July 19, 2018

Jackie Robinson: Revisiting an Interview With a Baseball and Civil Rights Legend

March 2, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

The age of the internet is a blessing in that it allows for the preservation of so many primary sources—the collection of video, audio and written materials from our past. This is particularly important to baseball history, where there is so much to keep track of.

On April 14, 1957, legendary player and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson appeared on a radio/television broadcast of Meet the Press, less than a year removed from his final major league game. The Library of Congress has a transcript of his appearance, which covered a number of topics. I will share some of the parts I found most interesting, along with some of my own commentary in italics.

When asked if he thought baseball team owners were interested only in money and if they treated players like “pawns and chattel”: “I can’t say it is completely true, no. I think in most cases many of the club owners do have the thinking of the ball players in their hearts, but there are many, many instances where ball players are moved around. What the answer to eliminate it is, I don’t know.”

This may well be a generous take by Robinson, who was traded to the New York Giants following the 1956 season after a decade with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The deal was never consummated, as he elected to retire from playing in lieu of taking a position with Chock full o’ Nuts coffee company. It is hard not to imagine that the ability to control his own destiny and not take on a new team and a new challenge at the age 37 appealed to him.

Speaking on whether or not he thought the Reserve Clause was good: “If there were some other means to handle the situation, I would think it should be handled, but I don’t know of any other. If they didn’t have the reserve clause, when we came down to the last month of the season where a ball club may need a good ball player to have them win the pennant, a club with a lot of money who would only be interested in a pennant could, by offering this ball player – if there wasn’t some kind of a law to keep him from it – a lot of money, and I doubt very seriously if the player would refuse it.”

It’s interesting, to say the least, to see Robinson seemingly come down on the side of maintaining the “purity” of the game over the individual rights of the players.

On whether the New York Yankees and their money was stopped in any way by the Reserve Clause: “I don’t think that is the reason why the Yankees are so successful. I think that, very frankly, a lot of ball players when they are young are very, very anxious to join the Yankee chain. I think that tradition that they hear about so much has a lot to do with it, and they get in the organization. I believe that is what it is, personally.”

The popularity of the Yankees was no doubt a factor in helping them attract many good young players in the years before and since Robinson. However, it is foolish to overlook the impact of their ability to purchase players—especially from second-division teams who sold off their fledgling talent as a way to stay financially afloat. At one point, the Kansas City Athletics were practically a farm team for the Bronx Bombers. Hello, Roger Maris!

Was Robinson satisfied at the time of his retirement over the place of African Americans in baseball?: “Oh, no, I am never satisfied; let’s face it.”

With three major league teams yet to field a black player during a regular season game at the time of this interview (not to mention the many other problems associated with racism and segregation) there is little surprise here. Even today, African Americans face unfair and unjust challenges within baseball.

At the time of this interview, what sport did Robinson think gave black athletes the least chance at equal treatment?:  “I would say golf. In the over-all picture there are cases where Negroes are allowed to participate in the golf tournaments, but in the great majority of tournaments they are not allowed.”

This was obviously a terrible question, with blacks in the throes of segregation in jobs, sports and society in 1957. The fact that Robinson had to and could successfully identify which sport was most racist is an incredibly sad commentary on the state of things at that time.

Did unfair treatment that Robinson received as the player who broke baseball’s color line contribute to his supposed so-called “tart tongue and terrible temper?”: Oh, indeed not. Mr. Spivak (interviewer Lawrence Spivak), I can say this honestly; things weren’t as bad as a lot of people would have liked to have made them out to be. I received very, very fine treatment in most cases. So, therefore, my activities on the ball field had absolutely nothing to do with the way that I conducted myself at any time.

Robinson’s reluctance to back down to anyone was allegedly one of the attributes that made him a desirable candidate to integrate baseball. Although he undoubtedly had his allies and moments of endearment (although not all apparently exactly as remembered) there is no denying the abuse he took from those who wanted no part of him in the game. His unflappability and not allowing individuals or their negative actions to change his demeanor or how he conducted himself is a reflection on his immense strength and character. These were hallmarks of his legend as a player and person and helped him become such a titan in sports and humanity.

Andrew Martin is the founder of “The Baseball Historian” blog where he posts his thoughts about baseball on a regular basis. You can also reach him on Twitter at @historianandrew or on Facebook.

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