From SPORT magazine – How Jackie Robinson found his voice, five years into a historic career

This story originally ran in the October 1951 edition of SPORT magazine, during Jackie Robinson’s fifth season in the major leagues. We are republishing it now in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s debut, on April 15, 1947. This story has been condensed for clarity and space.

JACK ROOSEVELT ROBINSON of the Brooklyn Dodgers made his precedent-shattering invasion of organized baseball wearing an armor of humility. It was, for him, an unnatural garment that chafed continually and on certain occasions dug ruthlessly into both his flesh and his spirit. Hiding his true combativeness behind the armor carefully selected for him by Branch Rickey, allowed to vent his with his bat, glove and flying feet, Jackie was the unresponsive target for barbs of humiliation that no man but Robinson could fully appreciate. The humility he practiced so conscientiously — rigidly might be an even better word — did not come naturally. No meek and humble man could possibly play baseball with the fire and dash Robinson exhibits. But there was reserve in Jackie, far more reserve than any white ballplayer ever had shown. He had to have it, and just as he pounds a base-hit has to be obtained, so he managed to restrain his emotions when it had to be done to assure his success. But it has been five years since Jackie broke into the National League, years chock full of astonishing feats, of endless honors, and each year the great second-baseman of the Dodgers has been inclined to placate fewer and fewer people. It is a noteworthy milestone in the history of baseball that Robinson is today, at long last, his own man.

Jackie has thrown off the shackles gradually but purposefully. In 1949, he wrangled with the umpires and was forced by Commissioner A. B. Chandler to tender an apology to umpire Cal Hubbard during the World Series. In 1950, he took the brakes off his feud with Leo Durocher and it burst forth into the open. He accused certain National League umpires of having formed a heckling cabal against him and charged they were attempting to provoke him. He invited an investigation by National League President Ford Frick. This past spring in an exhibition game at Asheville, North Carolina, he stood on the diamond chin to chin and argued heatedly with umpire Frank Dascoli for several minutes. He resented bean balls being thrown at his head and the heads of his teammates in their interboro scraps with the Giants. In one game, he laid down a bunt to force pitcher Sal Maglie to field the ball on the first-base line where he could bump him. “I did it deliberately,” Jackie admitted, “to force the league to step in and stop this beanballing before somebody gets hurt. I’ll take the fine, the suspension or anything else that goes with it, but this throwing at a man’s head has got to be stopped. If the umpires haven’t the courage to stop it, then Mr. Frick should step in. “

“Last Sunday,” Robinson said, “Larry Jansen hit me with a pitch. The mark’s still there. Maglie had already thrown one too close to me. I made up my mind to do something to protect myself and the other fellows. I set out to create enough of a disturbance to bring this thing to a head.”

That night, watching the game from her usual seat at Ebbets Field, Jackie’s wife, Rachel, who has made priceless contributions to her husband’s pioneering job in baseball, was particularly aware of the tension. As she has from the very beginning, she kept her ears attuned to the comments about her husband. A man seated near her said, as Jackie bumped Maglie, “There’s a guy getting bigheaded.” It was a remark Rachel repeated to her husband later that evening as they drove back to their home in St. Albans, Long Island. It is a comment that has been made many times within recent months in one way or another as Robinson has demonstrated that he recognizes no longer any limitations upon him which do not circumscribe other players. I have heard it in dressing rooms, dugouts, bars, on planes and trains, where baseball people gather or among plain fans. I have watched Jackie from the beginning and have seen his aggressiveness become more pronounced. …

Never again will Jackie wear the armor of humility. This, then, is the real Jackie Robinson — with the wraps off. Is he really big-headed, or getting a “god complex” as one reader wrote me following the Maglie incident, or has Robinson merely passed from stage to natural stage in the evolution of his great experiment in baseball?

Countless words have been written about the cold, calculated fury of Eddie Stanky, the emotional combativeness of Enos Slaughter, the profane, goading insolence of Leo Durocher. For the most part, they have been words of praise because the personalities of these men are the reflections of that aggressive quality which lifts them above others of equal or greater ability.

To appreciate what has happened to Robinson, undoubtedly one of the all-time greats of baseball, although he was forced to operate under the most harrowing circumstances and conditions, one must understand how it must have been for him to play baseball, as Bill Reeder so expressively put it in his book on Jackie, “in a mask.” Jackie expected crank notes, abuse, roughhousing, segregation in certain hotels, animosity from the opposition and even from some of the players on his own team. But what happens to a man within whom emotion rages, yet who is not allowed to let the searing feelings escape him?

