer your advice, and I can assure you that I have the same high regard for Jack Robinson as you do.” In other words, Mr. Miller, leave the front office work to the professionals.

The Defender promulgated the Montreal rumor, advocating that Robinson be given the opportunity to make history once again, this time by becoming the first black manager in professional sports. At the same time, Robinson was rumored to be in the running for the Vancouver managerial position in the Pacific Coast League. In this case, the rumors were off by nearly twenty years, for baseball would not hire a black manager until 1974.

If anything, the first month of his retirement was far from tranquil. Warren Giles, the National League president, had no comment upon receiving Robinson’s retirement filing, not even the slightest recognition that the game Robinson left was not the game he had entered. Robinson gave an interview later in the month, saying the Dodgers were justified in their concern about the hand injury that reduced Campanella to a .219 hitter in 1956. Jackie and Campanella, two men who saw race in starkly contrasting terms, were never particularly close. Campanella’s nonconfrontational style appealed to writers in general and to one in particular, Dick Young. Young found Campanella and told him Robinson had said he was washed up. When Campanella struck back (“A lot of people are happy to see Jackie gone,” the catcher said), Robinson found himself at the airport in Chicago, preparing a statement in between connections from New York to San Francisco.

“Campy is quoted as saying that our relationship had ‘cooled off’ over the past few years,” the statement read. “Absolutely no good would be served by my saying why it ‘cooled.’ I have no argument with Campy and I don’t want one. In addition, I’m too busy as chairman of the NAACP Fight for Freedom campaign to concern myself with arguments of this type.”

Robinson had taken a swat at his vanquished foes, the Braves, telling one captive audience that the Braves lost the pennant because “one or two of the key Braves players were out ‘nightclubbing’ with the pennant on the line.” It was bad enough that the Braves had lost the pennant on the second-to-last day of the season, and now on his way out, Jackie was pouring a fifth of bourbon into the open wound. That sent Johnny Logan into a lather. Logan chafed at Jackie Robinson for publicly flogging the Braves. If Robinson was going to suggest the Braves partied their way out of the money, Robinson, Logan believed, should at least name the players he knew to be carousing. Otherwise, Logan thought, Robinson was being a coward for covering the entire team under one blanket accusation, for there were players like the catcher Del Crandall—whom Grimm used to call without admiration “the milk shake drinker”—who almost certainly were not burning the midnight oil.

Spahn said Robinson had developed a real hate for Milwaukee, ever since a couple from that city sued him for forty thousand dollars when he accidentally flipped his bat into the stands. Still, Robinson’s greatest crime was his candor. Days after being traded to the Giants, he received a letter from his favorite manager, Charlie Dressen, who by that time had begun what would be a short managing stay in Washington. Dressen wrote the letter in his squat, loopy longhand on Washington Senators stationery (“Office of the Manager”) and thanked Robinson sweetly for never failing to mention Dressen’s considerable influence on him (“Players rarely give their managers any credit,” he wrote). The letter was written with a sense of warmth, which underscored the fact that the relationship between the two men went beyond the professional, proof that during the tumultuous period of integration, a legitimate friendship had formed. Dressen had always believed that Robinson was the best baseball player he’d ever managed, and it was clear that Robinson was never more comfortable than when he played under Charlie Dressen. Dressen invited Robinson to Yankee Stadium when the Senators traveled to New York, and said he understood if it was too early yet for Robinson to step into a big-league ballpark, having quit the game so recently. Dressen then asked Robinson to remember, even in retirement, a key portion of the ballplayer code:

Had something in mind, of course it would not help you now. Just want to give you a tip but I think you are well aware of the same. Anyhow, Jack, don’t let anyone trick you into nameing [sic] players in regards to night life. You will have to be careful because you will be asked many times about the Milwaukee club. Off the record, or on, don’t name anyone.

Then, there was the small matter of Jackie Robinson versus Florence and Peter Wolinsky, the Milwaukee couple who had sued Robinson for forty thousand dollars two and a half years earlier on the grounds of “severe nervous shock” when Robinson conked the couple on the head with a bat he inadvertently tossed into the stands after being ejected by home plate umpire Lee Ballanfant. On February 5, Henry Aaron’s twenty-third birthday, Robinson paid each of them three hundred dollars.

On January 31, Robinson’s thirty-eighth birthday, Maglie came out swinging. “Jackie Robinson is a pop-off who hurts people and ‘then writes them a letter of apology,’ Brooklyn’s clutch pitcher Sal Maglie said today,” a United Press wire story reported. Robinson may have been retired, and it may have been January, but the Barber was still trying to dust Robinson. Robinson was out of shape, Maglie said. He played when he wanted to. His reflexes were shot.

“I admire his playing, but it’s a shame that a great ballplayer like he was does that,” Maglie was quoted as saying.

Maybe Robinson was cracking under the burden of responsibilities and symbolisms that had weighed him down for too long. His physical appearance would always be the best giveaway—gray hair at thirty-eight would turn porcelain white by forty-five. Only sitting presidents would age on the job as severely as Robinson. His physical appearance was proof of the anecdotal rhetoric: His journey was killing him.

