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Jackie Robinson: Golden

April 15, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was it like when Jackie Robinson broke into baseball? Here to talk about that are four men of baseball from that era. Carl Erskine played with Jackie Robinson for nine years as a pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers; Buck O’Neil played in the Negro Leagues for eighteen years with the Memphis Red Sox and the Kansas City Monarchs. In 1962, he became the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues with the Chicago Cubs. He is now chairman of the Negro Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

Leonard Koppett covered the Dodgers in Brooklyn and LA starting in 1949 as a sportswriter for several newspapers, including the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992. And Ernest Burke played in the Negro Leagues with the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1946 to 1948. He played in the Canadian League from 1949 to 1954. And thank you all for joining us. And starting with you, Mr. Burke, do you remember what you thought on first hearing that Jackie Robinson had been signed with the Dodgers?

ERNEST BURKE, Former Negro Leagues Players: Well, when I first heard it I was in the Marine Corps at the time that Jackie was signed, and we heard it on radio. And I was very thrilled. I said, Jackie made it to the Majors; there’s no looking back for the rest of us. I said, once he opened the door, you’re going to get all the best ball players up there, and they’re going to show what we can do, what wasn’t presented to us before, now the door is open. Now we have to show them what we can do.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you were in the Marine Corps but you were ready to get out.

ERNEST BURKE: I was ready to go.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Buck O’Neil, what did it mean to you for Jackie Robinson to be signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers?

BUCK O’NEIL, Chairman, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum: (Kansas City, Missouri) It just meant everything to me because actually we’d been thinking about this since 1920, when Rube Foster organized the Negro National League. Rube Foster was so far ahead of his time Rube Foster was thinking expansion during that era. He thought if he organized the black ball players that one day the Negro–that one day the National League would take a black team and the American League would take a black team. It was really an exciting period when Jackie signed.

I’m in the Navy at the time. I’m in Subic Bay in the Philippines when Jackie signed to play with Montreal, and I was a bosun, and it’s 10:30 at night and the commanding officer called and said, “Bosun O’Neill, come to my office at once.” I said, oh-oh, what did I do now? When I got to the office he said, “You know what happened?”. I said, “No.” He said, “Jackie Robinson has just been signed to an organized baseball contract by Branch Rickey.” I said, “Thank God. It finally happened.” I said, “Give me that mike.” I got the mike, and I said, “Hear this, hear this, hear this. Branch Rickey just signed Jackie Robinson to an organized baseball contract.” We whooped and hollered. We shot our guns. We didn’t sleep much that night.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Were there blacks and whites on the ship?

BUCK O’NEIL: Oh, no. All this was, all this was blacks. This was a black–see, during that time the army–the navy was segregated.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So everybody on that ship, whether they wanted to be a baseball player or not, could identify with this move.

BUCK O’NEIL: Of course, of course, they could. That’s the same principle now that the people looking at this 50th anniversary and Tiger Woods. You’re seeing these things happen, and you didn’t have to play golf to really be really overboard on this. The same thing–baseball–everybody in this country–especially black–but, oh, man Jackie, somebody’s signed to organized baseball.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Carl Erskine, that was your team. What did it mean to you?

CARL ERSKINE, Former Dodgers Pitcher: Well, of course, Jackie was one of the most exciting players I ever saw play, and I can’t imagine Ty Cobb or any of the other greats being more exciting than Jackie, turning a crowd on any more than Jackie could. He was a very intense player, very talented–we all know that–but he was very intelligent. Jackie was one of the few college men in pro-baseball in those days.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But at the moment that you heard he was going to be signed to the Dodgers, I mean, what kind of reaction was there?

CARL ERSKINE: Well, we didn’t–I was in the Navy also at the time, but got out mid summer of ’46, got into the minor leagues. And when I heard about Jackie, it was no big deal to me. I was raised in Indiana, Anderson, Indiana. A good buddy of mine, Johnny Wilson, who was a great player in Indiana, basketball, played with the Chicago American Giants in the Black League, Johnny and I grew up together, and this race thing, I was color blind, thanks to Johnny Wilson.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Leonard Koppett, not everyone was color blind though. What were the other actions around white baseball circles and among white people generally?

LEONARD KOPPETT, Baseball Writer: I was just getting out of the army at that point, and my reaction was a sense of outrage gradually building not just from that moment, but over the next few months a sense of outrage when I realized what he was, that I had been deprived all the prior years of what was going on in the Negro Leagues, because reading the major papers every day as a baseball fan it was completely invisible to me, and as the years have gone on, are more and more upset at what I missed and what we all should have been able to experience.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So did the news about Jackie Robinson mean anything? I mean, were you able to evaluate it, or accept it?