Bench-jockeying is a part of baseball and the man who gives it expects to get it back. But at the start, Jackie could not give, only receive. In tight flag races; in slumps, in spurts, on bad plays and close decisions by umpires, in the thousand little disturbing moments that mark the 154 games of every baseball season. there are times a man must let off steam or burst. But for Robinson there was no safety valve, no outlet.

Consider these circumstances before judging the man. Remember what Robinson has accomplished, pacing the Dodgers to their flags in 1947 and 1949 and winning the most valuable player award in the latter year as he had won the rookie of the year honor in ’47. Despite his obvious success on the field, far surpassing what Rickey had hoped for at any time, Jackie could not be satisfied with things as they were. Within him welled a resentment at being stifled, bound by restrictive do’s and don’ts that chafed not only physically, but threatened his own mental stability.

Perhaps the first to know about it was Mel Jones, Jackie’s general manager at Montreal. Once, Robinson came into his office and said, “Nobody knows what I am going through this season.”

It wasn’t until a few months ago that Mrs. Robinson, a registered nurse who understands the limits to which a man can expose his body and mind to self-discipline, disclosed what torment she and her husband went through in the seasons Jackie wore his armor of humility.

“At the end of his first season in baseball,” she said, “I became extremely worried about Jack. I knew nobody could go along day after day, week after week, and month after month bottling up his emotion. I knew what Mr. Rickey had advised and, like Jack, I agreed. Yet I expected my husband to break loose at home, even if he couldn’t do it on the field. Understanding his problem, which was mine as well, I would have welcomed an outburst at home. I asked him to speak his piece when we were alone together. Every man needs to talk himself out when he has a problem, but instead Jack became less talkative.

“He couldn’t eat,” Mrs. Robinson said, “and at night he’d toss constantly in his sleep. Finally, I insisted that Jack consult a doctor, who warned him if he didn’t stay away from the ball park he would surely suffer a nervous breakdown. But Jack wouldn’t give it up. In two days, he was back, playing as well as he ever did before and carrying the same problems around within him.”…

THE RESTRICTIONS WHICH were placed upon him when he started made for an unnatural baseball life, which would have been strange enough as it was because of the color of his skin. A complete code of conduct was foreordained for Robinson before he ever stepped on a field. Wherever he was due to appear, Rickey sent his advance man and advance plans to control the natural- and sometimes bestial-forces.

Committees were set up through churches and social organizations and civic leaders were formed into “how to handle Robinson” clubs. Each prepared its own list of do’s and don’ts for Jackie. His conduct on and off the field was to be decided for him and supervised from day to day. His deportment received more attention before he ever swung a bat or fielded a ball than is lavished on Princess Elizabeth.

He could not endorse breakfast foods or lend his name to magazine articles or newspaper stories, which go to swell a player’s income and reputation. He came to the ball park secretly and left the same way. Adulation had to be avoided as much as criticism from the stands and the fans. It was feared Jackie would represent a symbol more than a ballplayer attempting to make good. …

On the whole, it was an admirable campaign and for the most part it served a tremendous purpose. Yet here there was an attempt to stifle unnaturally the enthusiasm of the millions who saw self-identification with Robinson. …

To those who have not traveled the road with the Dodgers, it may be difficult to comprehend fully, but those who have seen Robinson enter or leave the ball parks around the circuit know what a tremendous influence he has been on a whole race of people.

The objective bystander inside and outside Wrigley Field, Chicago, for example, is struck by the full meaning of Jackie Robinson for his people. They regard him with nothing less than adoration, which, in its strictest sense, is a word that can be applied only to the deity. This is not meant, in any sense, to be sacrilegious. It is a recognition of things as they are — of what Robinson has come to mean.

The Dodgers travel to and from their downtown hotel to Wrigley Field in a private bus, which is parked on a side street. Literally thousands are waiting to see them when the bus arrives at the ball park, but after the game the crush is so thick it is almost impossible to traverse the few hundred feet from the players’ exit to the waiting vehicle.

Every Dodger is a hero of sorts, of course, for any who come in contact with Robinson have assumed, in the mind of his worshippers, certain of Jackie’s attributes. Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, Jackie’s Black teammates, come in for their share of attention, naturally, but the true adoration is reserved for Robinson. There is an ecstasy that borders on religious relief as the crowd sees Jackie and crushes itself into an immobile mass on either side of him.

They call his name in a way no other player’s name is called. They plead to shake his hand or ask for his autograph. They touch his clothes as he walks by, unhurrying, pleasant, friendly, cooperative, because Jackie has never once lost sight of what the game has meant to him and what he has meant, means now, and will always mean to his people. Despite his pioneering, Robinson never wanted a role of reformer.

