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The Tentacle


April 17, 2007

Crossing the Color Barrier

Roy Meachum

Branch Rickey competed with Eleanor Roosevelt as maybe the best subject I never wrote about; the material was there, in a Washington Post reporter's notebook. We had done the interviews.

The former First Lady and the pioneering Dodgers general manager, to no one's surprise, turned out to be totally different human beings. She graciously (the only fit word) opened her Mayflower Hotel door; I had telephoned ahead.

Mr. Rickey had - the only fit word - "entrapped" me in a National Gallery of Art cafeteria; he was participating in some cultural event, which I was there to cover. Ten years after the event, he was more than eager to talk about breaking baseball's Color Barrier.

While running the team still in Brooklyn, he had hired Jackie Robinson. Sixty years ago Sunday, as all the media reported, the former college star added to his earlier honors, which included UCLA letters in four major sports: He became the first African American to wear a major league uniform in modern times.

It seems relevant here to point out Mr. Robinson had refused to step to the back of a Fort Hood bus. Had the incident happened outside the fort's gates the serving Army lieutenant might have faced summary Texas justice. Many a beating of blacks went into police records as "resisting arrest."

Maybe because he was a commissioned officer, for whatever reason, the MPs kept hands off the young man from California where racism took on a more subdued tone.

Jackie Robinson parlayed his playing fields' skill into a free university ride that resulted in World War II service as an officer, not a truck driver or Army laborer, including longshoreman, the most frequent military assignments for blacks at that time.

His golden mitt, superior hitting eye and his blazing speed gained the veteran a shot at Brooklyn's minor league Montreal Royals. A particularly apt location because before air travel became relatively inexpensive, clubs stayed in their own regions. Players with West Coast and northern teams, which included African Americans, had to face full-force the segregation that had become even more virulent in the war's wake.

Rednecks and their allies feared returning colored veterans might take advantage of the deaths and woundings within their ranks and feel entitled to equal treatments. They misgivings proved justified.

Jackie Robinson turned out to be the monster they feared most. Off the diamond, he was intelligent, eloquent and virtually unflappable. He was even worse, from their view, coming up from the dugout; he helped the Dodgers win the World Series his first year.

When he stepped down every major league baseball team retired his number. Last Sunday, the 60th anniversary of his Brooklyn debut, many players in "the big show" sported 42 on his back; entire teams paid tribute by replacing their normal uniforms' numbers.

Bouncing into The Washington Post newsroom - still at 1515 L Street N.W. - there was no question that Branch Rickey had played a very major part in ending segregation.

The year following Mr. Robinson set his first World Series' records; President Harry S Truman decreed American armed forces integrated. It took considerable time to overcome prejudice built into military tradition; vestiges remain to this day.

By that chance encounter in the National Gallery's cafeteria, almost exactly 10 years later, Mr. Rickey had worn out his hero's welcome among veteran journalists. As Shirley Povich, the dean of Washington sports writers, explained, there was much more to the story than the profile in courage the ex-Brooklyn pilot presented.

In fact, as Mr. Povich told it, there was solid reason to believe the Dodgers had acted under pressure from the office of baseball's czar.

Commissioner Albert Benjamin (Happy) Chandler, regarding African Americans' contributions during World War II, decided to end baseball's segregation. Mr. Chandler was quoted, years later, as saying it didn't seem fair that blacks should bleed and die for their country while playing second fiddle, or glove in this case.

In the event, what struck my youthful ears as a new "angle" on the Jackie Robinson story turned out to be an old tale in sports rooms, including The Washington Post's. My Branch Rickey interview was left behind with my reporter's notebook when I moved on to television.

Eleanor Roosevelt tried, it seems to me even now, to help an eager reporter. For over an hour, she poured tea into Mayflower Hotel cups and White House backstairs gossip into my admiring ears. The stories about her children's rollicking misadventures seemed insignificant to the desk. And perhaps they were, as news.

But memories of that hour with the very warm and thoughtful Mrs. Roosevelt remain precious; I am not ungrateful to Post City Editor Ben Gilbert who raised an eyebrow at my proposed interview. But he indulged my star-struck fascination with the only First Lady I had ever known, before putting on a uniform myself.

Belatedly, thank you, Ben!



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