Remembering Jackie Robinson

The following Q&A session with Cal Fussman, author of After Jackie: Afterj Pride, Prejudice and Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes — An Oral History, appeared on ESPN.com.

Fussman, a contributing editor for ESPN The Magazine and Esquire magazine, compiled interviews with over 100 former major leaguers and other prominent members of society.

The dialogue below is reproduced in its entirety and without changes except for spelling corrections and, in the interest of privacy, the names of the people who asked the questions.

* * *

Q: Mr. Fussman: Was this a book you always wanted to do? Or what motivated you to such a large undertaking?

Cal Fussman: Great question. The book came from the idea of Gary Hoenig, the editor of ESPN the Magazine. He called me into his office and told me about the idea. I had no idea what I was getting into when I started.

Q: As you did your research did you come across any particular piece of information that shocked you, or you thought more people should know?

Fussman: What surprised me was to see the economic pain suffered by the African-American communities after Jackie broke into major league baseball. The Negro Leagues were the second-largest black business in America. A year after Jackie integrated baseball, most of the Negro Leagues were out of business. The impact was tremendous. It would be just like GM going out of business. There would be incredible ramifications. We’re still seeing some of the effects of the Negro Leagues’ demise 60 years later.


Q: Do you fear that not enough young people know enough about Jackie Robinson and his contributions to baseball and society? If so what can be done about this?

Fussman: What I’d like to come out of this book is for young people to understand what Jackie Robinson accomplished; the doors that he opened. I’d also like them to understand that the people who followed Jackie Robinson (African-American ballplayers) rarely got a chance to speak out. If they were playing baseball in the 60s, at the time of the race riots, they couldn’t speak out for fear of being traded. It’s only many years later that they feel comfortable telling these stories. I hope that these stories help establish a dialogue, because to be honest, I don’t believe there’s much of a dialogue between blacks and whites in America right now.

Q: Did you have any difficulty getting information out of people on any particular topics? If so, which ones?

Fussman: It’s very difficult to go back in time, and even more difficult to go through skin color. I’m a white guy, and asking very painful questions to old black men. One of the things they learned back in the 40s and 50s was never to cry in front of a white man. The interviews were very difficult at times because the players were fighting against that instinct. They were filled with emotion.

Q: Who in your opinion is the most underappreciated Negro leagues player?

Fussman: That’s such a hard question, because I didn’t ever really see any of them play. The Negro Leagues were basically gone by the time I was born in 1956. The real sadness of the Negro Leagues is that you had a player like Josh Gibson who some estimate hit more than 800 career home runs, and who might have been the all-time leaguer if he played in the major leagues, and most people never got the chance to see him play.

It’s hard to say that Satchel Paige was underrated because legend has it that he’s one of the best pitchers of all time, but after hearing everything about him, I would have loved for a chance to see him pitch; like seeing Jordan, Ruth, or Ali in their primes. As well known as he is, man, it would have been just great to see a couple of hours watching him.

Q: You mentioned how shortly after Robinson entered the major leagues the Negro leagues went out of business. Did you find any people who were upset at Jackie for his move within the African American community, and did anyone blame him for the demise of the leagues?

Fussman: No, it wasn’t quite Jackie’s fault. He quickly saw what the ramifications were, and in the 1960s, he founded the Freedom National Bank in Harlem. Jackie understood some of the problems of his integration of baseball, and he tried to do something about them. From the people that I talked to, what happened was that when Jackie opened the door, everyone in the black community started to see integration like they treated equality, but not everyone was integrated. When you had the riots in the 60s, there was an angry lashing-out at the dreams that never really were turned into reality. I don’t think that African-Americans blamed Jackie for the death of the Negro Leagues. There was an African-American sportswriter named Sam Lacy who said that when Lincoln ended slavery, 400,000 slaves were put out of jobs, but it was clearly necessary. I don’t think Jackie was blamed. Later on, when the Black Panthers popped up, Jackie came to be seen as an Uncle Tom by younger people who wanted to take things by force. They didn’t understand that Jackie was using discipline to move things ahead, and that it wasn’t going to happen overnight.

Q: I am not quite familiar with this part of history, and I admit I should be, but how was Jackie received by Brooklyn fans? I guess what I really mean to ask is, was there something special about Brooklyn that facilitated Jackie’s move to the majors?

