Jackie Robinson at Career’s End

By Jeffrey Page

I saw the movie “42” over the weekend and was stunned by its depiction of Jackie Robinson’s ordeal when he broke the color line and became the first black ballplayer in the major leagues. What’s needed now is a portrayal of the shabby way he was treated in 1956 as his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers came to an end.

Over his 10 seasons, Robinson mostly played second base and was one of the game’s most ferocious competitors. You didn’t want to be playing second base when Robinson got the sign to steal from first, and you didn’t want to be pitching with Jackie coming to bat in a clutch situation.

By the end of the 1956 season, Jackie Robinson had racked up a lifetime batting average of .311, had smacked 137 homeruns and stolen 197 bases. It would be instructive to count how many hits and runs his teammates made as a result of his ability to drive opposing pitchers crazy as he danced off the bases, threatening to steal, but I know of no such statistic.

He was an old 28 when he played his first game for Brooklyn and an ancient 37 when he played his last regular season game. Yet in that last game, even at 37, he went one for four at the plate, scored a run and drove in another as the Dodgers beat the Pirates at Ebbets Field.

We boys of Eastern Queens had watched Jackie Robinson for years. We loved his nerve, his talent, his determination, and maybe most of all, his courage to have survived the racist intimidation that major league baseball and some of its fans dished out so easily. We tried to run like him. We tried to stand at the plate like him. Soon, we knew he was slowing and wondered if he would wind up as a Dodger coach (maybe), the first black manager (was baseball ready for that?), maybe hold down a front office job in Brooklyn.

But no, none of the above.

In the highly skilled way that baseball club owners have of breaking their fans’ hearts, the Brooklyn front office had other ideas about Robinson and about the team. In the Dodgers’ case, the words “front office” meant only one man: Walter F. O’Malley, the team’s principal owner and a man who never understood the meaning of the word “loyalty.”

The Dodgers won the ’56 National League pennant and would again face the Yankees in the World Series. Admittedly, Robinson had a terrible post season, batting an anemic .174 in that seven-game series. Yet he also drew seven walks, stole two bases, scored four runs and drove in two more.

One month later, Walter F. O’Malley announced that Jackie’s days in Brooklyn were over. He had traded the great Jackie Robinson to the New York Giants. For Jackie, O’Malley got Dick Littlefield, a journeyman pitcher, and $10,000. Littlefield for Robinson? Was Walter F. O’Malley out of his mind?

Now I don’t pretend to know the nature of the discussions between Robinson and the Dodgers. Did he make unreasonable salary demands? Did he rub Walter F. O’Malley the wrong way? Was he demanding a long-term contract at age 37?

It didn’t matter. We were aghast to know that he wouldn’t be back. That he would be tantalizingly close uptown at the Polo Grounds. That we would root for him to get on base every time he faced a Dodgerpitcher. That, for better or worse, he was ours and we were his, and that’s the way it was supposed to be and the way it would have to be.

What is it about club owners? Remember when the Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee and then from Milwaukee to Atlanta telling the fans along the way to go to hell?

Remember when the Yankees unceremoniously dumped Elston Howard? After 12 years in the Bronx, they sent Ellie Howard, a fine catcher with a .273 lifetime batting average, to the Red Sox. What could be worse than that?

Early in January of 1957, Jackie Robinson made his own announcement. He was retiring from baseball and would not be available to be toyed with by the likes of Walter F. O’Malley.

Later that year, as though to prove his perfidy was boundless, Walter F. O’Malley moved the Dodgers, a money-making team, from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. It was a terrible time, and gave rise to the often reported colloquy between Jack Newfield and Pete Hamill.

Who were the three worst men in history? Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley.

What would you do if you had a gun with just two bullets and the three of them were together in a small room?

Shoot O’Malley twice of course.

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9 Responses to “Jackie Robinson at Career’s End”

  1. jerome spector Says:

    Great article Jeff. Although I lived in Albany and grew up a Dodger fan cause my grandma lived in Brooklyn. I listened to them on the radio as there was only one tv channel in Schenectady and they didn’t carry baseball except for the Series. I did get to see them play in ’56 when a couple of buddies and I hitched to Yankee Stadium and stood in line over night to get bleacher seats for the next day game.Unfortunately they lost that one. Thanks for the memories. PS You probably know this but the site of the new Barclays ctr stadium in Bklyn is the same place that Walter O’malley wanted to build a new Dodger stadium but Robert Moses put the kabosh on that deal and they moved to L.A.