All he ever asked, once he had proved himself to Rickey, who believed in him from the beginning, was to be accepted as a player among other players. He didn’t once whimper when the restrictions were placed upon him and the opposition began to test his courage and temper. He took everything anybody had to give. He began his career in organized baseball under a manager reared in the anti-Black tradition of Mississippi and was faced in his first season with the Dodgers with threat of two strikes against him, both literally and figuratively. …

[Now,} it was only natural for Jackie to come to appreciate his own worth at the gate and want to tear away from the unnatural bonds that restricted him.

YOU COULD PICK any point during this past season when Jackie completed his own emancipation and you would be both right and wrong. The Maglie incident at Ebbets Field, perhaps, would be as close as any in estimating when the last shackle was torn loose.

To one who remembered the restricted Robinson playing with a fence about him, so to speak, that incident characterized the new Jackie. There had been telltale evidences of his new approach to the business in which he earns his living before he ran up the Giant pitcher’s back and there were to be more after he did so, but this one wrapped up the new Jackie into a neat little package for all to see.

Robinson was a pioneer, but identification in the role of a reformer was something he never sought and did not relish when it came to him. But he felt that hectic night at Ebbets Field last April that he had to see it through even at the risk of his reputation, his body, his wealth and against the advice of his wife. Such was the explanation he made to me when he told why he had decided to make himself the avenging aggressor for the beanballing feud which had become the motif of the Dodger-Giant series.

I told Jackie that Maglie had denied throwing at him.

“I suppose I’m at fault,” he said.

“Every time something happens, I pick up a paper and read I’m at fault. If Maglie didn’t throw at me, then his catcher thought differently. After the bunt, I came back to the plate and picked up my bat and Westrum said, ‘Sal wasn’t throwing at you. You’ve been wearing us out. He was just brushing you back.’

“That’s too fine a difference for me,” Robinson said. “This morning I read where Durocher said it was a bushleague trick. If I’m bush Durocher made me that way. He taught it to me. Right here in this clubhouse, he used to tell us every day, ‘If they throw one at your head, don’t say anything. Push one down and run right up his neck.’ Leo’s an expert at it. He was right. The next two times at bat, not pitch came close to me.”

Following the game that night, Jackie and Mrs. Robinson drove back to their Long Island home and Jackie explained is point of view to her. She, in turn, talked of the larger picture. Some time later, she repeated their conversation to me and said, “I’ve been trying to make Jack see it from the fans’ point of view because they can’t understand what’s in Jack’s mind. They don’t appreciate that he’s willing to run the risk of injury to stop what he believes is wrong. To them it appeared he was maliciously trying to injure Maglie. How can they know what is in his mind?

“Maybe today Jack feels differently about what happened,” she said. “I think I understand his problem better than most. When he’s at bat, he doesn’t have much time to stop and think. Maybe a few hours later, he thinks and does differently.”

AS much as I admire Mrs. Robinson and her incomparable contribution in her partnership with Jackie, I knew as she spoke that she was wrong because Jackie had indicated as much to me.

“I don’t want to have to do something like that again, but if I have to I will,” he said.

The fact is Jackie today feels under no restraint whatsoever. Perhaps even less than any other player because, in effect, he has accomplished more. Other players hesitate to air their opinions, but Jackie, who had allowed so much to be shut inside him for so many seasons, speaks his piece whenever there is something on his mind. Much of it is of an incendiary nature, but Jackie doesn’t mind explosive quotes. He despises Durocher and he says so. He thought he was ticketed for trade before the start of this season and he felt free to tell me about it. …

This is the unencumbered Robinson. The only difference between Jackie and the others is that he, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella cannot stay in the same hotel in St. Louis because of the city’s segregation customs.

But there the variance ends. Where he once could not make endorsements, Jackie now considers there are no strings upon him in the matter of cashing in off the field on his talent on the field. If he wants to make a public appearance, for free or for money, he does so without first taking the matter to the Brooklyn higher-ups. He admits no reason why he should follow a course of conduct any different from that pursued by the Joe DiMaggios, the Bob Fellers or the Ted Williamses. He asks no license but accepts no special restrictions.

On the field his bat speaks louder than the others and in the clubhouse there is no deference in his voice and his actions because of his delicate position. Not physically, morally or spiritually does Robby consider himself delicate any longer. He proved to Rickey he could take it. He kept his mouth shut and his emotions bottled for a reasonable period of time, but that time has come to an end. And there’s none who cares to challenge him or has a right to say he is wrong.