Sunday, November 11, 2012

What If Jackie Robinson Had Failed?

Bernadette Pasley, author of the excellent Yankee blog "Lady at the Bat," recommended this piece.  Whether it's taken me this long to do it because I forgot about it, or it's a complex subject and it takes more time to think it through than I thought I have -- or, to put it another way, whether I was a fool or just lazy -- isn't worth discussing.  I'll still end up looking better than some of the people in this piece.

(EDIT: It must have been laziness, as I once again confused her blog with "Lady Loves Pinstripes," which is run by Kate Conroy, and is also a very good Yankee blog.  I have corrected the error.)

There are two ways of looking at it: If Jackie Robinson had failed on merit, or if he'd been sabotaged.

What does "failed on merit" mean? One of two things: Either he wasn't good enough, or he broke his promise to Brooklyn Dodgers president and part-owner Branch Rickey that he wouldn't respond to the vicious assaults on his race, no matter what.

The possibility of him not being good enough was real.  Rickey specifically chose Robinson because he seemed to be the best man for the job -- NOT the best player.

And, indeed, as late as May 8, 1947, his 15th major league game, his batting average was .241, with just 1 home run and 2 RBIs.  Granted, he was usually 1st or 2nd in the batting order at the time, which is not an RBI slot.  But Ebbets Field was a bandbox.  He should have had more than that.

But it's also worth noting that baseball wasn't his best sport -- or even his third-best.  He was a star running back at UCLA, was on the track team as a fantastic long-jumper (as was his brother Mack, who once held the world record), and had also played basketball there.  When he made his debut for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he'd previously played professional baseball for 2 seasons: 1945, with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (previously, they'd been in the Negro National League); and 1946, with the Montreal Royals of the International League.  Essentially, he'd had 2 seasons of pro ball, the 2nd at the Triple-A level, the other in a league whose talents ranged from genuine future Hall-of-Famers to players who wouldn't have made it to the previously all-white majors no matter how many barriers you strip away from history.

Why hadn't he played more? Because he was in college until 1941, played minor-league football that fall, and got drafted into the Army early the next year, and wasn't discharged until November 1944.  As with many other players, it's arguable that World War II took his most productive years -- he reached his 23rd and 24th birthdays in the Army.  He didn't play his first professional baseball game until he was 26, at which point most guys who are good at baseball are in the majors and just entering their prime.  He didn't make his major league debut until he was 28.  He had his best season at 30, his last good one (in terms of individual statistics) at 35, and his last one at 37.

He had only half a career, and because of when he got out of college and which sport he preferred, he probably wouldn't have appeared in Major League Baseball before The War even without the color barrier.  Indeed, had there been no civil rights problem in America in 1941 -- if a black person in America, at that time, could have been anything he or she wanted, with the only barriers being professional qualifications and talent -- today, you might be reading an article titled, "What If Jackie Robinson Had Played Baseball Instead of Football?" He might have gone to the Los Angeles Rams, where his former UCLA teammate Kenny Washington, and another former UCLA player, later a renowned actor, Woody Strode, had reintegrated the NFL.  From 1949 to 1955, the Rams played in 4 NFL Championship Games, though they only won 1, in 1951; maybe Jackie could have made a difference there.

(Willie Mays has also claimed that football was his best sport, and that he would have been one of the top quarterbacks in college football if a white school had been willing to take him.  Imagine that: Willie Mays being better at another sport than he was at baseball! Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson was interested in taking Mickey Mantle -- and his successor, Gomer Jones, wanted another Yankee from the Sooner State, Bobby Murcer.)

Jackie broke out of his season-starting funk in 1947, getting his average up to .299 on May 17, but by June 4 it was back down to .263.  Then he took off, spending most of the season above .300, reaching .316 a couple of times before finishing at .297.

If Rickey had decided that Jackie wasn't quite ready, and sent him back down to Montreal in May, would that have been the end of the experiment? Would Jackie Robinson have been a "failure"? Hardly: He would have done what he did the year before, tear up the International League with the Royals, and would have been called back up.


So Jackie wouldn't have failed competitively.  But what if he lost his cool?

On April 22, 23 and 24, 1947, the Philadelphia Phillies came to Ebbets Field, and their manager, Nashville native Ben Chapman, a former All-Star outfielder with the Yankees, led his Phils in horrific verbal abuse, with references to cotton fields, shoe shines, and Robinson fooling around with his white teammates' wives.  He was addressed as "Boy" over and over, and also with a word that begin with N and ends with R, and it wasn't "Nor'easter."

