“You got a girl?” asked the old white man.
“I think so,” said the young black man.
“What do you mean, ‘I think so’?”
The young black man said he had a girlfriend and they’d discussed marriage, but he didn’t know how long she’d wait for him.
“Do you love her?”
“I love her very much.”
“When we get through today, you might want to call her up,” said the white man, “because there are times when a man needs a woman by his side.”
The two men were sitting in an office at 215 Montague Street in Brooklyn on the sweltering morning of August 28, 1945. It was two weeks after the end of World War II. A fish tank gurgled in a corner. An odd pair of portraits hung on a wall: Abraham Lincoln and Leo Durocher—the 16th president of the United States and the current manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Great Emancipator and The Lip.
“Do you know why we brought you here?” asked the white man, who was Branch Rickey, 64, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“I know that you are starting a team called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers,” said the black man, who was Jack Roosevelt Robinson, 26, a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League baseball team.
“No,” said Rickey, sitting behind his desk, puffing a cigar. The Brown Dodgers story was a ruse. “I’ve sent for you because I’m interested in you as a candidate for the Brooklyn National League club. I think you can play in the major leagues. How do you feel about it?”
Robinson was stunned. He never expected to live long enough to see the integration of baseball, and now this man was offering to make him the first black player in the major leagues. “I was thrilled, scared and excited,” he later wrote. “Most of all, I was speechless.”
Rickey, a man who was seldom speechless, kept talking. Of course, he said, first Robinson would have to prove himself with the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals. “You think you can play for Montreal?”
“Yes,” said Robinson, who’d recovered his powers of speech.
A theatrical man fond of dramatic gestures, Rickey abruptly swiveled his chair in Robinson’s direction and pointed a stubby finger at him. “I know you’re a good ballplayer,” he said. “What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”
Robinson felt his face flush with anger: The man is questioning my courage, he thought.
Rickey leaned forward and looked him in the eye. “I’ve investigated you thoroughly, Robinson.”
He did seem to know all about the shortstop. He knew that Robinson was an excellent hitter, fielder, bunter and base stealer for the Monarchs and that he’d been a football, basketball and track star at UCLA. He also knew that Robinson had been a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and that he’d been arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus in a Texas town near Fort Hood. Rickey thought that incident showed Robinson’s spirit—but did it also show a hot temper?
“We can’t fight our way through this, Robinson,” he said. “We’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side—no owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. Many fans will be hostile. We can only win if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman.”
Robinson realized that Rickey was serious, that he sincerely believed baseball should be integrated and that he’d pondered the problem of how to do it.
“If you’re a good enough man, we can make a start in the right direction,” Rickey said. “But let me tell you, it’s going to take an awful lot of courage.”
Now he’s questioning my courage again, Robinson thought.
“Have you got the guts to play the game no matter what happens?” Rickey asked.
“I think I can play the game, Mr. Rickey,” Robinson said, a little peeved by the question.
Rickey stood up and took off his suit jacket. He began pacing in front of Robinson’s chair. They’ll throw bean balls at you, he said. They’ll call you dirty names. They’ll taunt you and attack you. Can you take all that without losing your temper?
“Mr. Rickey,” Robinson asked, “are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”
“Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey said. “You’ve got to win this thing with hitting and throwing and fielding ground balls, nothing else!”
Rickey began acting out the insults he knew Robinson would face. He was a desk clerk at a hotel: We don’t let niggers sleep here. He was a waiter in a restaurant: Didn’t you see a sign at the door saying no animals allowed? He was a base runner barreling into Robinson, deliberately spiking him: How do you like that, nigger boy?
At one point, Rickey threw a punch toward Robinson’s face, missing by inches. Robinson didn’t move. But Clyde Sukeforth, the Dodger scout who witnessed this meeting, recalled that the look on Robinson’s face was ferocious: “His eyes had a lot of sparks in them, I can tell you that.”
When Rickey finished his performance, his shirt was soaked with sweat. “I need someone, Jackie, who can carry that load,” he said. “Above all, you cannot fight back. That’s the only way this experiment will succeed, and others will follow in your footsteps.”
What Rickey was demanding from Robinson was the same strategy later adopted by Martin Luther King—nonviolent defiance of segregation.
A devout Methodist, Rickey picked up a copy of Life of Christ and read a passage to Robinson: “I say unto you, that ye resist not evil. But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Robinson, another Methodist, agreed that he wouldn’t fight back against racist tormentors. After that, he signed his historic contract with the Dodgers.
The next spring, Robinson played for the Montreal Royals. The Royals won the International League pennant and Robinson was voted Most Valuable Player. In 1947, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in spring training, and several Dodgers signed a petition protesting the hiring of a Negro. Leo Durocher, the manager whose picture hung in Rickey’s office, called his white players to a meeting.
“Listen, I don’t care if this guy is white, black, green or has stripes like a zebra,” Leo the Lip barked, delivering a diatribe peppered with expletives. “If I say he plays, he plays. He can put an awful lot of money in our pockets. Take your petition and shove it!”
As oratory goes, Durocher’s speech was not as inspiring as the address delivered in Gettysburg by the other man whose portrait graced Rickey’s office, but it worked: The racist players dropped their protest. That season, Robinson faced every insult that Rickey had predicted—and many more—but he ignored them and kept playing. He won Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers won the pennant.
The national pastime—and the nation—changed forever. Ten months later, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the United States armed forces. Slowly, across America, a civil rights movement began to rise.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.