Negro Leagues difficult but fruitful for Jackie
He didn't like the reality of segregation, but what he learned with KC helped greatly
The bus carrying the Kansas City Monarchs pulled into a gas station in Muskogee, Okla., and out stepped Jackie Robinson. As the owner of the station prepared to start pumping petrol into the bus' twin 50-gallon tanks, Robinson strode toward the restroom.
"Hey, boy," the station owner yelled, "you know you can't go in there."
"Why not?" responded Robinson.
"We don't allow no colored people in that restroom."
Robinson, so the story goes, was cool but cutting in his response.
"OK, then," he said, "take the hose out of the tank."
The station owner quickly calculated his options, knowing it could be a long while before he had another 100-gallon sale on his hands. Robinson and his teammates were never banned from that restroom again.
That anecdote cuts to the core of Robinson's Negro League experience in 1945 -- an experience that often gets overlooked when we reflect on his baseball career, as we do here on the 67th anniversary of his Major League debut.
Robinson didn't warm to the notion of being a Negro League player, and he didn't freely accept the sting of segregation or the figurative wall that had been erected around the Major League fortress. He might have pulled on the pinstriped jersey with "KC" emblazoned in red on the chest, but he didn't wear it with pride.
The uniform and the circumstances never quite fit Robinson.
"It was a difficult time for him," said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "Not because he was playing in the Negro Leagues, but because he had to play in the Negro Leagues."
Robinson was accustomed to integrated athletic activity at UCLA. To play in what he considered a second-class league -- not in terms of the talent, but in terms of travel, equipment, umpiring, etc. -- was beneath him.
"He never had much good to say about the league," said James A. Riley, a Negro Leagues historian. "He wanted to play in the top league, and he did not consider the Negro League to be the top."
That Robinson did make it to the top, debuting with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, was a credit to the open-mindedness of Branch Rickey and the scouting of Clyde Sukeforth. They correctly realized what everyone else in the baseball world would eventually come to understand: Robinson, in terms of skill set and mindset, was absolutely the right man to break through baseball's color barrier.
But don't let that fool you into believing Jackie Robinson was the best player the Negro Leagues had to offer at the time. Hardly. You could, in fact, make a case that he wasn't even the best member of the Monarchs.
That 1945 team featured the flamboyance and fiery fastball of Satchel Paige and the confounding curveball of Hilton Smith. Both men would go on to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jim "Lefty" LaMarque, one of the top pitchers in the league, was on that team. Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, who would earn three All-Star selections apiece as a catcher and as a pitcher in his career, was on that team. And the slick-fielding Jesse Williams, who moved from shortstop to second base to accommodate Jackie and would join him at the East-West Game that season, was on that team.
Actually, 1945 was a bit of a down year for the Monarchs, as the World War II effort robbed the roster of such impact players as Buck O'Neil, Ted Strong, Joe Greene and future Hall of Famer Willard Brown. But nevertheless, they were often the talk of the town wherever they played.
The 26-year-old Robinson arrived with limited baseball experience. Baseball was probably his fourth-best sport, behind football, basketball and track. Fifth if you count table tennis.
But in his autobiography, Robinson would mention "a brother named Alexander" (likely pitcher Ted Alexander) who urged him, near the end of his Army days, to write a letter to the Monarchs, asking for a tryout. That's how Robinson's professional baseball career began.
"Some of the guys were aware of the cachet associated with his time at UCLA and being an All-American," Kendrick said. "But he was just another ballplayer trying to make the team."
Nobody was going to replace the attention-grabbing Paige as the Monarchs' top drawing card, but Robinson's past football fame did make him the focal point of many of the newspaper reports about that '45 team, and it was not long before he attracted the attention of Major League scouts, too.
Stats from that era are not all-inclusive, but Baseball-Reference.com has 63 plate appearances' worth of data, giving Jackie a .414 batting average, .460 on-base percentage and .569 slugging percentage. He quickly established his reputation as a bullish baserunner. While Robinson might have despised the Negro Leagues, he did adapt to its style of play.
"He was already an aggressive player," said Kendrick, "and they honed that, taught him how to steal bases and the nuances of the game. So while that time in the Negro Leagues was a difficult time for him, from a social standpoint, he learned a lot."
Were it not for that concise yet critical time with the Monarchs, Rickey would not have made Jackie the first African-American man in Major League ball.
Actually, Rickey approached Monte Irvin, the great left fielder for the Newark Eagles, around the same time as he did Robinson, to inquire about him signing with the Dodgers. But Irvin, having just returned from the service, didn't believe he had his baseball legs under him. Catcher Roy Campanella, born to a black mother and Italian father, and pitcher Don Newcombe were signed by Rickey shortly after Robinson and became the first black players at the Class A level.
Robinson, though, proved he had the ability to handle the scrutiny that came with breaking the color barrier. And so Rickey summoned him for that famous meeting on Aug. 28, the day Jackie signed with Brooklyn. Already nursing a shoulder injury and with the season winding down, Robinson would not rejoin his Monarchs teammates. But he would have to keep the signing a secret that fall while he played for a barnstorming team in the California Winter League and on a black All-Star team that traveled to Venezuela.
Later, after the formal announcement of the signing was made, Robinson confided in Gene Benson, his roommate in Venezuela, expressing doubts about his ability to immediately succeed in the big leagues. They'd stay up late at night talking about the transition.
"If you can hit a Negro League pitcher," Benson would say, encouraging Robinson, "you can hit a Major League pitcher."
Many black ballplayers -- including Paige and Josh Gibson -- were upset that Robinson was the first among them to sign, because surely the Negro Leagues had a stash of players more established and accomplished than Jackie. There were also questions about whether the quick-trigger temper that often cropped up during Robinson's time with the Monarchs would erupt, given the enormous pressure placed upon him.
"Robinson often got hotter than a General Electric burner when he played with the Kansas City Monarchs," Othello Renfroe, the club's second baseman, told the Kansas City Call in 1948. "Several umpires and players of opposing teams in the Negro American League surely can recall that Jackie was far from a mouse-like individual."
Think back to that story from the gas station, though, and you can see how Jackie properly applied his anger for the greater good. He knew, in his heart and in his soul, that no "second-class" status could suit him. And with the Dodgers, Robinson would prove it to the rest of the world.