To make matters worse -- potentially, yes, this would have been much worse, as I'll get to later -- Chapman gave his pitchers an order: If Robinson works the count to 3-0, instead of throwing ball 4, bean him.  The old saying was applied: "If you're going to put him on, you might as well hurt him." If any Philadelphia pitcher did get to 3 balls and no strikes, and then purposely hit Jackie, I've never heard about it.

Robinson admitted, years later, that he was incredibly close to saying, "To hell with Rickey's experiment." But he thought about the effect it would have on race relations.  The reprisals of racist whites against black people who had nothing to do with the incident, innocent in every aspect, would have been crushing -- physically and emotionally.  He couldn't do it.

When the Dodgers made a roadtrip to Philadelphia for games on May 9, 10 and 11, National League President Ford Frick ordered Chapman to have his picture taken shaking hands with Robinson.  He refused.  So a compromise was reached, with the two of them standing together, holding a bat.  As you can see in the photo, Jackie was willing to smile for the camera, even if it was a phony expression of emotion; Chapman was not.  In the 7 aforementioned games with the Phillies -- 3 in Brooklyn, 4 in Philly including a doubleheader -- Jackie got a hit in 6.

But let us suppose...


It's Saturday, May 10, 1947, at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, and the count on Jackie is 3 and 0.  Phillies pitcher Tommy Hughes -- a journeyman who is yet another player whose best years got eaten up by the fights against Hitler and Tojo -- follows his manager's orders, and hits Robinson, right in the back between the 4 and the 2.  Not enough to injure him, but enough to hurt.

(Let me note that I am not attempting to malign Hughes' character.  I don't know anything about him.  For all I know, he might have been reluctant in this situation, "just following orders" -- which was not an allowable excuse the year before in Nuremberg.)

That's it.  Jackie Robinson stops giving a damn.  He runs out to the mound, and Tommy Hughes' nose is broken with one punch.

The dugouts empty.  To the Phillies' shock, Jackie's Dodger teammates are behind him 100 percent, and knock a few Phillies out.

The Southern press of the day prints editorials claiming that this is what happens when you put (to use the term widely accepted at the time) Negroes in the white major leagues.

National League President Ford Frick fines Robinson $1,000 and suspends him for 3 games.  But he also fines Hughes $2,000 and suspends him for 6 games, double what he gave Robinson, for causing it.  And he fines Chapman $5,000 and suspends him for 30 days, for ordering it.

Jackie apologizes to Rickey and says, "I just couldn't take it anymore."

Rickey had publicly worried that, if this experiment had failed, it would be 20 years before anyone would try again.

Rickey realizes now that there is a limit to what a man can take, and he stands by his man.  And soon, statements of support come in from baseball luminaries, ranging from Babe Ruth to Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack, from aging legends like Honus Wagner and Cy Young to current stars Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and the one player who had a clue as to what Jackie was going through, the Jewish star Hank Greenberg.  (Who, in RL, was the one opposing player to go out of his way to welcome Jackie to the majors, and Jackie singled him out for thanks and praise many times.)

That gives Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck the last piece of evidence he needs.  He signs Larry Doby of the Newark Eagles -- just as he did in RL, without this extra controversy.

Frick had previously told the St. Louis Cardinals, baseball's Southernmost team and a club with a reputation for hardscrabble Southerners like Dizzy Dean and Pepper Martin, and currently Enos Slaughter and Harry Walker (brother of the Dodgers' Dixie Walker), that if they carried out their threat to strike, that they, and anyone else who did, would be suspended, and "I don't care if it wrecks the National League for five years." Frick told them, point-blank: "You will find that the friends you think you have, will not support you."

In other words, it would have been one thing if Jackie had simply not been proficient enough -- he proved that he was.  But if the only thing stopping him was bigotry, the baseball establishment -- Frick and Commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler, himself a Southerner -- were going to stand by him.

I can even imagine President Harry Truman being asked about this.  Although he was from Missouri, he tended to think of that State as more Southern than Midwestern, and he used the N-word casually, if not maliciously.  As far as I know, he never made a statement about Robinson in RL -- but in TTL, if asked, I suspect he would have said, "Mr. Robinson has as much right to make it in his profession of choice as any other man in that profession.  As long as baseball handles it, I see no reason to step in." In RL-1948, it was Truman who desegregated the U.S. armed forces.  FDR didn't do it.  Maybe Ike, or JFK, or LBJ would have, if it had still been necessary; but Truman is the one who seized the opportunity and did it.