Fussman: Absolutely. New York by nature has always taken in different people and allowed different people to call it home. Brooklyn had a small-town feel to it, which was welcoming in the larger-context to New York. He was completely adored by the people in Brooklyn. If you’re from Brooklyn, you loved Jackie Robinson, although there might have been a few Yankee fans there.

Q: Back then was it just another owner trying to exploit talent? The difference being this talent was of a different color?

Fussman: You may be on to something there. A lot of people look at Branch Rickey as a guy who was basically using Jackie to make a lot of money. On the other hand, other people have called him baseball’s Abraham Lincoln. I think the genius of Branch Rickey was that he was able to merge money and morality. He had the right idea and was able to make money off of it. Before Jackie was signed, Ebbets Field was half-packed at home games. Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds were filled. When the Negro Leagues came to town, 40,000 fans showed up, and Rickey had to have known this. It was obvious that this also came from Rickey’s heart, and he did everything in his power to make the transition easy. It was a win-win situation for him.

The other thing that should be pointed out is that Rickey didn’t pay the Kansas City Monarchs a penny for Jackie. The Negro Leagues did not offer signed contracts to their players. The Negro Leagues signed their players after this, as the Monarchs weren’t happy that they lost Rickey without compensation. They did not sell another player to the Dodgers.

Q: What other major league teams were interested in Jackie? Did he almost play for another team? Or was Rickey’s commitment to Jackie so big that there was no chance he would play for anyone but the Dodgers?

Fussman: Jackie actually had a tryout for the Boston Red Sox well before Rickey. This was really strange because the Red Sox were the last team to integrate–Pumpsie Green in 1959, 12 years after Jackie. There was some political maneuvering from a friend of Jackie’s to arrange the tryout. The Red Sox went through the tryout as a matter of form. They never had any intention of signing Jackie.

The Red Sox were looking at Willie Mays as well but didn’t go for him. Imagine Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays playing on the same team. That’s pretty incredible.

People wonder why it took so long for them to win a World Series. Maybe that’s why. I don’t think that’s the curse of the Bambino.

Q: It seems as if everyone is harping on the declining percentage of blacks in MLB. Considering that blacks are a declining percent of the U.S. population, and are actually represented fairly when compared to U.S. demographics, do you think this is really a non-issue?

Fussman: I think it is an issue, basically because you have 27 percent of major-league populations being African-American in the 70’s, down to 8 or 9 percent now. There are deep-seated reasons for this. Baseball is a father-and-son game, passed down from father to son in Little League. Sadly there has been a breakdown in the African-American family structure, which has caused a decline. Something is being lost, and part of the reason that it’s the case is tha
t you can trace back to when the Negro Leagues went out of business. The black hotels that took in fans from Negro League games went out of business, which caused the pharmacies to go out of business, and so on. All of the black businesses in downtown areas started to go under because they couldn’t compete with the whit e businesses . A whole downward spiral occurred. We saw many of the African-American working class lose their jobs in the steel mills of Pittsburgh due to industrialization. In the void of this stepped drugs, which started to destroy the family structure. As Jim Brown, the football great, said to me, a lot of the African-American kids now have no idea what happened, and because of that have no idea what’s happening to them now. It’s important for 19-year-old kids to understand why the world is the way it is now. This book tries to help explain that.

Q: Who was the most interesting person you interviewed for this book?

Fussman: Tough question. One of the most interesting people was Don Newcombe. He’s the last living African-American to have played on the Dodgers with Jackie. He joined two years after Jackie and endured many of the same indignities. He tells an amazing story that, in 1954, seven years after Jackie integrated baseball, the African-American couldn’t stay in the Chase Hotel in St. Louis, whereas the white players could. The white players had everything taken care of, whereas Jackie and Don and Roy Campanella had to get their own bags and take a cab to the other side of the city. There’s a lot of bitterness in Don’s voice when he talks about this. When Jackie asked management why they wouldn’t let them stay, the manager said they didn’t want them staying in the swimming pool. Eventually, they were able to get a room, which was a step toward integration. When you sit down with someone who’s 80 years old and bringing these stories to life, it’s really powerful. Like reliving the moment.

I’d like to thank everybody for reading the book. I spent a year and a half on it. I really hope it opens up a dialogue for people to discuss the world around them now. Maybe it’ll be easier to discuss it when starting with Jackie Robinson: where we come from and where we are now.

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