Before Jackie Robinson made his mark by breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, he was a four-sport star at UCLA, playing baseball, football, basketball, and running track. He remains the only four-letter athlete in the school’s history. In his final year playing football for the school, Robinson led the Bruins in rushing (383 yards), passing (444 yards), total offense (827 yards), scoring (36 points), and punt return average (21 yards). You can see a bit of footage from Robinson’s football days at UCLA here:
Robinson even went on to play a bit of semi-pro football. In September 1941, he moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears for $100 a game. His career with the Bears was cut short, however, when Robinson was drafted into the Army during World War II.
After World War II, Robinson briefly returned to football with the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He then was offered a job as athletic director at Samuel Houston College in Austin, and as part of that role, he coached the basketball team for the 1944-1945 season.
It was in early 1945 that the Kansas City Monarchs offered Jackie a place on their team in the Negro Leagues. Robinson then signed with the minor league Montreal Royals following the 1945 season.
The rest, as we know, is history.
Happy Jackie Robinson Day!
I spent much of the last week visiting an old friend who now lives in New York state. Though I was only there for a few days, we managed to cram a lot into our limited time together. We spent a full day in Manhattan — my first time ever in New York City. Another day, we went on a five-mile hike up a mountain in the Hudson River Valley. I also insisted, so long as I was making the trip halfway across the country, that we had to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The day we reserved for visiting the Hall of Fame came the day after our NYC day, and we didn’t get to bed until about 2:00 a.m. that night before. Cooperstown is about a three-hour drive from my friend’s home, and as late as we were out the previous night, there was no way we were going to be on the road by 6:00 am to be there in time for the 9:00 open time. Instead we pulled into town a bit after noon, and we stopped for sandwiches and coffee at a nice little café called Stagecoach Coffee (which I highly recommend, by the way, if you’re ever in Cooperstown).
We finished our lunch and arrived at the Hall of Fame around 1:00, leaving us about four hours to explore before closing time. There ended up being a couple of exhibits we didn’t get to see (pro tip: don’t go out the night before so you can get there earlier than we did), but we did see most of it, and I took an insane number of pictures in the process. For sanity’s sake, I’ll just post a few of the highlights here, but if you are somehow just morbidly curious, I’ve created a public album including all my photos here.
Here’s a good, and important, infographic from the Huffington Post that takes a look at the racial makeup of Major League Baseball. Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier in 1947, but as the graphic points out, that didn’t change the economic barriers to playing baseball. And, let’s be honest, this is an expensive sport. On the other hand, Robinson’s debut into the majors did also open the doors for Latinos in the MLB, and given the talent it has introduced, this is definitely a great thing.
The Seventh Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns takes us into the 1950s in America. Subtitled “The Capital of Baseball,” this installment of the documentary revolves primarily around New York City and the three teams who dominated the baseball world during this decade: the New York Yankees, the New York Giants, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. For ten straight years (1947-1956) a local team always played in the World Series, and a local team won nearly all of them as well.
It was certainly a great decade for the Yankees under manager Casey Stengel. With Mickey Mantle in the outfield and Yogi Berra behind the plate, the Yankees were as dominant as ever. The way Roger Angell describes the atmosphere in New York during this period, where everything seemed to revolve around baseball, makes me wish this type of world would come back into existence. “Stengelese” became a thing, though I like how the discussion also revolves around Stengel’s baseball intelligence. Similarly, while Yogi Berra remains most commonly known for “Yogi-isms,” he was also a phenomenal ballplayer. After all, you don’t get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame just for speaking amusing phrases.
Jackie Robinson, released from his three-year vow of silence with Branch Rickey, began lashing out against those who slighted him. It’s an understandable reaction, especially considering how long he had to go without answering the racism he faced. His play just grew better with his anger, leading the Dodgers to some great seasons, including a World Series championship in 1955.
We get to watch the Giants’ Bobby Thomson’s ever-popular “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” during the 1951 playoffs against the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was an event that ignited a tremendous amount of excitement not only at the Polo Grounds, but also in fans’ homes as the game was televised across the country. I always get a kick out of hearing Russ Hodges’s excited screaming, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
A good portion of the disc was devoted to Mickey Mantle, who essentially took Joe DiMaggio’s place with the Yankees. The attention he receives is well-deserved, as is the attention to his struggles with injury and his tendency to stay up all night partying. Given how well he was able to play in spite of being hurt much of the time, one can’t help but wonder what Mantle would have accomplished had he been healthy. Sadly, we’ll never know. Mantle himself doesn’t even touch on the subject in his own discussions of his playing days on the documentary.
