US sport: Legacy of the divine Dodger

As America celebrates the breach of the colour bar in baseball 50 years ago, Rupert Cornwell considers Jackie Robinson's remarkable career while (below) John Carlin examines the contemporary racial balance in US sport
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Bill Clinton may have cancelled state visits to Latin America and beyond, but there is one event the superpower's temporarily crippled leader does not intend to miss. At around 9pm on 15 April, the middle of the fifth innings will be interrupted in the baseball game at Shea Stadium between the New York Mets and the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers. A black woman in her mid-70s, of serenely striking looks and immense composure, will walk down the players' tunnel and on to the field. Accompanying her will be the President of the United States, on crutches. The two will make their way to a spot near second base. There, Mr Clinton will make an anniversary presentation, watched by probably not a single dry eye among the 55,000 spectators on hand. And for a few illusory instants, America's racial conscience will be salved.

The woman's name is Rachel Robinson. Exactly 50 years earlier, at a baseball stadium not many miles from Shea, her husband took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first black major league player of the modern era. Baseball is dedicating the 1997 season to the memory of Jackie Robinson. Given America's genius at marrying history, maudlin sentiment and crass commercialism, hyperbole is inevitable. But nothing, not the Robinson stickers or badges or drinks, nor the specially minted gold coins, even the hollow self-congratulation unique to baseball, can obscure a simple fact. Jackie Robinson's breach of baseball's colour barrier was the most important single sporting moment of the American century. That bleak spring afternoon, a decade before its time, the civil rights movement was born, and America's national pastime became truly that - and what's more, at the home of America's team.

In no sport anywhere on earth, surely, is there anything to match the tyranny of nostalgia exercised by Brooklyn's Dodgers. Forty years have passed since the owner, Walter O'Malley, took the franchise to Los Angeles, earning himself a spot in the borough's 20th century roll of infamy.

Today, the pilgrimage to Brooklyn is a melancholy affair. Only a few clues remain of the original Boys of Summer. An old Dodgers pennant flies atop the town hall, and at the intersection of Third Avenue at 75th Street you will find the Brooklyn Dodger, "The Most Famous Sports Bar in New York", its facade painted in the team's creamy-white and blue, its interior adorned with team memorabilia, arrayed like holy relics. But Ebbets Field, the Dodgers' beloved old stadium, survives only as a name on a couple of undistinguished apartment blocks.

Saddest of all are a few bedraggled flyers affixed to walls and lampposts, "Bring the Dodgers Back". Earlier this year the O'Malley family put the LA Dodgers on the market, and Howard Golden, Brooklyn's chief executive, launched a campaign to bring them home from the West Coast. Which is fine - except that the price tag is at least $350m (pounds 220m), double the record paid for a major league baseball franchise. Even in the improbable event that Brooklyn find the money, relocation would be blocked by the Mets and New York's other major league team, the Yankees. Deep down, every Brooklynite knows the Mohican Indians have a better chance of regaining Manhattan than the borough has of reclaiming its stolen Dodgers.

But their ghost grows more luminous by the year. In truth, as often as not, Ebbets Field was half empty. For those of a certain age, however, the Brooklyn Dodgers have metamorphosed into myth, an emblem of a vanished post-war golden age; when order and decency and certainty prevailed, and America's church clock was fixed forever at 10 to three. Unarguably, they were a wonderful team, especially for the 10 seasons Jackie Robinson played alongside the likes of Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese, Hall-of-Famers all. But with the glorious and indelible exception of 1955, they would always lose the World Series to the hated, overweening Yankees. Even that, however, was essential to the myth. The Dodgers were human, accessible, loveable. Most important, they were underdogs. With every failure, Brooklyn and America loved them more. "Dem Bums", or better still "Our Bums,' entered the standard grammar of American-English.

But nothing contributed as much to their aura as the arrival of Robinson. His presence on a major league field - a full seven years before the Supreme Court's 1954 epochal ruling that outlawed segregated education and ushered in the civil rights era - was baseball's noblest moment. For once a sport that usually had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the tiniest innovation was leading the way. And "Dem Bums", Brooklyn's finest, were leading baseball with an innovation that would change pro sports here forever. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, baseball superstars Ken Griffey and Albert Belle, even young Tiger Woods, all are indebted to Jackie Robinson.

It all began in 1942, when Branch Rickey became the Dodgers' general manager in Brooklyn, a man who would revolutionise the business of baseball. In those days, American sport was almost entirely segregated. Not since 1884 had a black played major league baseball. True, Joe Louis held the heavyweight championship, and Jesse Owens was the most acclaimed athlete on earth (though he had to migrate from his native Alabama to Ohio in the north to prosper). But for the rest, black and white inhabited separate universes.

Then Rickey produced his masterstroke of enlightened self-interest. He knew the team had to be improved after the war, and what better source of fresh talent than the Negro League, which by then was producing individual talents to match anything white baseball could offer. A deeply religious man, Rickey opposed segregation on moral grounds - but he was no less concerned with the earthly wellbeing of the Dodgers. The recruitment of a black player thus had an irresistible logic. The problem was, which black player? The choice was crucial, for a botched experiment might tear baseball apart on the field and set back the integrationist cause by years, if not decades. Finally his eye alighted on Jackie Robinson Roosevelt, an ex-serviceman playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League.

