To the editor:
On April 15, Major League Baseball celebrated the 69th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier that prohibited African-Americans from playing in the big leagues on April 15, 1947.
Each year, on that date, every player wears No. 42 on his jersey to honor the timeless event that was of enormous significance in the early days of the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Except for that annual event, no major league baseball player will ever wear No. 42 on his jersey. In honor of Robinson’s courageous and memorable career, that number has been permanently retired from every roster of every team in baseball.
Allow me to share a story told me by one of Jackie’s closet friends — former Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher, Don Newcombe — who was among the handful of black players who followed Robinson to the Big Leagues.
Newcombe was among the finest pitchers in the game from 1948 through 1960. In 1956, he became the first pitcher to win the National League MVP and the Cy Young Award in the same season. His career was shortened by chronic alcoholism.
Newcombe conquered his addiction in 1967, later serving as the director of community relations for the Los Angeles club until his recent retirement. In addition, for decades he made appearances on behalf of the National Center for Alcoholism, located in Washington, D.C., sharing a compelling, edge-of-your-seat personal story about the devastating effects of alcohol.
It was during a visit to address the University of Indianapolis faculty and student body that I had the privilege of spending a couple of hours in dinner conversation with “Newk,” as he was known in his playing days. He spoke of those Jim Crow days of six decades ago with the most fascinating experiences of that period.
Anyone familiar with the Jackie Robinson saga knows of the loathsome treatment he and his black teammates received from racist players and managers on teams opposing the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was on a trip to St. Louis to face the Cardinals that Jackie decided to send a message about discrimination within the Dodgers organization.
An insensitive traveling secretary for the Dodgers had bowed to the racist management of a hotel there, forcing black players Robinson, Newcombe and Roy Campanella into lesser rooms on the third floor. Also, they were banned from eating with white teammates in the dining room, instead enduring the indignity of taking meals in the kitchen along with the black hotel staff.
Pacing the tiny room that the three were assigned, with a menacing snarl, Jackie said to Newcombe and Campy, “I’ve had enough!”
He grabbed the phone and called room service, hearing a snarky voice on the other end who was aware he was speaking to one of the black Dodgers.
“Yeah, whadda ya’ want?”
In a calm voice, Jackie replied, “I want to order one of each item on the menu. If you get it up here in 15 minutes, I’ll add a $50 tip.”
Newk and Campy were shocked at Jackie’s outrageous act, fearing a hasty trip back to the Minors when the secretary found out.
Shortly before the quarter-hour deadline, a firm knock on the door announced that the white, wide-eyed waiter had arrived. Pushing two large carts overflowing with steaks, chicken and fish; vegetables of all sorts; and desserts enough to feed the entire team, the panting young man began to place the foodstuffs onto the coffee table, desk, bed and any other flat surface he could find.
Chuckling, Newcombe said to his present company, “I never saw a white (racial slur) waiting on three blacks say so many, ‘Yes, Sirs,’ ‘No, Sirs,’ and ‘Will there be anything else, gentlemen,’’ in my life!”
Jackie signed the sizable sum to the credit of the Brooklyn ball club, along with the promised $50 gratuity.
Furious when he received the bill running into the hundreds of dollars, the traveling secretary anticipated that he would have to explain to the tight-fisted Dodger president, Branch Rickey, the unusual food expense. On the return to Brooklyn, Mr. Rickey called the road warrior into his office, erupting at the expense charged to the club. As he pilloried the humiliated employee, he learned to his greater displeasure that his black players — with whom he was making history for both baseball and mankind — were being forced to eat separately from their teammates.
From that time on, said Mr. Newcombe, “We never had to eat in the kitchen again, and our rooms were upgraded to equal accommodations with the rest of the team.
“That,” Newk concluded, “was Jackie Robinson.”
Jim Brunnemer, Brown County
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