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42 reflections

3/19/2014

Baseball legend Jackie Robinson in his now retired No. 42 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey. Photo by Bob Sandberg courtesy of the Library of Congress

Baseball legend Jackie Robinson in his now retired No. 42 Brooklyn Dodgers jersey. Photo by Bob Sandberg courtesy of the Library of Congress

The coming baseball season — it can’t come soon enough after such a long and terrible winter — reminds me of the summer day in 1947 when three aspiring young journalists from the University of Iowa visited Chicago’s Wrigley Field to interview Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson, of course, had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, but all was not peaches and cream. Far from it. So we wanted to see how he was holding up under such harsh treatment.

It had been well chronicled that the first African-American in the majors was facing big problems. Some teammates didn’t want to play with him. They had to be talked into it, believe it or not. Opposing teams heckled him from the dugout, calling him every unprintable name you can think of and making life miserable for him.

So the three college newsmen took off for Chicago to see the Dodgers play the Cubs, but Robinson was the draw, as he was for many negro fans (blacks were called negroes in those days) who attended the game. Bob Brooks, sports announcer of the university’s radio station, WSUI, made the arrangements by calling Harold Parrott, the Dodgers’ traveling secretary, to make sure Robinson would be available for an interview. 

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Brooks, the longtime Cedar Rapids broadcaster, took along his trusty wire recorder, forerunner to those little gadgets in use today. Chad Brooks, no relation to Bob, also made the trip. He was the sports columnist for the university’s Daily Iowan. The third member of our group was yours truly, who had just been named sports editor of the Daily Iowan.

Before leaving, Chad and I had blue cards printed up that identified us as members of the working press — worthless as press passes, but they did come in handy, as you will see. Dick Davis, photo editor of the Daily Iowan, gave me a short lesson on using a Speed Graphic camera, and I took that bulky thing along to make me look “official.”

“The Speed Graphic shoots good pictures,” Davis said.  “There is just one thing to remember. Before you shoot, don’t forget to pull the slide.”

My mind must have been wandering when he said that. When it came to crunch time, I did forget. Pulling the slide allows for an exposure, and you put it back in to protect the film.

Anyway, we arrived at Wrigley Field in Chad’s car. Harold Parrott was there to meet us at the pass gate, and he took us directly to the Dodgers’ dugout. Batting and fielding practice must have been over, because the field was completely empty, as I recall. Parrott went to get Robinson, and we had the dugout to ourselves.

In fact, the whole scene was unbelievable by today’s standards. We had total access. There was nobody else around. Robinson arrived for the interview, and I remember one thing he told us: “I know there are some people who don’t like me, but I hope they respect me as a ballplayer.”

I took Jackie out to first base to pose for a picture — he was a first baseman his rookie year, because Eddie Stanky was firmly entrenched at second base, Robinson’s normal position. I forgot to pull the slide, however, and there would be no picture. I didn’t think of that until we were walking back to the dugout, and I hoped Jackie didn’t realize my mistake, either.

It was soon game time, and we had no seats. So we went up to the photo deck, an under-hang beneath the balcony, and I flashed my blue press pass to the security guard. So did Chad. The guard waved us through, but Bob was stopped.

“You’ve got to have one of those blue cards,” he was told.

Chad and I laughed about that, but Bob got the last laugh. We looked over into the press box in the first or second inning, and there he was munching on a hot dog. His new friend Harold Parrott got a seat for him.

The Dodgers won the game, but I forget the score. One thing does stick in my mind, though — the way Robinson danced off first base when he was on with a walk or a single, driving the pitcher crazy — and maybe the catcher, too. No wonder he led the league in stolen bases his rookie year.

Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Dodgers, liked Jackie’s competitive makeup (he had been a four-sport athlete at UCLA) and signed him away from the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the mainstays of the so-called “negro leagues.” It didn’t take Robinson long to earn everyone’s respect. He was voted baseball’s Rookie of the Year in 1947, after leading the Dodgers into the World Series, and two years later he was the National League’s Player of the Year. Brooklyn was frequently in the World Series until Jackie retired after the 1957 season.

The three young Iowa journalists had no idea on that day long ago that we were meeting a player who would become a baseball icon. Certainly I didn’t. We saw only obstacles ahead for him. But he saw opportunity and made the most of it.

Robinson was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1962, when he first became eligible. Now his number 42 has been retired not only by the Dodgers but throughout baseball. Ace New York Yankee relief pitcher Mariano Rivera was the last player to wear the number on a regular basis — he had been grandfathered in — but he retired after last season.

The only time it’s worn is on April 15 every year, Jackie Robinson Day, by all big league players to honor his memory. The number is so famous that when a movie was made about him, it was titled simply “42.”

I interviewed Robinson when he came to Des Moines for a speaking engagement in 1967, but I didn’t remind him of my misfired photo op. He wouldn’t have remembered anyway. By then the ravages of diabetes were catching up with him. His eyes were bloodshot, and he knew he was going blind. He died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 53. CV               

Buck Turnbull is a retired Des Moines Register sportswriter.

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