Monday 10 August 2015

Wendell Smith Recommends Robinson to Rickey

When Jackie Robinson played, he turned an upside down nation right side up. (Roger Rosenblatt)  

The movie 42 features a man who sits in the stands at Ebbetts Field with his typewriter in his lap, furiously typing away names, dates and stats.  He is not a baseball player; he is not a manager; he is a journalist -- a black journalist.  That is why he sits in the stands rather than in the press box.  He is on a mission -- to desegregate the game of baseball.

Wendell Smith played baseball back in the 1930s.  In fact, he won the American League championship game in 1933.  A scout in the stands, so impressed by Smiths play, spoke to him after the game:  I wish I could sign you, but I cant, he said.  He signed the opposing pitcher, a white, instead.  Smith vowed then and there that he would help to get the first black player into the major leagues.

He would reach his goal, however, with a typewriter, not with a ball and glove.  Smith was hired by the Pittsburgh Courier, the most influential black newspaper in the country.  He highlighted the names of 20 black players that he felt were good enough to make it in the big leagues.  His suggestions were also published by the Communist paper The Daily Worker.  Despite his comprehensive pieces, Smith was rejected by the Baseball Writers Association of America due to his colour.

In 1938, Smith polled the big league players in a Pittsburgh Hotel lobby and discovered that 75% were not opposed to integration on the baseball field.  However, owners were not hiring them; all that is, except, Branch Rickey, head of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Smith approached Rickey and told him how impressed he was with a young black player named Jackie Robinson.  In 1947, Rickey, who had also vowed to help get the first black into the major leagues, signed Robinson.

It was Smiths job to be in charge of Robinsons travel and lodging arrangements while he was on the road, given that he was not allowed to eat and sleep at the same hotels as the white players. Something as simple as a black using a restroom at a gas station was cause for conflict in the Jim Crow South.  Smith helped smooth over those rough early days in Florida during spring training. Robinsons teammates did not accept him right away, nor did the fans.  But Rickey and Smith backed him up, and Robinson delivered with the bat and with his feet.  As Roger Rosenblatt explained:  "When Jackie Robinson played, he turned an upside down nation right side up."

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