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Posts Tagged ‘Jackie Robinson’

Jackie Robinson: A Real Mensch

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

I was lucky enough to have met and interviewed many Hall of Famers including Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Ted Williams and Stan Musial.

I also had the chance to meet and gab with many of the stars from the old Negro Leagues who went on to play in the major leagues after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier – Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin and Satchel Paige. But I never had the chance to meet Jackie Robinson.

I did, though, meet Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s elegant, graceful widow.

From everything I’ve heard on the baseball beat, Jackie Robinson was a credit to his race – the human race. More important than being a great athlete and ballplayer, he was intelligent, articulate, and above all a great husband and father. He was, in short, a genuine mensch.

Robinson was only 53 when he died in 1972, old before his time, racked with diabetes and nearly blind.

This year baseball is celebrating the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier. It was April 15, 1947, when Robinson became the first openly black man to play in the major leagues.

Ebbets Field was a ballpark of small dimensions and limited seating capacity of some 32,000. Only 25,623 paid their way in to see Robinson’s debut on Opening Day in 1947, 4,000 less than the ’46 opener. But the Dodgers went on to set their all-time Brooklyn attendance record of 1.8 million in 1947.

The only black man in the majors excited fans that year by batting .297 with 12 home runs and 29 stolen bases, more than double anyone else.

Calling the games on radio that year for Brooklyn was Red Barber, a man steeped in the prejudices of his era and place of birth. Barber was born in Mississippi and moved with his family when he was 10 to central Florida.

“I saw black men tarred and feathered by the Ku Klux Klan…. I had grown up in a completely segregated world,” Barber recalled in his book 1947 – When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball.

Barber thought about quitting. After all, a Southern gentleman in 1947 couldn’t be expected to work for an organization that would treat a black man as an equal. But Robinson wasn’t an equal – he was superior to most ballplayers at the time, superior as a player and as a man.

Robinson went to college and starred at UCLA in basketball and football before serving in the army. He earned the rank of second lieutenant and was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Hood, Texas, where white officers wouldn’t give him a chance to try out for the baseball team.

After being turned in by a bus driver to military police for refusing to sit in the rear seating area, Robinson faced a court martial for disobedience but eloquently won his case. After receiving an honorable discharge, and with the doors closed to blacks in many fields including professional baseball, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1945.

Fair-minded men at the time tried to promote the integration of blacks in baseball without success. Boston Jewish councilman Isidore Muchnick threatened to pass legislation to ban Sunday baseball in Boston unless the Red Sox granted a tryout to three Negro Leaguers.

A tryout was arranged for three players from different Negro League teams – Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams.

The tryout was originally scheduled for April 12, 1945, but that turned out to be the day President Roosevelt died. Vice President Truman was inaugurated as president and Roosevelt was buried in Hyde Park, New York, on Sunday, April 15. The day of FDR’s burial, British forces liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where 16-year-old Anne Frank died the previous month.

The following day, April 16, the three Negro Leaguers came to their Red Sox tryout at Fenway Park. Jackie Robinson was the most impressive of the tryout trio, prompting Red Sox manager Joe Cronin to tell Muchnick he hoped the team would sign Robinson. But the Red Sox never followed up and would become the last major league team to field a black player – some 14 years later.

Robinson went on to star for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945 and attracted the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey, who followed Robinson’s activities off the field as well. Rickey was convinced he had found the right man to break baseball’s unwritten color barrier and signed Robinson to a contract in early 1946 and assigned the infielder to the Dodgers’ top minor league club in Montreal.

Red Barber was also following Robinson’s progress. It was just a matter of time before Robinson would be up with the Dodgers and Barber was mulling over quitting.

“I didn’t quit,” Barber related in his book. “I made myself realize that I had no choice in the parents I was born to, no choice in the place of my birth or the time of it. I was born white just as a Negro was born black. I had been given a fortunate set of circumstances, none of which I had done anything to merit, and therefore I had best be careful about being puffed up over my color.”

Greenberg To Green To…Braun?

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

        The 1947 baseball season was Jackie Robinson’s first and Hank Greenberg’s last. It also marked the debut of another Jewish slugger, Al Rosen. Three years later, at the age of 26, Rosen became the regular third baseman of the Cleveland Indians and batted .287 with a league-leading 37 home runs.

 

         The following season, Rosen dipped to .265 with 24 homers but bettered it in 1952, batting .302 with 28 home runs. In 1953, Rosen nearly won the Triple Crown. His 43 home runs and 145 RBIs led the American League, but his .336 average was one point lower than Mickey Vernon’s league-high .337.

 

         Rosen had a pretty good year in ’54 (.300 average, 24 homers, 102 RBIs) at the age of 30, but his skills eroded rapidly. His .244 average and 21 home runs in l955 was followed by final season stats of .267 and 15 homers.

 

         Rosen could have played another season or two, but Hank Greenberg, by that time the general manager of the Indians, had a trade worked out sending Rosen to the Boston Red Sox. Rosen refused to go as his wife had some health issues and he made a name for himself as a stockbroker in Cleveland during the off-season.

