January 31st was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jackie Robinson. I’m not going to write any biography of the great man. Millions of words have already been written about Robinson, so there is no new territory for me to explore about his life and his years as a baseball trailblazer. There have been dozens of books and several movies made about his life. My personal favorite is Roger Kahn’s classic, “The Boys of Summer”. Though not specifically about Robinson, the book does give remarkable insight to what the time was like. Here’s a short paragraph from the book that describes Jackie Robinson better than I ever could:
“Robinson could hit and bunt and steal and run. He had intimidating skills, and he burned with a dark fire. He wanted passionately to win. He charged at ball games. He calculated his rivals weaknesses and measured his own strengths and knew, as only a very few have ever known, the precise move to make at precisely the moment of maximum effect. His bunts, his steals, and his fake bunts and fake steals humiliated a legion of visiting players. he bore the burden of a pioneer and the weight made him more strong. If one can be certain of anything in baseball, it is that we shall not look upon his like again.”
I recall seeing Robinson before Game Two of the 1972 World Series. With his white hair and failing vision, I thought he looked old and tired and a little sad. Little did I or anyone else know that he would be dead in nine days, a shock similar to hearing about the death of Roberto Clemente. Robinson was only 53, but he looked and moved like a much older man. What follows is a short story about Robinson’s military career and his subsequent time with the Kansas City Monarchs.
Like many men of his age, Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and assigned to a segregated calvary unit at Fort Riley, Kansas. While there, Jackie and several other black soldiers applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS). When their applications were mysteriously “delayed”, heavyweight champ Joe Louis (also stationed at Ft. Riley) intervened, along with assistance from Truman Grant, who was a civilian aide to the Secretary of War, Harry Stimson. The men were then accepted into the OCS, and upon completion, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943 and assigned to Fort Hood, Texas. At Ft. Hood, Robinson was assigned to the 761st “Black Panthers” tank battalion.
This is the point in the story where it takes a nasty turn. In July 1944, Robinson boarded an Army bus. The driver ordered Robinson to sit in the back of the bus. Jackie rightfully refused. The driver summoned the military police and at the next stop, Robinson was taken into custody. In a shameful display that more resembled a kangaroo court, it was recommended that Robinson be court-martialed. Robinson was charged with numerous offenses, including public drunkenness, which was ludicrous, since Jackie didn’t drink. In August of 1944, Robinson was acquitted of all charges by an all-white panel of nine officers.
Meanwhile the 761st was actively involved in combat, including engagements at the Battle of the Bulge and the unit spent the final months of the war on German soil. Due to the court-martial proceedings, Robinson was never deployed overseas and saw no combat action. He received an honorable discharge in November of 1944. Thus, in a strange turn of events, the racist actions of a few US Army personnel kept Robinson out of harm’s way.
After his discharge, Robinson was encouraged to write to Monarchs co-owner Thomas Baird and inquired about the possibility of joining the club. The Monarchs were the New York Yankees of the Negro Leagues, winning 12 league titles and two Negro League World Series titles. In early 1945, Robinson accepted a contract to play for the Monarchs for $400 per month.
By most accounts, Robinson grew frustrated with the Monarchs. Remember, he had been a four-sport star at UCLA and a lieutenant in the United States Army and had thrived in structured environments. The Negro Leagues, on the other hand, were to put it politely, disorganized, with travel, meal and lodging plans often made on the fly. The bus trips were brutal, and the travel schedule was hectic. Gambling was rampant and many players made more money on the side than with the clubs they were playing for.
The statistics from the Negro League are hard to pin down. Baseball Reference lists him as hitting .414 in 63 plate-appearances. Vahe Gregorian at the Star wrote that Jackie hit .345 with five home runs in 41 games. The book “Black Baseball in Kansas City” by Larry Lester and Sammy J. Miller claims Jackie hit .387 with five home runs and 13 steals in 47 games. Tom Singer at MLB.com writes Jackie “hit .387 or .345 depending on the source.” All you need to know is that Jackie could play, and play well.
Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith also played on that Monarchs team. While in Kansas City, Robinson lived at the Street Hotel, which stood at 18th and The Paseo. His favorite restaurant was a place called Ol’ Kentuck BBQ, which was later purchased by George Gates and eventually became Gates BBQ.
Robinson made his Monarchs debut on May 6th and batted third. He had an RBI double, stole a base and scored a run in a 6-2 KC victory over the Chicago American Giants in a game played at Ruppert Stadium. Ruppert was also known as Blues Stadium before being re-christened “Municipal Stadium.”
Robinson also played for the West squad in the 1945 East-West All Star game, which was held at Comiskey Park. Also participating in the game was future Dodgers teammate, Roy Campanella, who played for the Baltimore Elite Giants and the East squad. Robinson went hit less in five at-bats, in a game won by the West, 9-6. Later that fall, Branch Rickey, General manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Robinson to a contract where as all of you know, led to Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
So even though his birthday was a week ago, let’s take a moment to cherish and celebrate this remarkable man and his accomplishments.