Dec 12, 2013
Waiting for ‘42’
Posted on Apr 12, 2013
By Allen Barra
Robinson grew increasingly ill with diabetes and suffered two heart attacks, dying from the second one at his Stamford, Conn., home in 1972. He was only 53 years old. Although Major League Baseball had made much of his legacy, it took the organization until 1997, 50 years after his debut with the Dodgers, to retire his number for every major team. (The Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, the last player to be given the number, is the only one still wearing it.)
Robinson’s oldest son, Jackie Jr., was never able to handle the unfathomable burden of being the child of such a legend. He developed a drug problem and became alienated from his father. The two reconciled after Jackie Jr. entered rehab and began work as a drug counselor, and Robinson became a dedicated anti-drug crusader. Jackie Jr. was killed in an automobile accident in June 1972, four months before his father died.
Like Jackie, Rickey made his son a junior, and, with chilling irony, like Jackie, saw his son die before him. After working with his father for years in the Brooklyn and Pittsburgh organizations, Branch Jr. died in 1961 of complications from diabetes and hepatitis.
Just three years after Robinson joined the Dodgers, Rickey was squeezed out of his job by jealous part owner O’Malley and moved to the perennial cellar-dwellers, the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rickey retired in 1955, not staying long enough to see the fruits of his labor in the organization, which resulted in the 1960 Pirates world championship team. One of Rickey’s last acts as the Pirates’ GM was to steal away a young outfielder named Roberto Clemente from the Brooklyn Dodgers. Maybe God was a Methodist after all.
In “42” a terrific young actor, Andre Holland, plays Wendell Smith, the black sportswriter hired by Rickey, as he puts it to Boseman, to “be your Boswell.” In a discrimination as unjust as what Robinson was subject to, the real Smith was never able to write his own biography of Robinson, a book that surely would have told more of Robinson’s story from the inside than any other. Smith died in 1972, just a month after Robinson.
In perhaps the bitterest irony of all, one that Rickey never acknowledged and possibly never even understood, he did not believe—unlike Veeck—that Negro League team owners deserved compensation for the loss of their star players when they were called up. Unfortunately, most other major league owners felt the same way. Within a short time the Negro Leagues were stripped of their biggest box office attractions and withered and died. Just as egregious was that baseball’s gentleman’s agreement toward discrimination in hiring didn’t really change; only a handful of young players—the superstars of the 1950s such as Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Elston Howard—were bought up while most of the older Negro League greats like Josh Gibson never played a single game in the majors.
Slowly during the 1950s and ’60s, in fact by the time Rickey died in 1965, baseball had begun to disappear from the inner cities, and a new generation of black youth became more enamored with professional football and basketball. The Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1958, and it took 54 years for another professional team to come to Brooklyn, the NBA’s Nets.
Black and Latino kids, and white ones for that matter, see the statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese on Coney Island’s Surf Avenue without any knowledge of who the two men were and what their connection could possibly be to their own lives.
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