 

         Rosen’s career stats – batting average of .285 with 192 home runs – were fairly impressive, but hardly Hall of Fame material. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg hit .313 over 13 seasons and his 331 home runs averaged about six homers more a year than Rosen.

 

         Shawn Green, who’ll be 35 in November, has a career batting average a couple points lower than Rosen’s and probably will overtake Greenberg’s career home run total early next season, making him the all-time Jewish home run leader. But when Green does pass Greenberg, it will have taken him some 2,000 more at-bats than the 5,193 it took Greenberg to reach his 331 home runs.

 

         A Jewish slugger on the rise is rookie Ryan Braun. The 23-year-old Milwaukee third baseman made his major league debut the last week of May and is on pace to end the season with great big league numbers, with a plus .300 average and almost 30 home runs.

 

         Braun played for Triple-A Nashville before his call-up and tore up the minor league’s highest level with a .354 average and 10 home runs. So he’s the real deal – and much faster than either Greenberg or Rosen, so he’s always a threat to steal a base. The 6-foot-2-inch right-handed batter from southern California could be to hitting what Sandy Koufax was to pitching.

 

         Braun’s already been dubbed “The Hebrew Hammer” and he says he’s cool with that. His big test, as far as most of us are concerned, will come on Friday night and Saturday, September 21 and 22. That’s Yom Kippur, and the Brewers are scheduled to be playing in Atlanta with both clubs figuring to be in the pennant race.

 

         Will Braun play? Will he suit up and just watch from the dugout? Will he stay away from the ballpark? Kevin Youkilis was in uniform last Yom Kippur and watched his Red Sox teammates from the dugout. Because he didn’t play, one of the papers called Youkilis an observant Jew. I call him a Jew who observed the game from the dugout.

 

* * * * *

 

         Coaches have been dodging bullets for decades without tragedy. Every season has its share of injuries (usually not serious) and near-misses, especially in pre-game batting practice with so many players on the field.

 

         During games, coaches station themselves according to their own scouting reports. When Gary Sheffield bats, third base coaches move some ten feet backward because the Tigers right-handed slugger hits many wicked line drives and grounders outside the foul line.

 

         For decades, Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully has been trumpeting the use of batting helmets for third- and first-base coaches. Third-base coaches should use a lefty batters helmet and first-base coaches a righty helmet. “That way,” Scully says, “the flap will protect the part of the face closest to the batter.”

 

         Would Mike Coolbaugh still be alive and coaching first base in the minors if he had worn a helmet? As you recall, last month a line drive foul hit Coolbaugh in the back of the neck, just below the left ear. A ruptured artery resulting in blood loss to the brain caused his death. A runner on first base may have diverted some of Coolbaugh’s attention until it was too late.

 

         Only 35, Coolbaugh had two little kids and a pregnant wife. He was a wonderful guy, a great father and husband. He wasn’t a great player and had been released by nine teams on several levels. He was good enough, however, to play a short time in the majors as an infielder. Being a former infielder and 35 meant he was younger and more agile than big league coaches. Still, he couldn’t dodge the ball.

 

         Baseball is the toughest of all sports to excel in (usually one must succeed on several minor-league levels before making it to the big leagues, and superstars from other sports, such as Michael Jordan, have tried baseball and discovered they weren’t even good minor leaguers), but what most casual observers don’t realize is just how dangerous baseball is.

 

         Former Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey told me there’s no such thing as a batting slump. “Most players,” Garvey said, “go through times when they’re scared of the ball.”

 

         Yankees manager Joe Torre’s experience while playing for the Atlanta Braves some 40 years ago may explain it best. Torre missed almost a month after being hit in the left side of the face. He returned to the lineup and couldn’t hit well because he feared being hit again. As his average fell, Torre psyched himself up and his fear of embarrassment became greater than his fear of the ball.

 

         I was twice hit by balls during batting practice. A liner off the bat of George Brett found my toe while I was well in foul territory near the Kansas City dugout. Luckily, my shoe absorbed most of the blow.

 

         I could have used a batting helmet the other time. I was interviewing Reggie Jackson, and the Yankees star decided we’d sit in the on-deck circle to the third-base side of home plate. Yankees coach Yogi Berra was hitting fungoes to right field, tossing a ball up and hitting it when it came down.

 

         A Yankees outfielder was catching Yogi’s offerings and tossing them back on a bounce or two. Berra would stop the ball with his bat and the ball would roll a few feet before stopping. One ball popped off Yogi’s bat about 40 feet southeast and caught me on the left cheek. Hospital x-rays revealed a broken cheekbone. Even though the ball didn’t come off the bat as fast as pitchers throw it, it made a lasting impression.


 

         If you’re a baseball insider, you quickly learn respect for the ball and the talent it takes to play baseball.

 

         Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major-league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/sports/greenberg-to-green-to-braun/2007/08/08/

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