Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Jackie Robinson and the little "nigger."





I remember the first time I saw Jackie Robinson play. It was on a boiling summer afternoon in 1953 in Philadelphia. Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers were playing the Phillies in rickety old Shibe Park.

I'll never forget that day, for two reasons.  First, it was the day I finally got to see, in person, the man who was a hero, a god in the black community, the first black to play in the major leagues in baseball-crazed America.

But something else happened to me that day. It was also the first time someone called me nigger..

Then I was a just a little kid, a stat-spouting fanatic who loved the game. That afternoon, I was accompanied by a teen neighbor, also black. I was a Dodger fan. But every black person was a Dodger fan. How could you be black and not root for the team that finally, in 1947, opened the doors of the major leagues to blacks? That glorious story, by the way, which many have forgotten, is being revived in the new movie, "42."

Many whites didn't like integrated baseball and worried that blacks would kill "the white man's sport.". One of them just happened to be sitting a few seats down from me in the bleachers that day.

This was no ordinary racist. He was not only loud and raucous, but he was big, really big, scary big. To a wide-eyed little kid like me, he was the equivalent of King Kong. This guy, a classic Aryan, could have been hanging out on top of the Empire State Building, swatting planes. I had never seen anyone that big. He must have been 6'7'' or 6'8,'' well over 300 pounds and was wearing a short-sleeved shirt that showed off his massive muscles. These days people that size aren't that surprising. But back then you never saw people that huge. No question, a freak of nature.

Swilling booze out of a flask, the guy didn't mind letting all the those around him know that he not only didn't like blacks but that he was sure they'd somehow ruin baseball. Back then the civil term for African-Americans was "Negro" or "colored." But this guy was yelling "nigger" this and "nigger" that.
One line still rings in my ears after all these years.

"Goddam niggers are ruining baseball!," shrieked the racist, over and over. Actually he was ruining the game that afternoon. He was so loud people a few rows away could hear him.There were plenty of blacks sitting nearby, but none dared tackle Kong. He looked like he could brush aside a crew of attackers like flies.

It didn't help that Robinson, the most graceful athlete this star-struck youngster had ever seen, was having a great day, smacking hits, stealing bases and making acrobatic defensive plays. Not what the giant racist wanted to see.

Somebody a few rows back, finally fed up with his vicious rants, took action, In the middle of "goddam niggers..." a bottle of booze, tossed from somewhere behind him, slammed into his back, which must have been like cement, because the bottle shattered, drenching him in alcohol.

The racist was enraged, much like the big gorilla atop the Empire State Building in the movie. People around him stampeded. My buddy bolted. But I didn't. It was like I was bolted to the bench, just a few yards from him. He screamed and yelled and swore he'd kill whoever threw the bottle. Naturally he assumed the attacker was a "nigger." He was probably right.

After a few minutes he walked down the row, headed for the aisle. He had to get by me to reach the aisle. I wanted to move, but I couldn't. He walked slowly up to me and glared at me with hatred that was like nothing I had ever experienced. He said two words to me that haunt me to this day.

"Move, nigger."

But I was still frozen and couldn't move. Finally he brushed past me, continuing that venomous stare. He stormed up the stairs and, thankfully, never returned. The fans who ran away slowly wandered back and had a grand time cheering as the Dodgers, spurred by Robinson, routed the Phillies. Everyone in the area seemed to quickly erase the racist from their memories.

Not me. His words chilled me, rattling around in my head the rest of that afternoon. I had nightmares about him for months after that day. In many of them his glare was so potent it melted me.

Whenever I think of that afternoon, I remember Robinson, whom I saw play many times, having a banner day. But I can't wipe away the memory of that cruel racist. I do feel good about one thing, though. That racist was no prophet. Was he ever wrong.

Robinson and all the blacks that followed were the best thing that ever happened to baseball.