His pedigree was outstanding. As an athlete, Robinson had it all: strength, co-ordination and a speed befitting the brother of Mack Robinson, predecessor of Owens as world record holder at the 220 yards sprint. More important still, he possessed the right temperament. He was brave, dignified and acutely aware of his impending place in history. Rickey was looking for a saint as much as a sportsman, a person of divine restraint who would not retaliate, whatever the provocation. At their decisive meeting in August 1945, Robinson asked at one point: "Mr Rickey, do you want a ball player who's afraid to fight back?" "No", came the answer, "I want one with the guts not to fight back. You've got to do this with hits and catches and stolen bases, Jackie. Nothing else."

A few months later Robinson joined the Dodgers' top farm team, the Montreal Royals. So brilliantly did he play that his promotion was inevitable. The brief, momentous announcement came on 10 April, 1947: the Brooklyn Dodgers had purchased Robinson's contract "with immediate effect". He would be paid $5,000, the then minimum salary for a major leaguer. Five days later, he ran out on to Ebbets Field before 25,623 spectators, to face the Boston Braves.

Hitless in four at bats, Robinson's debut that chilly afternoon of April 1947 was utterly forgettable. "I did a miserable job," he confessed later. But his season was a triumph. Named Rookie of the Year, he helped the Dodgers to the World Series (where, needless to relate, they lost to the Yankees). His hitting, his swooping plays in the infield and above all his gazelle-like speed on the bases were electrifying. And that despite an outpouring of abuse from rival players and crowds that might have driven a lesser man to suicide.

In those days a disproportionate number of players were white Southern boys from a poor background. On 15 April, a players' strike was planned at every National League game if Robinson took the field. Only poor communications, plus the example of people like Stan Musial, the great hitter of St Louis Cardinals, averted one. "Don't know about you fellows," Musial told his team-mates as they dithered in the dressing-room, "But I'm going out to play."

The worst were Brooklyn's games with the Phillies. "Of all the unpleasant days of my life," Robinson later wrote, "22 April, 1947 brought me closer to cracking up than I had ever been." It was the Dodgers' first series in Philadelphia, and racial loathing gushed from the dugout housing the team from the City of Brotherly Love. "Hey, snowflake, which one of those white boys' wives are you dating tonight?" and "They're waiting for you in the jungles, black boy," were two of the milder taunts.

But elsewhere it could be almost as bad. During some especially vicious heckling later in the season, Pee Wee Reese called a time out. He trotted across from shortstop, put his arm around Robinson's shoulder, and looked steadily out around the crowd. It was a gesture worth dozen a grand slam homers - not least because Reese had initially asked to be traded to another club when he learnt a black player was joining the Dodgers. At the end of the season Robinson almost had a nervous breakdown. "Few people know about it," Don Newcombe, a black pitcher recruited by the Dodgers in 1948, revealed last year. "Rachel, God bless her, took him on a three-week boat trip when it was over. It saved him."

And the breakthrough had been made. In July 1947, Larry Doby became the first black to play in the American League, for the Cleveland Indians, and one by one the other clubs followed suit, last among them the Boston Red Sox in 1959. Even so the process was gradual, and wondrous were the reasons clubs found to turn down the greatest black players. Hank Aaron had "a hitch in his swing," sniffed one general manager, who one hopes had the decency to blush when Aaron hit the 715th homer of his career in 1974 to break Babe Ruth's record - a feat which predictably earned him racist hatemail by the sackful. The peerless Willie Mays, it was deemed, "couldn't handle a curveball." The deficiency did not stop him clubbing 660 home runs, third on the all-time list. Mays would explain: "I just had to be three or four times better than the whites."

Even integration on the field could not expunge the endless indignities of pre-civil rights America off it: the segregated restaurants, hotels and transport in the south, and the refusal of two stadiums in Florida to allow Robinson to play there in spring training. "They said the floodlights weren't working... pretty strange for an afternoon game." The Dodgers would temporarily settle the problem by spending March in Cuba.

Jackie Robinson never made the sad migration to Los Angeles. The Dodgers traded him to the cross-town Giants in November 1956, and three weeks later he retired, with a career batting average of .311 and having helped the Dodgers to six National League pennants and their lone world championship. In 1962 he was elected the first black member of baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Later he would upset many blacks by becoming a Republican and supporting Richard Nixon. Always, though, he was a passionate advocate of civil rights and racial equality. For his impact on American society, Muhammad Ali is the only athlete who runs him close.

White-haired and half blind, Robinson died tragically young in 1972. The medical reason was diabetes, but many believe that the ordeals of his baseball years hastened the end. He would be 78 today, and surely disappointed at how race still obsesses and distorts American life. "Jackie was very impatient for change," Rachel Robinson said recently. "There is considerable retrenchment in our society now, and if he were alive today he would think we have not come far enough."