The Day I Rooted Against Jackie Robinson

By William B. Mead

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Jackie Robinson was 28 when he broke baseball’s color barrier; he played 10 more years for the Dodgers.

In 1941, Jackie Robinson lettered in four sports at UCLA, then was drafted into the U.S. Army, serving until World War Two ended. In August 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey met with Robinson and proposed signing him as the first African-American to play Major League baseball. In 1946 Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers’ farm team, and in 1947 he broke Major League baseball’s color barrier. Here is how journalist Bill Mead remembers it.

I saw Jackie Robinson play in St. Louis and I rooted against him.

It was 1947, Robinson’s rookie year. As the movie 42 so brilliantly portrays, he was harassed and humiliated by fans, opposing players, and even a few of his Brooklyn Dodger teammates. He needed all the support he could get, and he didn’t get it from me or my brother Alden.

We always went to games together, riding the streetcar from our suburban neighborhood to old Sportsman’s Park, home of the Cardinals. We sat in the Knothole Gang section out in left field. The Knothole Gang enabled kids to see weekday games free. It was one of Branch Rickey’s many innovations. He figured kids would get hooked on baseball and grow up to become paying customers.

Alden and I sure got hooked. We were devoted fans of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Alden’s favorite Cardinal was Terry Moore, the center fielder. Mine was Enos Slaughter, the slugging right fielder who is shown in the movie spiking Robinson on a close play at first base. Slaughter grew up on a tobacco farm in North Carolina.

The Cardinals and Dodgers were bitter rivals, the class of the National League. In 1946 they tied for the pennant. The Cards won a playoff—baseball’s first—and went on to beat the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

But in 1947 the Dodgers added a rookie first baseman, Jackie Robinson, and he threatened to tilt the balance in Brooklyn’s favor. Alden and I were Cardinal fans. We rooted against all Dodgers, Robinson included.

We accepted the status quo, which in 1947 regarded blacks as unworthy of full participation in American life. Neighborhood covenants kept African-Americans and Jews out of many desirable suburbs. And St. Louis leaned South. Sportsman’s Park had been one of only two segregated Major League baseball stadiums. (The other was Griffith Stadium, in Washington, D.C.) At Cardinal games, African-Americans sat in the so-called pavilion, in right field, behind a screen.

As the Dodgers prepared for their first 1947 visit to St. Louis, the New York Herald-Tribune reported that Cardinal players planned to strike if Robinson showed up.

Ford Frick, president of the National League, warned the St. Louis players that they would be barred from baseball if they refused to play. The strike didn’t materialize, and in later years Cardinal players, including the great Stan Musial, insisted that the strike threat was hollow.

By 1947, Sportsman’s Park was no longer segregated but most African-American fans continued to sit in that right field pavilion. Many said they felt unwelcome among white fans. Alden and I were unaware of all this. I was 13–Alden was 14. Racial injustice? It wasn’t on our radar screen.

So there we sat in the Knothole Gang section as the game began. The Dodgers batted first. What was that noise from right field? Black fans, who had always supported their hometown Cardinals, were cheering for the Dodgers? The hated Bums? Was the world turning upside down?

It was. And with Robinson, the Dodgers edged the Cardinals for the 1947 pennant. Sam Breadon, the Cardinal owner, refused to sign African-American players because he didn’t think St. Louis fans would support the team. Meantime, Rickey’s Dodgers added Roy Campanella, a star African-American catcher, in 1948, and Don Newcombe, a very good pitcher, in 1949. The Dodgers edged the Cardinals again, and again, and again.

When the Cardinals finally regained their winning ways with three pennants in the 1960s, their best players included pitcher Bob Gibson and outfielder Lou Brock, both African-American and both now in the Baseball Hall of Fame, plus other stars such as Bill White and Curt Flood. St. Louis fans poured out in support of the team. The world had turned upside down.
Bill Mead worked for UPI as a reporter/editor in Richmond, Detroit, Chicago, and Washington. He then moved into magazine work as Washington correspondent for Money magazine and as a writer and editor at The Washingtonian. He has authored six books on baseball history. His latest work is the ebook Come Back Moo, a biography of his remarkable grandfather.

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