Edward R. Murrow does one of television news' first documentaries on Jackie and the bigotry he's faced.  Essentially, Murrow damages the opposition as much as he damaged Senator Joe McCarthy in RL-1954, and in the same way: By using their own words and pictures to show just how despicable, and just how ridiculous, they are.

The nation rallies around Jackie Robinson, the way it still does around Joe Louis, the way it once did around Jesse Owens.  Both men stand up for Jackie was well.  (I'm not sure how much they did in RL.)

The Dodgers win the Pennant, and Jackie plays in the World Series, although the Dodgers still lose to the Yankees.  His success, and Doby's, lead to the full integration of the game anyway.

If anything, Jackie Robinson becomes a bigger hero.  Instead of being the nonviolent angel who brings about change, baseball's Gandhi, he has become an avenging angel -- if not a saint.  He's not, as in RL, the man who said, "I'm playing, because I have the right.  My demand is modest enough." In TTL, he's the man who said, "Enough.  You can't treat my people this way anymore."

Strom Thurmond's segregationist candidacy of 1948 becomes a joke.  Instead of finishing 3rd behind Truman and Governor Thomas E. Dewey, he finishes 4th, behind also former Vice President Henry Wallace.

Thurmond's 1957 filibuster, the longest in Senate history at over 24 hours, falls apart quickly, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957 passes.

Jackie Robinson speaks at the 1963 March On Washington -- which he didn't do in RL.  It is mentioned in the press that Robinson is a Republican, and a friend of Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York -- a potential candidate to run against President John F. Kennedy the next year.  JFK invites Jackie to the White House.  Between the two of them, they manage to convince enough Congressmen and Senators in their respective parties to get on the ball.  The Civil Rights Act of 1963 is passed, and JFK signs it into law on November 19, 1963.  Then he flies to Dallas.

Jackie and Rachel Robinson attend his funeral, 6 days later.  Rockefeller does run for President in 1964, and, with Jackie seen by his side, he gets the nomination, instead of Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.  Rockefeller still loses to Lyndon Johnson, but it's not a wipeout.  Goldwater's hard-right forces fight even harder against Rockefeller in the 1968 primaries, but it's no use, as Richard Nixon's comeback is complete.

History reasserts itself: Even without the Goldwater nomination, the conservative movement finally nominates their man in 1980.  By which point, Jackie has been dead for 8 years.

Well, history almost reasserts itself.  In 1989, in a special election to succeed Senator John Stennis of Mississippi, Congressman Trent Lott is defeated by a man roughly the same age.  Another Congressman, who had been the first black professor at the University of Mississippi.  Emmett Till.

In 1994, presuming that the coming Republican electoral tide will sweep Till out of office, President Bill Clinton appoints him to the Supreme Court, where he still sits today, at the age of 71.


So there's failure, and attempted sabotage.  But what if the sabotage succeeds?

What if, in TTL, Hughes hits Jackie not in the back, but in the head?

The Dodgers were the first team to use batting helmets, experimenting with metal inserts after Joe Medwick (formerly of the Cardinal Gashouse Gang) was hit shortly after they acquired him in 1940.  But by 1947, although all the Dodgers were using them, they weren't nearly as good as they would become.

Jackie is rushed down Lehigh Avenue to Temple University Hospital.  His life is still in the balance the next morning.

Frick and Chandler have taken a train down to North Philadelphia, and meet with Phillies owner Bob Carpenter in Carpenter's office at Shibe Park.  They give Carpenter an ultimatum: Fire Chapman immediately, or all games played by the Phillies will be forfeited until you sell the team.

Worried that a new owner might not keep the team in Philadelphia, Carpenter -- whose wealth, taken from the pioneering Carpenter and du Pont families into which he'd been born, would have seemed to have protected him from ever needing to sell the team -- agrees.  Chapman is called up to the office immediately, and is told he has been fired, for cause.

Frick and Chandler assure Chapman that he will never work in the National League again.  They call American League President Will Harridge, and tell him what has happened.  Harridge assures them that Chapman will never work in the AL again, either.