LEONARD KOPPETT: It was really, you know, it’s an about time kind of response for a New Yorker. You know, in the 1940’s New York is a very liberal place. Most of the opposition to Robinson’s arrival was expressed elsewhere than in New York. Of course, there was some in New York also, but New York was the most liberal milieu in which he could have entered.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Mr. Burke, what was it like for black baseball players right around in that time? I mean, you stayed basically in your own area with your own people. I mean, can you then help us understand what that transition must have been like.

ERNEST BURKE: Well, when we went to large cities, we stayed with people that rent rooms, like New York, we had the Teresa Hotel in–down in Harlem.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So even in New York you were segregated.

ERNEST BURKE: Yeah. We were segregated but we stayed in the hotels in the black area, and when we went to small towns we had people where we–the owners rented rooms, and we stayed there. And the eating situation was terrible. I mean, we couldn’t go into restaurants when we traveled. We couldn’t go in restaurants to eat. We had to go to the corner store and buy lunch meat or a stick of bologna, or a loaf of bread and a can of baked beans, and eat it. And, I mean, things were really bad, but we still ate like that and was still able to play double hitters, triple hitters, and hit home runs.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Buck O’Neil, what was it like? I mean, you weren’t with him exactly but you–what was that environment like for Jackie Robinson out there now, being the only one, the only black player with a major white team, that kind of environment?

BUCK O’NEIL: Well, actually factually when Branch Rickey signed Jackie to that contract, it–this was the second round of the civil rights, really, because the civil rights started, you know, right after the Civil War. Civil rights started–this is Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and all that, they started building this bridge across that chasm of prejudice and hatred. Now, here comes Jackie Robinson. When Jackie Robinson came, they still–we were still having the prejudice, but let me tell you this.

They–the Negro League was actually the third largest black business in this country. So actually we were doing pretty good but segregation was a horrible thing, but the young man just said about staying at the Teresa Hotel and–and we mostly stayed at the Woodside Hotel in New York–we knew the places to go.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Leonard Koppett, you traveled with Jackie Robinson, and he used to talk to you on the bus. This, this moving into this new milieu, we heard some of the details in Kwame’s piece, how did that affect him? I mean, did he talk about it much?

LEONARD KOPPETT: The really wonderful thing about my experience with Robinson is that we talked baseball, and on my level we had achieved what the integration was supposed to achieve in the first place. He was a baseball player; I was a baseball writer; and 99 percent of our conversation had to do with baseball and not all these major sociological things.

But the point I’d like to make is–that gets lost in this talk about 50 years ago–such a long time–it’s very hard to explain to people today that what was going on then was acceptable to the white society. That was the trouble. That was the thing that Jackie actually broke down. It’s not that–it’s not that some people were mean to people of another race; it’s that the society at large accepted the fact that it was all right to be segregationists. And that’s what Robinson’s presence in the greatest publicity spotlight of that time, Major League Baseball, that’s what Jackie started to break down.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Carl Erskine, you started to talk a little bit ago about the kind of baseball player Jackie Robinson was. What do you remember about his playing? What made him stand out?

CARL ERSKINE: Well, he was very intense, plus we know he was talented, and he was quick on the bases. That’s what made him so exciting, is he–he’d get in a run down and he’d almost get out of it, and just electrified the crowd, and it confused the opposition because Jackie was so quick; he would cause good players to make bad throws, and he would just get out of these run downs. Jackie’s presence on the field or in a clubhouse gave us a spirit that we needed, and it really was kind of the centerpiece of that team. We had some great people but Jackie was the centerpiece.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Buck O’Neil, what do you remember about Robinson, the ball player?

BUCK O’NEIL: Robinson brought–changed baseball the way they played baseball. Robinson brought Negro League baseball to the Major Leagues; that quickness that he brought. See, I didn’t see Robinson until 1947, the year he went to the Major Leagues. I saw him in Cuba. I was playing in Cuba that year, and you know, Rickey took the ball club to Cuba for spring training because of the problems that they had in Florida, and they came to see us play, and we would go out and see them practice, saw them in inner squad game, the first time I saw him play, and listen, let me tell you something: Jackie Robinson showed me the intestinal fortitude and the–I guess–the intelligence of a Rube Foster. He showed me that one step quickness of a cool Papa Bell.

Then he showed me the hand and eye coordination of a Josh Gibson or Babe Ruth or a Ted Williams. This is what he–what Jackie–see, baseball had come to a point where actually a lot of baseball players were big, they were slow, they could hit the ball out of the ball park. This was Major League Baseball. But–and so you could go and get your popcorn or something like that until Ruth come up and say Jimmy Fox or somebody would come up to the plate–but with Jackie Robinson you couldn’t go to get the popcorn. You couldn’t get it because Jackie might do something that you’d never seen before. That was Negro League Baseball.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, thank you all, gentlemen, for joining us.