The thing of it was that Robinson understood his special place, his burden, his mission more clearly than anyone else. Though Robinson was always described, quite clumsily, in fact, as “breaking the color barrier,” the mission itself was by no means the removal of a singular obstacle. First there was the goal of getting onto the field, of making being the first a reality. Then it was necessary to make sure that when he finally did play, he did not do so only as a novelty, but as someone who would be remembered as one of the very few transformative figures equal to the moment. That was the only way integration could gain its proper weight, provide the appropriate momentum for the larger movement that was to follow. Robinson’s 1947 roommate, Dan Bankhead, for example, was the first black pitcher in the major leagues, but no one remembered him, because he couldn’t play. Baseball’s first dominant black pitcher would come a few years later, when Don Newcombe arrived, but it would be nearly twenty years after Robinson before a black pitcher—in this case, Bob Gibson of St. Louis—began a Hall of Fame path and in fact wound up in Cooperstown.

The third stage was full membership in the club, at a level of every white person born in the United States of America—not only for Robinson but for the twelve million Negroes in the country at the time. Well, that one would be a bit more complicated. That was why his contemporaries understood and applauded the early Robinson, the one who took the spikes to exposed shins, the mitts to the face, and the knockdowns, and yet would be so offended and threatened by the assertive, bolder Robinson of later years, the one who realized full equality did not mean staying in your place, but not having a place at all. The early Robinson accepted his road by facing down his adversaries with that dangerously double-sided word—dignity—which could be at once reverential and patronizing (as Henry would one day discover), and that fit the narrative the kingmakers with the typewriters wanted to tell.

The Robinson who turned the other cheek fit the rules, the perception of how blacks were expected to deal with white aggression, as well as the perception of what the noble experiment was supposed to be all about, the nonviolent protest of being above aggression and thus better than his oppressors. The writers could bask in his forbearance, as long as they had control over and approved the narrative. In truth, Robinson waited for the day to drop a knuckle sandwich on some clown who put him in the dirt one time too many, and when he did—just ask Davey Williams, the Giant second baseman Robinson buried back in the old days, when Maglie (the real target) ducked the responsibility of covering first base after throwing at Robinson—the results were messy and merciless. He once told Roger Kahn that he had no intention of being turned into “some pacifist black freak.”

The hard truth was that even as the mid-1950s were producing an unprecedented generation of Hall of Fame black ballplayers who surpassed him in statistics, if not overall raw baseball talent—Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Elston Howard, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Larry Doby, and Henry Aaron all made their debuts between 1951 and 1955—Robinson was still alone in front.

The 1950s were not a time when Negro ballplayers voiced confrontation in the press, except for Robinson. Happy to be there wasn’t full membership; neither was stay in your place. It was also true that it did not matter what was being said to the umpire or to the press, but, rather, that it was Robinson doing the talking. During Robinson’s first five seasons in the big leagues, from 1947 to 1951, he was ejected a total of sixteen times. A loudmouth like Eddie Stanky, the hard-charging adopted southerner, got tossed seventeen times, but it was Robinson who earned the nickname “Pop-off.” On August 3, in a death grip for the pennant with Milwaukee, Robinson would go four for six with three RBIs in a twelve-inning loss at St. Louis. That same morning, an item appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

SOUTHERN SCRIBE BLAMES JACKIE FOR RACE LAW

NEW ORLEANS, AUG. 2 (AP)—Bill Keefe, sports editor of the Times-Picayune, said the new law received a push from the “insolence” of Robinson.…

“He has been the most harmful influence the Negro race has suffered … and the surprising part of it is that he wasn’t muzzled long ago.”

Unbowed, Robinson responded, “You call me ‘insolent.’ I’ll admit I haven’t been subservient, but would you use the same adjective to describe a white ballplayer—say Ted Williams, who is, more often than I, involved in controversial matters?”

It would take another generation of players, the Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali generation, to embrace Robinson’s role of the political figure as athlete, confident in his standing, willing to take a sledgehammer to the old order. And perhaps more importantly, the writers who most passionately championed Robinson’s right to exist as a player in 1947 did not appear to appreciate this final leg of the Robinson quest.

Men like Arthur Daley of the New York Times and Shirley Povich of the Washington Post were not of the appropriate generation to recognize this next challenge as a first assault on a paternalistic order. Instead, they saw Robinson as oversensitive, hot-tempered, irrational, and in many ways betraying the nobility of the experiment. In a sense, their attitudes were no different from the attitude expressed one day in Bradenton, when Spahn would shake his head after reading the latest headline about the Montgomery Bus boycott and ask Henry uncomprehendingly, “Henry, just what is it you people want?”

The writers did not understand their own inherent paternalism. When Robinson formally petitioned for his retirement, Daley recalled in print an early exchange with Robinson.

“If you’ll forgive a personal experience, it will be offered as an illustration of Robinson’s shrewdness,” Daley wrote. “Midway in Jackie’s second season … this reporter suddenly realized that Robbie had never once addressed him by name.… He did not want to set himself apart … by using the clumsy ‘mister’ and he wasn’t certain … whether the first-name approach would be too familiar.