Jackie recovers, although it appears that he will not be able to play for the rest of the season.  The 1947 All-Star Game is announced as a benefit for his family.  Before Game 1 of the World Series, between the Yankees and the Cardinals, Chandler stands by Jackie in a baseline box as he throws out the ceremonial first ball.

He returns to play for the 1948 season, and, free of the need to hold back, plays as we remember.  His career unfolds as we know it, with all the honors we know: The 1949 MVP; Pennants in '49, '52, '53, '55 and '56; the '55 World Championship; election to the Hall of Fame; and retirement of his Number 42, first by the Dodgers shortly before his death in 1972, and in 1997 for all of baseball.

Back to the Phillies: Eddie Sawyer, a year sooner than in RL, becomes manager, and the team develops into the Whiz Kids as in RL.  The dismissal of Chapman, and the message that Carpenter will not tolerate racism within the ranks of his club, leads to black fans in Philadelphia accepting that the Phillies are interested in their welfare, and attendance soars.  When the Phillies win the Pennant in 1950, they set a city attendance record that lasts until 1964.

In that summer of 1964, when the race riot happens mere blocks from what is now called Connie Mack Stadium, some black Phillies fans head for the ballpark to protect it.  The Phils have a home-field advantage that just wasn't there in RL, and the cheering from fans, black and white alike, spurs them on to hang on to their lead, and the Phillies win the Pennant, and beat the Yankees for their first World Championship.

Carpenter does his best to keep the team together.  Richie Allen and Frank Thomas don't have that carried-over tension, and there's no fight between them in 1965.  The Phils lose the Pennant to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but win it in 1966, although they lose the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles.

Richie Allen is one of baseball's most popular players, and doesn't feel the need to flout authority with late-night carousing.  When he grows sideburns and a mustache -- which he did in RL before the Oakland A's of the 1970s -- and starts asking to be called "Dick" instead of "Richie," which he says is "a little boy's name" -- and Phils legend, now broadcaster, Rich Ashburn agrees -- people seem to be fine with it.  He homers to win the last game at Connie Mack Stadium -- in 1967.  The Phils' Pennant made the desire to build a new stadium come to realization sooner, and Veterans Stadium opens in 1968.

The St. Louis Cardinals still win the World Series in 1967 and the Pennant in 1968, but not in 1964.  When they trade Curt Flood in the 1969-70 offseason, it's not to the Phillies for Dick Allen.  He still doesn't want to move, and his challenge to the reserve clause still happens.  But there's less of a racial aspect to it.  He still loses the case, but the reserve clause's days are numbered.

Allen slumps in 1969, '70 and '71.  The Phillies trade him to the Chicago White Sox, and he spends the rest of his career there, winning the AL Most Valuable Player in 1972, and leading "the South Side Hit Men" to the AL West title in 1977, before losing the ALCS to the Yankees.  From the 1964 Phillies, Allen and Johnny Callison are elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Jim Bunning is elected a bit sooner than he was in RL.  Allen's Number 15 and Callison's 6 join Bunning's 14, Ashburn's 1, Robin Roberts' 36, Mike Schmidt's 20, Steve Carlton's 32, and notations for Grover Cleveland Alexander and Chuck Klein on the wall at the Vet, and later at Citizens Bank Park, where there are statues of Allen, Schmidt, Carlton, Roberts, Mack, Ashburn and Harry Kalas.

Statues of Jackie Robinson appear at Citi Field, Dodger Stadium, the UCLA campus, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.


Sadly, in RL, the only statue of Jackie Robinson that I've ever seen is the one of him and Pee Wee Reese outside the Brooklyn Cyclones' park.  The Interborough Parkway, in Brooklyn and Queens, including cutting through the cemetery where he's buried, is named for him.  There was a school across the street from the site of Ebbets Field that was named for him, but the name has been changed to Ebbets Field Middle School.  But there is a plaque on a building built on the site of the Dodger offices in downtown Brooklyn where Jackie signed that first contract.  (In those days, most teams did not have their offices at the ballpark.) And the Mets have the Jackie Robinson Rotunda at the home plate entrance to Citi Field -- roughly the baseball equivalent of a Presidential Library.

So... What if Jackie Robinson had failed?

In the words of the immortal Susan B. Anthony, "Failure is impossible."


  1. Emmett Till on the Supreme Court?In RL,isn't Sotomayor bad enough for you?

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