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The day I met Jackie Robinson

On Sunday, Major League Baseball celebrated the 65th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson ran onto the grass at Ebbets Field to play his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Players all over the league wore Jackie’s number 42 in his honor.

I, too, wear number 42. It’s on the back of a T-shirt given by a friend, and I wear it to bed proudly as a night shirt, for Jackie Robinson is my greatest hero. I share this admiration with many thousands, but unlike most of them, I had the chance to tell Jackie so in person.

It all started with a book.

In 1903, when Marion built its public library on Seventh Avenue with a grant of $10,000 from Andrew Carnegie, the architects placed cloakrooms on either side of the entrance foyer. The two long narrow rooms were intended, perhaps, to be used on one side by women and on the other by men.

Some 40 years later, when I discovered the library, the cloakrooms had been taken over by books. The alley-like room on the right, as you faced it, held books for young readers. And there I discovered the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The Dodgers were the central team in a series of novels by John R. Tunis, a gifted writer of sports book for boys. The first book was “The Kid from Tomkinsville,” then “The Kid Comes Back,” “Highpockets,” and others. I devoured them.

At the age of 10 I was only remotely aware of the real Dodgers, and had no conception of where Brooklyn was, but Tunis made me a fan.

After I read his series, I transferred my love to the great “Boys of Summer” — Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Preacher Roe and especially to the immortal Jackie Robinson, who joined the Dodgers as the first African-American to play in the modern major leagues.

Dodger fans and Dodger news were in short supply in Iowa. Fans there tended to root for the Cubs and Cards, whose games could be heard on the radio and whose fortunes dominated the scant space allocated to the major leagues by the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Boxscores were my only consistent source of news about the Dodgers. I was a very lonely fan.

ONE SUMMER AFTERNOON, I idly twirled the dial of the small radio in my bedroom. I heard the words, “Duke Snider is coming to the plate. He had a single in the first inning ...”  I was stunned. It was the Brooklyn Dodgers! In action! The voice was loud and clear. I held the radio in both hands, staring at the dial, memorizing the spot, terrified the voice would fade away and I would never find it again.

In time, I realized that the announcer was not in Brooklyn, but was receiving a description of the action by teletype and recreating the game on the air, and by some miracle it was being relayed to me.

The announcer’s moniker was Mason Dixon, and he spoke in a deep, resounding voice, as if history-making events were unfolding. In the background, a recording played the constant murmur of spectators, whose voices rose to a roar at exciting moments.

Dixon also had a device that made a resounding crack when a batter connected. When a player hit a home run, he would exclaim, “There’s a long drive, it could be ... yes, TIMMM-BERRR!”

I don’t remember that listeners were ever informed that Dixon wasn’t actually at the park, but it soon became obvious. Generally, batters hit the ball, whether safely or for an out, on the first pitch. It usually took only three pitches to record a strikeout, and four for a walk. Consequently the game moved along briskly.

(I have been told, by the friend who gave me the Jackie Robinson T-shirt, that the Dodger broadcasts were coming from Muscatine. But Mason Dixon’s whereabouts remain a mystery. I have not found a trace of him in online research.)

That summer, and for several seasons to follow, I tuned in Mason Dixon and the Dodgers. If they were winning, I listened to every word, but if they were losing, I had to help. I got my old wooden bat, the 36-incher, too heavy to use in real games, and went out to 18th Street in front of our house.

I threw rocks in the air and hit them downhill with my bat, crushing out singles, doubles and homers for the Dodgers. Now I was Pee Wee, now Gil, now Jackie. The rocks tore holes in the bat, but it was worth it. Often, when I went back inside to pick up the action, the Dodgers had regained the lead.

IT’S HARD TO SAY, across all those years, exactly why I loved Jackie Robinson. He was a Dodger, and that was certainly part of it. I admired his extraordinary athleticism. I learned he had been the first person to letter in four sports at UCLA. He was almost unstoppable as a running back in football, averaging 11 yards per carry one season. In tennis, he won a national championship among black players. He was considered Olympic material as a broad jumper.

