Seven Riffs for Jackie

This essay was written by Albert Kilchesty, the Baseball Reliquary’s archivist and historian,  for the series of concerts featuring Bobby Bradford’s jazz suite, Stealin’ Home. Bradford’s musical composition was commissioned by the Baseball Reliquary in celebration of the Jackie Robinson Centennial.

Jackie Robinson, 1947 photo courtesy of Acme Newspictures.

Doors and walls

A handsome young man pauses to salute a photographer, left arm raised in greeting, before continuing through an opening door that bears the warning, “Keep Out.” He’s seen signs like that before, too many times. He wears the uniform of a baseball team with “Montreal” stitched across the front. The team’s nickname is the Royals. He’s not of royal birth, of course, but nonetheless carries an air of great confidence and strength, two qualities among others that have brought him to this moment. He doesn’t yet know what awaits him behind that door – a lady or a tiger or perhaps both – but he does know that the hopes and aspirations of many ride on his strong shoulders, “football shoulders” as pitcher Bob Feller disparagingly called them. The door opens into the clubhouse of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. He’s been called up by the parent club of the Montreal Royals in time for the opening day of the 1947 season. He hopes, like all rookies, to make good even though, at age 28, he’s older than most newcomers. In a moment, the player will walk into that room and into history. His name is Jackie Robinson and all hell will soon break loose because he doesn’t look like anyone else in Major League Baseball. He’s black – very black. Baseball is white, and his job is to change that. Forever.   

Maybe I’m doing something for my race. . .                                                                                                                          —Jackie Robinson, 1945

This iconic photograph of Jackie Robinson, a perfect visual metaphor for what he’s doing – opening the door for others of African ancestry and all other people of color – has sat on my desk for a quarter-century. It’s a daily reminder to me, during this time when literal and figurative walls and closed doors are endeavoring to keep out those who look, speak, or believe differently, that the struggle for inclusion is ever ongoing. The photo also resonates with personal memory of my grandfather, Frank, an Italian immigrant born Bellefiore Benedetti in Palata, Campobasso in 1909, who was the first person to teach me about the significance of Jackie Robinson. He also told me of the vicious reception Jackie received from the hometown Phillies when he made his first appearance at Shibe Park in early 1947. My eight-year-old self was shocked; my favorite player at the time was Dick Allen, whom the Phillies insisted upon calling by the emasculating diminutive “Richie.” All subsequent booing of Allen by Phillies fans (who, to be fair, would boo Jesus) took on a racist air that I still associate with Robinson’s initial experience.­­ How was it possible, I wondered, that Allen and his contemporaries – Bob Gibson, Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Maury Wills, Reggie Smith, and all of the other black stars of the 1960s – once could have been prohibited from playing baseball only because of their skin color? What’s wrong with America? Quite a bit, I would come to learn in time – time required for living, for reading, for study. More than fifty years later, and with time now running short, answers remain elusive.

Louis Armstrong sponsored a semipro baseball team in New Orleans in 1931. Armstrong is seen standing to the right of the ballplayers.

Music of the sphere

Time is what brings us together now to celebrate in music the centennial of Jackie Robinson’s birth on January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia (pronounced Keyrō or KAY, depending on where in Georgia one was born), a small town in the southwest of the state just north of the Florida border, deep in Jim Crow country. No other genre of music but jazz – African American art music – is better-suited to this occasion. The game of baseball and the art of jazz don’t immediately appear to share a mutual inclusivity. Negro League players from the 1920s through the 1940s often rubbed shoulders and became friends with such figures from the world of jazz as Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Lionel Hampton, and others. Recent baseball-themed films like to use jazz music on the soundtrack. And perhaps a few players may have had an earworm featuring a Charlie Parker or Lester Young riff sounding incessantly in his head. Beyond that, there just aren’t that many similarities between the two. Yet there is this: each is counted as an important and influential American cultural export. (Get in line Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.) Baseball and jazz are played and appreciated by people of all shades, sexes, and cultures in far-flung places around the globe. Neither music nor baseball could exist without time. Each requires time to unfold, time that theoretically may extend indefinitely in baseball and in music, too, if not for the limits imposed by recording technology. Until the advent of the compact disc, for example, much of the music written by the late Morton Feldman and other durational composers was never recorded because of the long lengths of time required to perform it. With current digital streaming technology, a continuous piece of music can last hours or days. Music is regulated by a time signature, which can change during the course of a composition. Baseball has no clock, of course, but each inning may be played at a different tempo, adagio during the third, allegro in the eighth, and so on. (Some wags among non-baseball fans will insist that a pace slower than larghissimo is the eternal tempo of the game, just as others will insist that jazz is too frenzied, too presto, for their liking.) The game and jazz also share an obsession with history, capital-‘T’ Time. Great feats, players, and compositions from the past are subjects of endless fascination and influence to the living. Jazz has audio recordings, baseball has stories. Time matters.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Jackie Robinson in his military uniform.

