He interviewed Jackie Robinson near the end

jackie-ruby-dee-lapl.jpg"42," Brian Helgeland's earnest, by-the-numbers film account of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color line, takes place a decade before the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Any chance that Robinson might have accompanied the team to Los Angeles ended when he was traded to the Giants in 1957, a year before the two teams moved west. Rather than accept the trade, Robinson promptly retired, and thus began a feud with Walter O'Malley, and with all of baseball, that lasted until his death in 1972.

Robinson never bothered to hide his antipathy toward the game he had done so much to change. He participated in very few of its ceremonial events over the years and refused to go to old timers games so often that teams stopped inviting him.

One notable exception occurred on June 4, 1972, when Robinson agreed to come to Dodger Stadium to have his number retired. He had resisted the idea for many years but finally Don Newcombe, his old friend and teammate who worked in the Dodgers' community relations department, convinced him.

The death of Gil Hodges two months earlier might have played a role in Robinson's change of heart, Newcombe told me at the time. At the funeral for the former Dodger first baseman, Robinson said he had always thought he might be the first Brooklyn player of that era to die.

"He knows he's been bitter about a lot of things and he doesn't want people to remember him that way," Newcombe said, adding that he thought Robinson regretted his estrangement from baseball.

Though 1972 was the 25th anniversary of Robinson's major-league debut, baseball took no official notice of the milestone--perhaps because he might have wanted nothing to do with it--and there was little public fuss over the fact that he was in town. I was covering the Dodgers for the Times then and recall no press conference nor did anyone connected with the team suggest Robinson might be available for an interview. He was staying at the Biltmore, I was told when I inquired. I could try to reach him there.

I asked the voice answering the phone if I could speak to Jackie Robinson and was startled to learn that I was doing so. Anybody can just call in off the street and talk to Jackie Robinson? I thought. Flustered, I asked if it might be possible to meet with him, if he might have just a moment when he was not too busy.

"Come on over now," he said.

The room was dark when I entered and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust well enough to see that nobody had been much concerned with Robinson's comfort. The room was tiny, and he was in bed under the covers.

"The light hurts my eyes," he said as he switched on a small bedside lamp so I could see my notebook.

Robinson's health was a disaster by then. He had had a heart attack, suffered from diabetes, was blind in one eye and was seriously overweight. He could no longer drive a car or play golf--the race track was his last remaining refuge--and at Dodger Stadium the next day I would see that he had the slow shuffling gait of a man in his 80s. I found this almost unbearably sad for two reasons.

One is that Robinson was very likely the greatest athlete of his generation. Baseball aside, he had been a magnificent football player and world-class long jumper at UCLA, and Harley Tinkham, a veteran Times sportswriter whose opinions in such matters were never challenged, once told me that his best sport was basketball.

The second reason for my chagrin was that the elderly man under the covers trying to shut out the light in the middle of the afternoon was only 53 years old.

Robinson's physical decline was purely that, though. Neither his mind nor his passions had diminished in the slightest.

There is a theory that Robinson compensated for Branch Rickey's orders not to fight back during his first years in baseball by making up for it the rest of his life. Whatever the truth of the first part of that equation, there can be no doubt about the second. The Dodgers could honor him by retiring his number, but if they expected him to return the favor they were sadly mistaken.

"Baseball and Jackie Robinson haven't had much to say to each other," Robinson told me, and he recounted a conversation he had had the day before with Dodgers President Peter O'Malley in which he had expressed his displeasure at the fact there were no black managers in baseball. (Frank Robinson would not break that barrier for another two years.)

"I told Peter I was disturbed at the way baseball treats its black players after their playing days are through," he said. "It's hard to look at a sport which black athletes have virtually saved and when a managerial job opens they give it to a guy who's failed in other areas because he's white."

O'Malley had seemed genuinely concerned, Robinson said, and he was grateful for that, but it was not enough. Any reconciliation with the Dodgers, it was clear, would never be truly complete.

Robinson was trapped between Rickey, the man he revered, and Walter O'Malley, who had taken control of the team in Brooklyn. O'Malley believed Rickey had cheated him out of $50,000 in the transaction ("That was a lot of money in those days," Peter O'Malley said) and the rift had never healed.

"Anybody who had anything to do with Mr. Rickey was a bad guy to Walter O'Malley," Robinson said. "When Mr. Rickey left the club, there were real problems between me and Mr. O'Malley based on my relationship with Mr. Rickey."

As for the next day's ceremonies, Robinson seemed almost weary that anyone might think they would somehow lessen the distance he felt between himself and the Dodgers in particular and the game of baseball in general.

"I couldn't care less if someone is out there wearing 42," he said. "It is an honor, but I get more of a thrill knowing there are people in baseball who believe in advancement based on ability. I'm more concerned about what I think about myself than what other people think. I think if you look back at why people think of me the way they do it's because white America doesn't like a black guy who stands up for what he believes. I don't feel baseball owes me a thing and I don't owe baseball a thing. I am glad I haven't had to go to baseball on my knees."

An hour passed speedily by and I knew it was time to go, to let him turn off the lamp and rest. But suddenly I was surprised to hear myself asking a question I had not prepared--one I had never asked a sports figure before and never expect to ask again. Had he ever, I wondered, thought about his place in history? His answer indicated that he had.

"I honestly believe that baseball did set the stage for many things that are happening today and I'm proud to have played a part in it." Robinson said. "But I'm not subservient to it."

Not willing to rest, in other words. Not willing to let his game, or his country, off the hook.

The next morning, I saw Robinson down on the field at Dodger Stadium where the buzz of ballplayers gathered around the batting cage melded amiably with the activity of workers setting up microphones for the number-retirement ceremonies for himself, Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax. He seemed to be enjoying himself as he chatted with several people when suddenly a shout came from the stands just to the third-base side of home plate.

"Mr. Robinson! Can I have your autograph! Would you sign this, please! Here! Catch!"

A middle-aged man threw a baseball out of the stands and it hit Robinson in the head, knocking his Dodger cap to the ground. Only then could I see how blind he truly was. The throw had been an underhand lob an eight-year-old could have caught with ease, but he had never seen it coming. Robinson was stunned, but mercifully unhurt. The fan was desolate with apologies.

A week later, I received a shock of my own when a letter from Robinson, personally typed from all indications, appeared in my mailbox. My article had been all right, he said, but there was one thing he wanted to straighten out.

Don Newcombe had been trying to peddle that garbage about him regretting his estrangement from the Dodgers and from baseball for years and I was not to believe a word of it. He regretted nothing, he wrote, nothing at all.

Four months later, having raged against the dying of the light until the end, he was dead.

Portions of this blog post ran previously in the Los Angeles Times Magazine

Jackie Robinson played himself alongside actress Ruby Dee in 1950's "The Jackie Robinson Story." Photo: Los Angeles Public Library Herald Examiner Collection.


More by Ron Rapoport:
Jim McGregor, international basketball ambassador was 91
He interviewed Jackie Robinson near the end
His ballot for baseball's Hall of Fame includes the steroid kings
Previous Native Intelligence story: Dodgers whiff on Harang trade

Next Native Intelligence story: Why was I at Ebert's funeral?

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