Being only 10, and living in an all-white world untouched by television, I could not have well understood the brutal prejudice he was battling every day. But I knew enough to realize he was a martyr. During his first year in the majors, he was not allowed to retaliate when he was insulted, threatened or injured. He had to turn the other cheek.

But he was a martyr triumphant. He played baseball with an energy bordering on fury, beating his bitterest foes at their own game. This made him a hero of mythic proportions.

FAN APPAREL licensed by the major leagues was unheard of in those days. Thus my life was bereft of Dodger memorabilia.

It came to pass that I felt the need for a billfold, even though I had no money. My mother, perhaps hoping to encourage thrift, acquiesced. She knew I liked baseball, but she had scant knowledge of the details. She took the bus to Cedar Rapids and bought a zippered billfold of imitation leather that had a picture of Ted Williams on it. The portrait, printed in ink that had a tendency to flake off, showed Ted with a bat on his shoulders.

My mother did not know Ted Williams from Red Grange, so I showed as much gratitude as I could for the gift, even though I was not a fan of Williams, nor of his team, the Boston Red Sox, which was in the wrong league besides.

Then my mother dropped a bombshell. She told me that the store also carried billfolds with pictures of two other players: Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson. “The salesman said you probably wouldn’t want a Jackie Robinson billfold because he’s a Negro,” she added. I tried to disguise my pain. Jackie’s image would have been the greatest treasure my pocket could hold.

YEARS LATER, WORKING in corporate public relations in New York City, I was able to meet my hero. It was in the mid-1960s. Jackie Robinson, now deeply involved in civil rights, was to visit my boss, who ran our company’s charitable foundation. I begged to be introduced.

When the day came, I stood in my office doorway and watched him walk down the hallway in his distinctive, slightly pigeon-toed stride. He passed so closely I could have touched him. His hair had turned white, but he was big, about six feet tall and heavy in a powerful, muscular way.

Jackie did not glance in my direction. His eyes were on the one black secretary who worked with us, a quiet woman named Lillie Daniels. Jackie Robinson said hello to her. She barely looked up and softly said hello back to him.

I waited nervously until my boss called me to his office. I took a deep breath and went in. “This is Jackie Robinson,” my boss said. I can’t remember shaking his hand, which probably means that I didn’t. The power of Jackie’s grip would have been unforgettable.

But I remember launching into the story of how I came to love the Dodgers, about hearing them play out in Iowa, about Mason Dixon and hitting rocks with my bat to help them win.

Jackie Robinson sat on the edge of my boss’s sofa and stared at me. There was nothing pleasant in his expression. He was not exactly glowering, but his look made it clear that he didn’t enjoy my story and had no intention of pretending to.

He stared at me as if I were a noisy rookie who had interrupted a clubhouse discussion; a rookie who wasn’t going to be around very long.

Under Robinson’s stern gaze, my story ran down. He leaned forward on the very edge of the sofa, tensing as if ready to spring up.

My boss tried to rescue the situation by saying something kind about my work. I looked to Robinson for approval. He offered none. He maintained his stony silence, looking me right in the eye without a glimmer of kindness.

He was enduring this moment with a fierce stoicism, I decided later, just as he had restrained himself during his first trying year in the majors.

I left the office in confusion. Soon Jackie Robinson came out. He said goodbye to Lillie Daniels, ignored me as I stood in my office doorway, took a right turn down the hallway and walked out of my life forever.

Did the meeting change my feelings for Jackie Robinson? No. He was my hero forever. I was no more than an irksome moment, briefer than a gnat’s buzz, in a great man’s life.

(Dan Kellams, a 1954 graduate of Marion High School, is the author of “A Coach’s Life: Les Hipple and the Marion Indians.")

Last Updated ( Sunday, 15 April 2012 15:24 )  

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