Jackie Robinson, Ford Frick, and the National Health Reform Debate

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With even one eye shut and one ear covered it would have been hard to miss all of the acrimony expressed by and toward our elected representatives in recent days. And, some are saying, that this is unprecedented—this loss of civility, this frank hatred, including acts of vandalism and threats of murder.

Many are decrying the failure of some Republican politicians to rebuke the hate-mongers in an unconditional and decisive fashion, as Republican Representative John Boehner has: “I know many Americans are angry over this health insurance bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren’t listening. But, as I’ve said, violence and threats are unacceptable. That’s not the American way. We need to take that anger and channel it into positive change.”

Well, unfortunately, angry words and angry actions are really nothing new in “The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” You will find them on both the political left and the political right within living memory: the violent “Weather Underground” of the Vietnam War era, The Black Panthers, the lynchings of blacks in the period between the end of the Civil War and the passage of Civil Rights legislation, the hate crimes against gays, the gauntlet of verbal abuse shouted at black children trying to integrate the schools of Mississippi and Alabama in the mid-20th century, the bombing of abortion clinics; the Oklahoma City bombing; the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy; and on and on.

But, every so often in the midst of all this angst—this stuff that makes one despair about the human condition—someone stands up and does something remarkable; something that makes you proud to be an American, and hopeful about the future of the human race.

Turn the page of your history book back to 1947 and to Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black man permitted to play in the Major Leagues in the 20th century. What follows is heavily dependent upon (and quotes from) Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.

Robinson faced a revolt by some of his own teammates who attempted to organize a petition against him. Kentucky-born Pee Wee Reese, who was to become a great friend and supporter of Robinson, later remembered, “In the park that I grew up in, there were no blacks allowed. Blacks got in the back of the buses, they had a special fountain to drink from. I don’t guess that I ever shook the hand of a black person.” Reese expected Robinson to fail because white people in his part of the country always believed that Negroes had no guts.

“You hear this all your life, you believe it.”

The petition died aborning because most of the players would have no part of it, and because of threats from management. But the bigoted sentiments were still there for Robinson to deal with. His teammate Kirby Higbe was asked on a radio interview how he’d come by such a strong arm. His answer? From pelting Negroes with rocks.

Dodger manager Leo Durocher laid down the law: “I don’t care if a guy is yellow or black, of if he has stripes like a f___in’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays.”

The Philadelphia Phillies were the worst of the race-baiters. Led by Alabaman Ben Chapman, the Phillies showered unspeakable derision on Robinson in their first series with the Dodgers early in the 1947 season.

According to Harold Parrott, “At no time in my life have I heard racial venom and dugout abuse to match the abuse that Ben sprayed on Robinson that night. Chapman mentioned everything from thick lips to the supposed extra-thick Negro skull…(and) the repulsive sores and diseases he said Robinson’s teammates would become infected with if they touched the towels or combs he used.”

Chapman knew that Robinson couldn’t fight back because of the disruption that would cause, the very thing that many predicted and used as an excuse to defend the segregation of the Major Leagues. Everyone soon came to know that Robinson, who received varsity letters in four sports at UCLA, was a sitting duck. “Plenty of times I wanted to haul off when somebody insulted me for the color of my skin,” Robinson later said. “But I had to hold to myself. I knew I was kind of an experiment…The whole thing was bigger than me.”

One teammate thought that Robinson, the sole black on the field, was the loneliest man he had ever seen. Red Barber, the Dodger’s radio announcer, said that Robinson was the only man he had ever seen who could actually play better when he was angry.

The death threats flooded in—the people who wrote that they would be carrying a rifle into the ball park to kill him. Opponents tried to spike him, pitchers threw at his head and body. Even his Southern teammates received hate-mail for allowing themselves to take the field with a “n____r.”

But Robinson’s teammates stood up to Ben Chapman and the Phillies. Fellow Alabaman Eddie Stanky called Chapman a coward. Meanwhile the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team plotted a May strike against Robinson and the Dodgers. Ford Frick, the National Baseball League President, quashed the strike and faced down the Cardinals:

If you do this you will be suspended from the League. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter strict retribution. They will be suspended, and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another.

The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequence. You will find that if you go through with your intention that you will have been guilty of madness.

As I said earlier, we have been here before, in this dark place in America that seems to surface especially in difficult economic times or in times of change, of which we have both just now. America is changing today, just as it was changing in 1947, and that metamorphosis brings out the worst in some of us. But the courage of people like Jackie Robinson, and the decisive confrontation of unfairness by people like Ford Frick, are heartening.

At the 1948 Democratic National Convention, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey made an impassioned speech in advocacy of a strong civil rights plank that failed to become a part of the Democratic Party’s platform in that year’s election. His words are worth remembering, as he recalled the founding of the nation in 1776:

To those who say, ‘we are rushing this issue of civil rights,’ I say we are 172 years late. To those who say, ‘this issue of civil rights is an infringement on states rights,’ I say that the time has arrived for the Democratic party to get out of the shadow of state’s rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.

Eventually most of Robinson’s skeptical teammates and competitors came to think differently and act differently than they had, at least to the point of accepting that blacks had as much right to play the “Great American Pastime” as they did. Still, the animosity did not end immediately.

As noted by Stuart Miller in the April 25, 2010 New York Times, Robinson continued to be the target of pitched balls in those days before batting helmets. In his first eights seasons he was lower than third in HBP (Hit By Pitches) only once. Moreover, the handful of blacks then in the National League—people like Monte Irvin, Sam Jethroe, George Crowe, Billy Bruton, Ernie Banks, and Hank Thompson—were similarly treated. In the American League, Larry Doby, Luke Easter, and Minnie Minoso found it no different.

Time passed, the hard-line bigots left the game, and others who were more open and less shocked and offended by integration took over the field of play. When Ernie Banks joined the Chicago Cubs in 1953, management saw to it that he join the club at the same time as (and roomed with) Gene Baker, so as to avoid the issue of having one black man and one white man live together.

It took 10 years from the time of Robinson’s debut for the Philadelphia Phillies to allow a black man into a Major League uniform, with the Detroit Tigers behind them. The last to integrate was the Boston Red Sox squad in mid-1959.

Along the way America changed too, for the better. And one must believe that the voices of the fulminating, frustrated few on the political landscape today will eventually be replaced by those who are less self-righteous and more in control of their emotions.

As a therapist it is impossible to do my work without believing that people can change.

It doesn’t always happen, of course.

But it happens more than enough to keep pitching.

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