A soldier’s story

In the fall of 1944, U.S. Army Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt Robinson was honorably discharged from the service for being. . . Jackie Robinson. The young athlete, a multi-sports star at Pasadena Junior College (now Pasadena City College) and the first four-letter man at UCLA (football, track-and-field, baseball, basketball), had been playing semi-professional football for the Honolulu Bears in 1941 before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Shortly after returning home to Pasadena, Uncle Sam came looking for “the sensational all-American halfback.” Sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, he applied to Officer Candidate School, which rejected him initially until another black serviceman stationed there, boxing great Joe Louis, persuaded the Army to reconsider. Jackie was outraged when he learned that he couldn’t play baseball for the base’s segregated team. So when superior officers wanted him to play on the football team there, he refused, regardless of the heat that decision would bring. That display of adamantine resolve was pure Jackie. Shit would hit the fan again after he was transferred to Fort Hood, Texas. He refused to acquiesce to the demand of a white bus driver that he move to the back of the bus “where the coloreds belong.” Military police supported the driver, the sharp-tongued Jackie went rightfully bonkers, and a court-martial ensued. Robinson was vindicated, but the Army had had enough of Jackie and sent him home. As in many archetypical hero tales, this setback would come to work in his favor. He hooked up the following year as a shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, hit over .300 for the storied franchise, and played with a team of Negro League stars in Caracas, Venezuela. And then the Dodgers came calling. Unlike the Army, this relationship would last.

1934 Kansas City Monarchs, courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Major and minor scales

The Negro Leagues refer to a handful of different twentieth-century organizations that originated in 1920 and continued through 1950, with some independent black nines wheezing on for a few years more. Many contemporary historians of Negro League baseball insist that it, too, be considered a major league enterprise. During a period in which the “separate but equal” mentality of Jim Crow made integrated professional contests impossible, a few black entrepreneurs (and the remarkable J. L. Wilkinson, the white owner of the Kansas City Monarchs) decided to create their own brand of pro baseball, a league entirely separate from the white major leagues. That being the case, simple logic compels one to think of such a separate league as also equal to its white counterpart. It would be absurd, for example, for one to suggest that the music of Duke Ellington was somehow less than that of Benny Goodman because the former was black. Ah, but many say, Negro League statistical records are notoriously sketchy, incomplete or non-existent. Ergo, there’s no basis for comparison. Nonsense. The absence of data doesn’t negate the value or quality of the product on the field. That spurious claim seems little more than an act of not-so-subtle racism. Every black baseball star – Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Ray Dandridge, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard, and many more – would have been a star of equal or greater magnitude in Major League Baseball. The primary differences between white and black baseball at this time were cultural and social in nature, not qualitative. Ballparks, often the same parks that hosted poorly-attended MLB games, were the only places in America where crowds of 25,000 or more black spectators could gather without raising the suspicions or ire of their white neighbors. Ballgames were far more than mere ballgames – they were celebrations of black culture, large communal gatherings for which attendees dressed in their sharpest “get-noticed” clothes, where news and gossip were shared, where young men met young women, where a good time was more important than winning or losing. This festive atmosphere profoundly affected, and was influenced by, the pace and style of play on the field. Speed and unpredictable tactics combined with various degrees of conscious showmanship to produce a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. Make no mistake, black players were seriously gifted athletes, but many also thought of themselves as entertainers, not unlike their jazz brethren. This is the energy Jackie Robinson brought to Major League Baseball, which had become a rather dull affair by the late 1940s: a walk, a hit, a three-run homer, station-to-station baseball. Not since the days of Ty Cobb had baseball fans seen a player as aggressive and disruptive on the basepaths. Steal a base, no problem. Drop a perfect surprise bunt down the line for a base hit, no sweat. Execute the run-and hit or suicide squeeze, kid stuff. Steal home during a World Series game, piece of cake. In other words, Jackie injected the spirit of jazz into baseball. He hit for average, had power, loved to improvise, and never backed down from any challenge. He impressed the hell out of white fans and baseball writers. The latter group was so in awe of his skills that they named him the first Rookie of the Year before the 1947 season had concluded, an award that would later bear Jackie Robinson’s name.

