Try they did — and Robinson succeeded mightily, becoming a pioneering major leaguer, a Hall of Famer and, in that most tired but still accurate of phrases, an American icon. Moments after Hamburger shared his words of wisdom, reporters asked Robinson what he’d do if a pitcher threw at his head. “Duck,” Robinson replied. He’d wind up doing a great deal of that.
One day in Robinson’s inaugural big-league season in 1947, the Philadelphia Phillies, led by their manager, Ben Chapman, were assaulting the Dodger first baseman with especially virulent racist taunts and epithets. “For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s noble experiment,’” Robinson recalled. “It’s clear it won’t succeed. … I thought what a glorious, cleansing thing it would be to let go. To hell with the image of the patient Black freak I was supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised Black fist. Then I could walk away from it all.”
A subsequent photo op with Chapman to show that all was copacetic hit Robinson hard. “There were times, after I had bowed to humiliations like shaking hands with Chapman, when deep depression and speculation as to whether it was all worthwhile would seize me.” He recalled that he carried on, because there were just enough rays of light in the gloom. Rumor had it that the St. Louis Cardinals might boycott a game against the Dodgers in what Robinson feared could create “a chain reaction throughout the baseball world — with other players agreeing to unite in a strong bid to keep baseball white.” Ford Frick, the president of the National League, stepped in on Robinson’s side, warning that he’d suspend any boycotters. “I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years,” Frick said. “This is the United States of America.”
Robinson and Rickey are understandably at the center of the traditional narrative about desegregation and baseball, but they were part of a larger drama that’s detailed in books like Jules Tygiel’s “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy” and Chris Lamb’s “Conspiracy of Silence: Sportswriters and the Long Campaign to Desegregate Baseball.” And for excellent histories of the Negro leagues, see, for instance, Robert Peterson’s “Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams,” as well as Jim Reisler’s edited volume “Black Writers/Black Baseball,” an anthology of Black sportswriters.
The power of Robinson’s “I Never Had It Made” lies more in his reflections on the broader culture than it does in his war stories about the game. A Republican who campaigned for Richard Nixon in 1960, Robinson, who was close to the New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, gradually began to cool on Vice President Nixon during his race against John F. Kennedy and finally fell out with the party when forces loyal to Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Civil Rights Act, triumphed in 1964. “A Barry Goldwater victory would insure that the G.O.P. would become completely the white man’s party,” Robinson argued in a piece he wrote for The Saturday Evening Post in early 1964. At the Republican National Convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Robinson watched in horror as the right-wing delegates roared their disapproval of Rockefeller, a supporter of civil rights. “It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for,” Robinson recalled, “including his enlightened attitude toward Black people.” To Robinson, the party of Lincoln was no more. After San Francisco, he wrote, “I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”