“… in his second season, I asked him an inconsequential question. ‘You know the answer as well as I do, Arthur.’ … He’d smuggled in the first name.… He was never troubled thereafter.”

Daley was so sure of his position, convinced of his birthright to be addressed in a certain formal fashion by a black person, for the reinforcement of his class superiority to Robinson’s surely occurred daily. Yet Daley seemed so secure within that order that in his report he did not offer to break the caste system himself by simply inviting Robinson to call him by his first name.

And it made sense that so many began to hate Robinson, because the shift toward a new society did not just come suddenly and without warning; Robinson did not ask for permission to change these unspoken rules. He did not ask to speak in turn. He did not issue a press release announcing he was upgrading his membership, appointing himself one of the first leaders of the movement, years before it was given a proper name.

And the ones who remembered the noble Robinson turned on him because he saw faster than they that his audacity in showing he was unsatisfied was part of that movement. What the Art Daleys and Shirley Poviches of the world did not understand was the difference between perceived and actual equality. Robinson knew the critical difference lay in who sat at the controls. Through Robinson, a meteoric shift was taking place right in front of their eyes, and men like Dick Young and Daley and Povich were of the wrong generation to see it.

He would not play for the Giants, and inside the game he did not have many friends in that insular, exclusive club called baseball. DiMaggio eventually went back to the game, to coach in Oakland after a long disillusionment. Robinson never would. There would be no offers to coach, work in the front office, or manage, few reconciliations, and plenty of calamity, but that was the thing about Jackie: No matter how unsure he looked in his endeavors off the field (sparring with Malcolm X and JFK, supporting Nixon before recognizing the enormity of his error), compared to his grace and fire on it, baseball in a sense would always seem too limiting for him.

That was always the tricky thing about history: You never quite knew in which direction it would turn. Induction into the Hall of Fame required approval on 75 percent of the ballots. When Robinson was elected in 1962, the first year he was eligible, he was safe, by a hair, receiving a mere 77.5 percent of the vote. His Hall of Fame plaque served as proof that baseball at the time did not comprehend its own larger significance: Nowhere did his inscription note that he was the first black player in the major leagues.*

THEY CAME AND went in baseball, but face it, how many actually changed the rules of the game, how it was played, who was allowed to play, and how they were allowed to act? There were really just five—Ruth, Landis, Rickey, Robinson, and Marvin Miller—while the rest served at the pleasure of the ruling class, some doing their part but most maintaining the status quo. And of that five, only one could say he was just as influential on the political front, in protests and events outside of the ballpark, as he was dancing off third base. Following the second game of the 1956 World Series, Robinson received letters on White House stationery from both Vice President Nixon and Frederic Morrow, the first black White House aide, congratulating him and the Dodgers. Nobody else in baseball was getting letters from the Oval Office, and they hated him for that, too. “What? Is he running for president, too?” snorted a bitter Allie Reynolds when Robinson criticized the recalcitrant Yankees for not signing black players. It went back to what the writer Leonard Koppett used to say about Robinson, that before him, black people did not really exist in the eyes of white America. Certainly they were there, in the streets, on the sidewalks, in the kitchen, as the objects of jokes but invisible to the touch, never anything more than stage props.

Robinson was the first black American to play his piano in the foreground, with no intention of ever being anything else but the leader. Joe Louis came first, but boxers didn’t fight every day, and while the fights were big, the racket itself lacked the social legitimacy of baseball. While Maglie was throwing heat his way, Robinson soared beyond, his legacy secured by progress, redrawing the canvas of society, giving the discussion an entirely different starting point. His enemies chafed at the unfairness of it all, but virtually all would stand on the wrong side of history. It was history that would vindicate him, and the men who sparred with Jackie, the ones who were sick of him, who could least see those transformative qualities, stood alone, sounding little more than bitter. As Robinson’s influence as the single most important political figure in baseball history grew all the more obvious as the lifetimes piled up, his enemies began looking horribly small, insignificant signposts disappearing in the rearview mirror.

AT THE TIME, there would be no publicity marking the moment, and it would take years before he articulated his position publicly, but Henry Aaron had carefully watched Robinson, and he did not admire him as much as revere him. Where others saw audacity, Henry saw a road map. For years, Henry would be paired with many players. For if no other reasons than their outsized production and contrasting playing personalities, Henry would always be connected to Willie Mays. For their annual rivalry for the Gold Glove and the starting spot in the All-Star Game, Henry would face comparisons to Roberto Clemente. Naturally, as he reached the pinnacle of his baseball achievements, Henry would always live with Babe Ruth.

For the rest of his playing career, Henry Aaron would be paired with Willie Mays instead of the one player who truly mattered, the one who provided the template not for him as a player but for the man he sought to become. When Robinson retired, to the business world and the somewhat foreign but important arenas of politics and philanthropy, Henry saw the value, the necessity of not being limited by baseball. Only in following in the footsteps of Robinson could Henry realize his true path: to use whatever influences his baseball life afforded him to have some effect on society at large.

*In 2008, the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, took the unprecedented step of replacing Robinson’s original plaque with an updated version, one that notes his batting average and awards, but also his place as the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues in the twentieth century.