While the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson in 1947 was undeniably a great thing for baseball, it did have an unfortunate downside. Attendance at Negro Leagues games fell as black fans flocked to watch Robinson and those who followed him play in the major leagues. On the positive side, players including Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron became stars in Robinson’s wake. We get to watch Willie Mays make “The Catch,” a play that seemed impossible until he pulled it off.
The other unfortunate events, besides the end of the Negro Leagues, that we see during this decade involved the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants to the west coast. In the case of the Dodgers, the move took place in 1957, not long after the team finally managed to win a World Series, which made the move all the more heartbreaking for its fans. The Dodgers’ last ever World Series in 1956 saw them lose to the Yankees in a Series that involved Don Larsen’s perfect game. These moves were great news for Californians, of course, but Dodgers and Giants fans left behind in New York found themselves at a loss. Brooklyn and the Giants weren’t the only teams that moved during this period. The Philadelphia A’s moved to Kansas City, and the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles.
The subtitle for this Inning, “The Capital of Baseball,” proved itself undeniably fitting. We love to think of baseball as a game and a pastime, but in the case of professional leagues especially, it is first and foremost a business. Bill Veeck’s promotional stunt of sending Eddie Gaedel to the plate is one of many displays of the importance of commercialism in baseball. It makes for a hard reality check when your league is forced to fold or your favorite team moves to an entirely new city, and in the present day, we experience a number of miniature heartbreaks any time an impactful player becomes a free agent and moves on to other teams.
The Sixth Inning of Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns explores the national pastime during the 1940s, which was quite the tumultuous decade in American history. It was a decade of war as the United States recovered from the Great Depression and found itself in a position of having to enter World War II. It was also the decade of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, of women’s professional baseball, and of Jackie Robinson.
In a chronological sense, the Sixth Inning was an easier one to follow along with than any of the Innings that preceded it. The first part of this disc was dominated by two of the game’s greatest hitters. 1941 was the summer of Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, whose hitting performances captivated the baseball world. Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting streak and Ted Williams’s .406 season average have both remained unmatched ever since.
The 1941 World Series resulted in a devastating loss for the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Yankees. At the end of the season, Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail , drunk and belligerent, threatened to sell off all his players. The Dodgers instead opted to let go of MacPhail and brought in Branch Rickey, thus setting the stage for the breaking of the color barrier in the coming years.
When the United States entered the war, Franklin Roosevelt insisted that baseball ought to continue. The country would be working longer and harder, and thus recreation became more important than ever, he said. However, this didn’t shield players from the draft, and baseball still suffered as a result. Players like DiMaggio and Bob Feller joined the war effort. Meanwhile, baseball turned to signing players (and umpires) who didn’t meet the usual caliber of play just to keep going.
As the war also drew away a number of minor leaguers, Philip Wrigley came up with the idea of starting a women’s professional baseball league in order to fill the baseball void as minor league teams fell apart. Women from all over, particularly softball players, were recruited. They had to be able to play ball, but they were also required to remain unequivocally feminine. Off the field, any time they were in public, they were required to be in skirts, heels, and makeup — a requirement that I, for one, would find very difficult to swallow.
Following the war, the disc goes into the story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. The story from Rickey’s time coaching at Ohio Wesleyan University, checking into a hotel in South Bend, Indiana to play Notre Dame, is absolutely heartbreaking, and certainly explains a lot regarding his determination to integrate baseball.
Branch Rickey certainly did his homework when choosing a player to break the color barrier, and clearly, he choose well. Promising not to retaliate and turn the other cheek for three years (three years!), Jackie Robinson signed with the Montreal Royals.
Burns breaks from the Jackie Robinson saga long enough to cover the 1946 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. Though the Sox were the heavy favorites to win, the Cards employed the “Williams shift” to prevent Ted Williams from having much success at the plate. Thanks in part to this strategy, the Cardinals won that year’s Series. Roger Angell says it well when he explains that baseball is not a game about winning, like we think it is, but rather, it is a game about losing.
Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 was certainly an event, one that we continue to celebrate today. As expected, he endured an endless stream of taunts, threats, and even attempts at actual bodily harm. Through it all, he bit his tongue. Instead, he let his performance on the field speak for him. Not only was he named Rookie of the Year at the end of the season, he was also determined to be the second most popular man in America, after Bing Crosby. Robinson’s efforts eventually allowed other black players, including the great pitcher Satchel Paige, to break into the majors as well.
Ken Burns does a good job of pointing out that, for all the virtues that surrounded Robinson’s trek into Major League Baseball, it was a devastating event for the Negro Leagues. The Brooklyn Dodgers became the team of black America, and attendance at Negro Leagues games declined. As we know now, the Negro Leagues would eventually meet its end as a result.
The disc ends with the death of Babe Ruth in 1948. It’s only appropriate that the Sultan of Swat would receive this kind of nod (and convenient that he would die at the end of a decade — not to be morbid or anything). Burns never touches on what Ruth thought of Jackie Robinson, nor on what Robinson thought of Ruth. Perhaps nobody knows. But as Buck O’Neil points out, both men were giants in the game. Each of them, in their own way, changed baseball forever.
Continuing on with the journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns brings us to the decade of the 1930s. The United States, indeed, the world, was facing off against the Great Depression during the 1930s. As a result of high unemployment rates and widespread poverty, few could afford the price of tickets to attend professional baseball games, and as a result, attendance fell drastically. Baseball did what it could to try to draw fans back in, from the first All-Star game to the creation of the Baseball Hall of Fame. However, the financial difficulties that faced the nation at this time were too great.
Even as the Depression was getting underway, the Yankees signed Babe Ruth to the biggest contract in baseball history in the early 1930s. It was a move that seems only too-appropriate, given Ruth’s ostentatious lifestyle. Meanwhile, Lou Gehrig continues to stay merely in the shadows of the spotlight, in spite of his consecutive game streak and consistent high level of play.
Subtitled “Shadow Ball,” the Fifth Inning of this series by Ken Burns focuses on black baseball. (The subtitle, by the way, is not a reference to race, but rather to the illusion that these games weren’t being played with a ball at all, because it could barely be seen.) While white baseball suffered during the Depression, black baseball flourished. Many black teams came under control of racketeers, as they were among the few who could afford to fund baseball during this time, but interestingly, this seemed to be to the advantage of the Negro Leagues. And the crowds flocked to watch the black teams play. Listening to the nostalgia in the voices of former negro leagues players, you can tell there was a true love for the game, even in spite of inequality, the hard road trips, and the racism they faced.
We learn about Satchel Paige, considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in all of baseball. He had such an arsenal of pitches that few could hit off Paige. Some saw him as black baseball’s equivalent of a Babe Ruth, in that he drew large crowds to ball games. He even seemed to hold true to this comparison in his off-field personality. He hated to drive slow and cultivated a persona for those around him. Buck O’Neil, however, indicates there was much more to Paige than often met the eye.
Babe Ruth himself became the center of attention yet again during the 1932 World Series in Chicago when, in Game 3, he appeared to call his shot. No one will ever know for certain whether he really did, or if Ruth was merely engaging in a different gesture altogether, but it was a moment that, as we all know, has remained a part of the baseball psyche for decades. As the decade went on, however, Ruth’s level of play would decline, as it always does as a ballplayer gets older. When the Yankees made it clear they would not offer him a manager position, he did a brief stint with the Boston Braves, then retired from baseball. Meanwhile, new stars stepped into the spotlight. Not just Lou Gehrig, but also figures like Mel Ott, Jimmie Foxx, Dizzy Dean, and Bob Feller.
As for home run hitters in the Negro Leagues, catcher Josh Gibson was well-known for this ability. While many called him a black Babe Ruth, Burns notes, there were some who thought they had the comparison backwards, and that Babe Ruth was actually a white Josh Gibson. Indeed, the list of accomplishments for Gibson certainly seems to pass those of Ruth, including a season with seventy home runs, some of which exceeded 575 feet in distance. The Negro Leagues’ version of the Yankees were the Kansas City Monarchs, led by first baseman Buck O’Neil. In his commentary, O’Neil speaks about the camaraderie between the players and the fans.
