Boxing: Golden example of base mettle

Joe Louis was considered the ideal Negro, one who knew his place. Not so Jackie Robinson.
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I WAS not, as a boy, above a spot of petty shoplifting. But I was above racism. At 17, I used to join in most chants on the terraces at Goodison Park - including the filthy ones about Stan Bowles' wife and Tommy Docherty's mistress - but would freeze with embarrassment when black opponents were ooh-ooh-oohed. I am not proud to recall that, along with many football-mad 10-year-olds in the early 1970s, I quite enjoyed the ditty about Cadburys covering Clyde Best in chocolate. But waving bananas at Viv Anderson, that was a different business altogether.

Racist chants, it seemed to me, belonged, if they belonged anywhere, to the terraces. So it came as a shock, at fourth-placed Arsenal v third- placed West Brom on Boxing Day 1979, to sit in a posh seat at Highbury surrounded by affluent-looking, middle-aged men, most of whom spent the match screaming abuse at Laurie Cunningham and Cyrille Regis. I was a neutral, but cheered inwardly when West Brom won 2-1.

In the mid-1980s I spent a year away from football but much closer to white-collar racism. This was Atlanta, Georgia, where segregation was supposedly a thing of the past. Supposedly. Middle-class white folk never dreamed of using the city's bus service, for instance. It had an acronym, MARTA, which stood for Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transport Authority. Wags had a different version - Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.

It was impossible to live in the American South, where good ol' boys still flew the Confederate flag from their pick-ups, and not be aware of endemic racial hatred. But I learned about more wholesome bits of Americana, too. I became hooked on basketball and baseball. And one figure from baseball's past interested me above all others. I read a fascinating book about him, Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, by an academic, Jules Tygiel.

Robinson was second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in their mid-century pomp. At that time, baseball was the pre-eminent American sport, a cultural behemoth, and Robinson's introduction to the major leagues had a seismic effect on the nation. For Robinson was black. And, before 1946, black baseball players were strictly confined to the Negro Leagues. The Dodgers president, however, a powerful go-getter called Branch Rickey - imagine Jack Walker and Bill Shankly rolled into one - had other ideas. Rickey wanted to break down baseball's race barrier and made Robinson his pioneer. This was the so-called great experiment.

Robinson was a phenomenal all-round athlete. Before the war he was a top basketball player and reckoned to be one of the finest college footballers in the country. He was a champion long-jumper and swimmer, he won inter- collegiate golf tournaments, he reached the semi-finals of the national Negro tennis championships. If anyone had shoulders to carry the burden of becoming the first black man to play major-league baseball, it was Robinson. But he was also proud, intelligent and opinionated. America already had a black folk hero, the world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, but Louis owed his popularity among whites partly to his gentle, polite demeanour. He was considered the ideal Negro, one who knew his place. Not so Jackie Robinson.

The first meeting between Robinson and Rickey has passed into American sporting lore. To offer a taste of what he might expect from hostile fans, opponents, even teammates, Rickey spent three hours haranguing and abusing him. Eventually Robinson could bear it no longer. "Mr Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who"s afraid to fight back?" he snapped. Rickey had anticipated this. "No," he roared. "I want a player with guts enough not to fight back!"

As a player, Robinson more than proved his mettle, and enjoyed his finest season for the Dodgers exactly 50 summers ago, helping to steer them to the 1949 World Series against their arch-rivals, the New York Yankees. But, if anything, his integration created more difficulties than either man expected, starting right at the heart of the Dodgers camp, where pitcher Kirby Higbe boasted that he owed his technique to throwing rocks at Negroes in his native South Carolina. During spring training, the Dodgers were prohibited from playing in some Southern towns. Robinson received hate mail by the sackload. Death threats, too.

Yet there are heroes as well as villains in the story of Jackie Robinson. Not only Robinson himself, and Rickey, but also Pee Wee Reese, the Kentuckian shortstop who overcame his Kentucky-fried prejudices to befriend Robinson. More than that, he made sure that the fans and the media knew. Pee Wee Reese died just a couple of weeks ago, aged 81. Robinson died in 1972, only 53, having become an icon of the civil rights movement and a friend, and inspiration, to Martin Luther King.