Thoughts on History
In It Happened in Brooklyn: An Oral History of Growing Up in the Borough in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Alan Lelchuk, the son of a Russian immigrant to the United States, is quoted as saying that “In the years after the war, nothing symbolized the feeling of hope and optimism more than the Brooklyn Dodgers. By taking in blacks and making them part of the team, Branch Rickey made the Dodgers truly representative of the borough, which at that time flourished as a unique place. The team stood for aspirations . . . .”
Only a small child when Jackie Robinson entered the Dodgers’ starting lineup in 1947, I was, even by his last season in the major leagues nine years later, too young to appreciate the significance of his breaking of the color line or the courage that had been required of him. Nonetheless, by 1956 I was, thanks to free box-seat tickets my mother could lay her hands on, a frequent visitor to Ebbets Field and a die-hard, almost fanatical, Dodger fan. I can, therefore, look back and say that I frequently saw the great Dodger team of the mid-fifties–including Robinson–play, but in all honesty, I must admit that I did not realize that I was watching someone who had made history, who was influential in the budding Civil Rights Movement, and whose presence on the field had altered the nature of professional sports in this country.
I do remember one occasion when some of my neighbors, knowing my loyalty to the Dodgers, sought to get a rise out of me by criticizing the team’s racial mix. Since they too were Dodger fans, all I had to do was point out the obvious: Robinson’s own record; Jim Gilliam’s base-running skills; Roy Campanella’s three Most Valuable Player awards in 1951, ’53, and ’55; Don Newcombe’s great 1956 season on the pitcher’s mound; and–closest to the hearts of all Brooklynites–Sandy Amoros’s spectacular catch that saved the seventh game of the ’55 World Series, giving the team and the borough its first, and as it turned out its last, championship. Even those who didn’t see the justice in Rickey’s “noble experiment” could see that it had made good baseball sense. Beginning on page 32, William Kashatus commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers by recounting how he and Rickey changed the history of American sports.
Jackie Robinson’s signing by the Dodgers gave other young, black ballplayers the chance to dream of major-league careers. One of those who followed that dream was Henry Aaron, who joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. Bryan Ethier recently spoke with Mr. Aaron, now an executive with the Atlanta Braves organization, about his memories of Robinson, the racial attitudes encountered by black players as they traveled around the country during the early days of baseball’s integration, and his own experiences as he closed in on George Herman “Babe” Ruth’s home-run record in the early 1970s. That interview appears on page 38.
Margaret Fortier is the editor of Women’s History and American History magazines and a historian with extensive experience in research and writing for historic sites and museums.