  2. Jeffrey Says:

    Thanks Jerome. It’s always nice hearing from someone who was a Brooklyn fan. I assume from your note that you were a Jackie fan as well. What a great ballplayer he was, and what a dismal exit from baseball he suffered.


  3. Tom Degan Says:

    Good piece. Never having given a rat’s ass about sports, I am only now beginning to truly appreciate the legacy of Jackie Robinson.

    Thank you for this one.


    Tom Degan

  4. Jean Webster Says:

    Yeah! Another Dodger fan here, though as a girl in a family that cared little for any kind of sports (even male cousins, uncles, etc.) I only got to see one game in my young life, and the Dodgers lost. But, I have never forgiven them for leaving Brooklyn. It’s important to remember people like Jackie Robinson. His courage helped other black athletes, and all the black kids who got to see him on the field, knowing they’d have a better chance in the future.

  5. Emily Theroux Says:

    Wonderful column, Jeff! Neither a sports fan nor a New York native, I had never heard about the demeaning treatment of Jackie Robinson at the end of his stellar career. What a disgrace! At least O’Malley seems to have survived, in the eyes of Dodger fans, as the reviled punchline of a delightfully nasty joke.

  6. Michael Kaufman Says:

    Thank you for this post, Jeff. One day when I was seven years old my father took me to Ebbets Field for the first time. I had a sore throat that day and my temperature was running high. My mother said I should stay home and I was happily surprised when my father let me go anyway. When the Dodgers took the field he pointed to Robinson, who played third base that day, and said, “I want you to remember this. That man is very special.” For years that has been all I remembered about that day but your post triggered other memories: my father telling me to watch Jackie after he got on base, how he had “danced” off the base to distract the pitcher just as you described it, for one. Two years later we were at a Dodgers-Giants game when Sal “The Barber” Maglie threw a pitch that nearly hit Robinson in the head. Jackie retaliated in a way that seemed mean to me, injuring a Giants player, second baseman Davey Williams, whose career would never be the same. After reading your post I searched the internet for a description of this incident and found one in Williams’ own words from a 2008 interview. (He died less than a year later at age 81.) “Maglie threw at him. The next pitch, Robinson turned to bunt, and instead of covering first… I’m standing out there waiting for the fight to start. Robinson bunts the ball, and Maglie doesn’t go over to field the ball, Whitey [Lockman, first baseman] goes over to field the ball, and now I wake up and have to cover first base. I got there the minute he got there, and I didn’t have any momentum going for me at all, and he ran right up the middle. Somehow, I held onto the ball, he didn’t knock it out of my hand. I was out too. I didn’t play again for 11 days…Jackie was a great competitor. He had the right to get even with a lot of guys. Jackie told Howard Cosell that I was the only guy he ever hurt intentionally. I got there late, it was my fault.” Such was Williams’ respect for the great Jackie Robinson that he blamed himself for the injury.

  7. Jeffrey Says:

    Jean, The great enigma: The Dodgers of the Fifties were a great great team, and always seemed to manage to lose the critical game. But they were the team of the proletariat and the boys of Eastern Queens adored them.


  8. Ken Goldfarb Says:

    “Shoot O’Malley twice of course.”
    I never heard that one.
    Good column, fine movie.
    Why would anyone make a movie of that dreadful period of time when Jackie was treated so poorly? That was one of the three darkest days in the team’s history, along with the Thomson home run, and the move to LA.
    I inquired to Branca’s web site, and was informed that the shower scene was historically true.
    Best line in the movie, and I read that it was indeed spoken by a teammate, but not in that situation and not be Reese: “Maybe we should all wear 42 so they won’t be able to tell us apart.”
    On every Brooklyn fan’s bucket list is to go see the Robinson/Reese statue at the Cyclones ballpark in Coney Island?
    BTW, I’ve been playing in a senior baseball league and have worn 42 from that first game six years ago.
    Ken G.

  9. Jeffrey Says:

    Hey Ken, Thanks for your note. If you want to read some (possibly surprising) information about the statue of Jackie and Pee Wee, go the the Zest of Orange search box and search: Robinson & Rickey.

    By the way, do you know why Jackie wore 42 when most infielders wore much lower numbers? I have no idea.


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