The only time I ever interviewed Jackie Robinson, he bawled me out.
This is true. I was a 20-something reporter for Newsday and my boss assigned me to write an article about why there were no African-American managers in baseball.
Naturally, I needed to talk to Jackie Robinson, long out of baseball and doing community work for Chock Full o' Nuts.
I arranged to call him, I believe at home, and at the appointed hour I rang and began to ask him why, two decades after his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, there had never been a black manager. (Buck O’Neil and Gene Baker had been the first two black coaches earlier in the 60s.)
Robinson turned the conversation around.
“Let me ask you something,” he said, as I recall it from long ago. “How many blacks are there in the sports department?”
Uh…..none, Mr. Robinson.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said, or something like that, insisting that opportunity was a far greater issue than just for baseball managers.
Robinson’s tone was cranky, but it sounded like a hymn to me. I knew the man, from reading Dick Young and Milton Gross and Jimmy Cannon as a kid. This was why Robinson was a hero to me and my family, in Queens.
(I told that story to Rachel Robinson a few years back and she flashed that gorgeous smile and said, “That sounds like Jack.”)
Robinson died in Oct. 24, 1972, just after the World Series. He was 53 years old, broken by diabetes and the car-crash death of his son and namesake a year before. (Don Newcombe and others believe Robinson’s system suffered from the stress of being The First.)
(Please see Dave Anderson's article from 1972.)
Frank Robinson, a kindred soul and now a fellow Hall of Fame member, no relation, would become the first African-American manager two years later.
Now so-called minority managers are hired and fired just like anybody. Dusty Baker, one of the great people, has moved all over the place. (Hey, Washington Nationals, how did sacking Dusty work out?)
And now, 2018. The World Series will commence on Tuesday with Alex Cora from Puerto Rico and Dave Roberts, half African-American, half Japanese, managing Robinson’s transplanted team, the Los Angeles Dodgers – the first minority manager of the Dodgers, in fact.
(My friend Al Campanis, who taught Jackie Robinson to play second base in the minors, always grieved that Roy Campanella was disabled and Jim Gilliam died young. Both would have managed the Dodgers, Al said.)
The Boston sports sections, so deliciously local and vital in their passion and memory, have been heralding this reunion of two friends who embraced in 2017 when Cora was a coach with the champion Houston Astros.
Both Dave Roberts and Alex Cora are lifers in the major leagues – useful players who had their moments. In 2004, Roberts made one of the great plays in Boston Red Sox history – stealing second base in the ninth inning of the fourth game of the league series. The Red Sox had lost the first three and were behind in the fourth, against one of the great batteries, ever – Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada.
Having learned from the great Maury Wills, Roberts was safe. The Red Sox went on to win their first World Series since 1918.
Now Roberts will be in the dugout for the Dodgers and Cora will be in the dugout for the Red Sox – a franchise still remembered for giving a bogus “tryout” to Jackie Robinson in 1945.
Baseball wrings its hands at the drop in African-American players in the last generation, but baseball has players of Asian and Latino ancestry – and so does the World Series. I salute the contribution Jackie Robinson made to this week’s milestone.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.