Jackie Robinson throws out the ceremonial first pitch at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, October 15, 1972. It would be his final public appearance, as he would succumb to the effects of heart disease and diabetes at his home in Stamford, Connecticut on October 24, 1972.

As I write this. . . I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.                                                                              —Jackie Robinson, 1972   

Mid-October, 1972. Less than two weeks before his death Jackie appeared in public for the last time to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 1972 World Series. The mustachioed Oakland A’s and the naked-lipped Cincinnati Reds each featured an array of black stars, including Joe Morgan, Bobby Tolan, George Foster, Tom Hall, Blue Moon Odom, Vida Blue, and the sensational Reggie Jackson (who missed the postseason due to injury). In film clips of the event, Robinson looks to be much older than his fifty-three years. His hair is snowy white, his face worried and furrowed, his shoulders stooped as if crushed by the weight he once carried on them. A gust of wind could blow him away, he’s that frail. Earlier that year the Dodgers officially retired his number 42; in time that number would be retired by all MLB teams. Baseball would later honor him further by proclaiming the date of his debut, April 15, Jackie Robinson Day at all ballparks, with each player wearing number 42 on his back. In spite of such honors and recognition, many young black players today are acutely aware that they’re still playing a white man’s game. Although very well-paid for their services, they feel no sense of ownership of the pastime. That bereft sensibility is a contributing factor to the decline of participation in the game by American-born black athletes. While much has changed considerably in America since Jackie’s day, it very much remains business as usual in the country of baseball. Is it this premonition of baseball’s future that Robinson sees that afternoon in Cincinnati, his last moment on a diamond?

Jackie and Rachel Robinson watch as members of the Herbie Mann Jazz Group perform on the Robinsons’ lawn in Stamford, Connecticut as part of the couple’s “Afternoon of Jazz” concert, September 8, 1963. Photo courtesy of Associated Press.

The green field of home

Jackie Robinson did far more than break the “color line” in baseball. There was no written rule that stated specifically that black players couldn’t play big league baseball. The capitalists who ran the game refused to give them that opportunity by tacit gentlemen’s agreement – if the buffoons who owned the game could rightfully be dignified by that appellation. Any one of them could have signed a black player. Some, like the pugnacious John McGraw, tried to pass off “Negroes” as dark-skinned Cubans or Native Americans, but such ploys didn’t work. And a black player other than Robinson could have been chosen to integrate the game. Larry Doby or Monte Irvin were considered better players than Jackie. But it’s doubtful that any other was as well-equipped as Jackie to handle the pressure of being the first, to turn the other cheek and not fight back even though every fiber of his being compelled him otherwise. Robinson had all the right stuff to make this “great experiment” work. He was college-educated, well-spoken, comfortable in the spotlight, already famous in some quarters, morally resolute, sober, a former military officer, happily married, and a dedicated “race man.” This profound commitment to the advancement of African Americans was reflected in nearly everything he did during and after his baseball career. The celebrity he gained through baseball gave him a platform to express his views on politics, oppression, race relations, police brutality, equal opportunities for all, the importance of education, and other subjects. During the 1960s he used his renown to become an unofficial spokesman for the Civil Rights movement. He was heard on radio, seen on television, read in newspapers. He and his wife Rachel were ubiquitous presences at charity events and fundraisers for progressive causes. In 1963 the couple produced their first “Afternoon of Jazz” concerts on the lawn of their six-acre property in Stamford, Connecticut. These fundraising concerts became an annual event, which continue to the present day. Two were held that first year, one in June and one in September. Life magazine referred to the first concert as “a jam session for civil rights,” with all proceeds going to support Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP, and the Congress of Racial Equality. Funds raised by the concerts today support the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded after his death in 1972. The impressive lineup for the first concert included Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, Dave Brubeck, Billy Taylor, Jimmy Rushing, and others. That’s not the final connection between baseball, jazz, and Jackie Robinson. The time has come to settle into your seats, sit back, and prepare to enjoy one more, Bobby Bradford’s suite, Stealin’ Home. Before the music begins, a final word: always remember to keep your door and your heart open. You never know who might walk in.

Artist Michael Guccione’s “Jackie Robinson Icon,” in the collection of the Baseball Reliquary.

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