We learn about the 1930s Brooklyn Dodgers, “dem bums,” and we learn about the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals, the “Gashouse Gang.” In 1936, Joe DiMaggio made his first appearances as a rookie with the New York Yankees. DiMaggio would help lead the Yankees to four World Series. Also in the thirties, we see the first night game in Major League Baseball (though night games had been played in the Negro Leagues for some time) and the increasing popularity of radio broadcasts, especially those by Red Barber, created new fans, as more and more people came to understand the game.
During the off season, many black players traveled south to Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In doing so, they were able to play baseball year round. They also discovered that the racial attitudes south of the United States were very different. They were paid more and welcomed more warmly by the locals than they were back home.
Discrimination didn’t stop with just the black population. Hank Greenburg came into prominence as first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. He wasn’t the first Jewish player in the game, but he was probably the first to really make a name for himself. Greenburg faced a considerable backlash of anti-Semitism, but his stellar play eventually helped to win fans and players over. Greenburg felt his role was of particular importance in light of the actions of one Adolf Hitler in Europe.
In 1939 came Lou Gehrig’s ALS diagnosis, and thus the end of his streak and his baseball career. On July 4th of that year, Gehrig gave his “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, he passed away from the disease, which now bears his name.
1939 also saw the opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the induction of the first Hall of Fame class. It was the 100-year anniversary of the myth of Abner Doubleday‘s founding of baseball in 1839. The disc then ends with Buck O’Neil describing the long-awaited matchup between Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — Negro League Baseball’s best pitcher versus it’s best hitter. O’Neil’s account left me with a smile.
Continuing on our journey through Baseball: A Film By Ken Burns, we have now reached the Fourth Inning of this documentary series. Subtitled “A National Heirloom,” this part of the series focuses primarily on Babe Ruth. Bob Costas opens this disc with an anecdote about an argument between an American and a British man that comes to a head when the American man retorts childishly, “Screw the king!” The Brit’s reply to this: “Yeah, well screw Babe Ruth!” It’s a revealing anecdote, not only in terms of the greatness of the Great Bambino to the minds of American citizens, but also when thinking about the influence of baseball on American culture as a whole, even in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Prior to 1920, baseballs used in games weren’t changed out with the frequency that we see today. At times, entire games could be played with a single baseball, if that ball never left the park. Pitchers took it upon themselves to scuff, dirty, and otherwise sabotage the ball any way they could, thus ensuring it would fly erratically, making it more difficult to hit, and thus giving pitchers a distinct advantage. However, the death of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, the victim of being hit in the head by a pitch, changed all that. Umpires were now under orders to throw out a clean baseball the moment one showed any signs of dirt. This, combined with a now more tightly-wound baseball, marked the dawn of new era in the game, in which home runs ruled the day.
Burns launches into a biographical segment of George Herman Ruth’s early life. I was astonished to see that Ruth’s sister, Mamie Ruth Moberly, had survived long enough to contribute to the commentary of the documentary (she died in 1992). Ruth’s introduction to baseball came in reform school, having been sent there by his parents, who declared him “incorrigible.” His talent for the game, both as a hitter and as a pitcher, became quickly apparent, and he went on to be signed by the Baltimore Orioles.
From the Orioles, Ruth was soon sold to the Boston Red Sox, where he shined as a pitcher. From 1919 to 1920, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth, and a number of other Red Sox players to the Yankees. The sale of Ruth initiated what would become known as the Curse of the Bambino.
Ty Cobb, we learn, despised Babe Ruth and the change in baseball’s style of play that came as a result of Ruth’s performance. However, Ruth so dominated the game and the record books that Cobb’s disapproval fell on deaf ears. But Ruth’s dominance didn’t end on the field. Off the field, he proved a fan favorite as his rambunctious personality and eagerness to please made him a lovable individual. His excesses, e.g. blowing his pay on luxuries and frequenting whorehouses, were kept out of the papers, as the press knew he was simply too popular with the fans.
After he set that famous record of sixty home runs in a single season in 1927, Babe Ruth’s fame exploded. He became a mainstay in advertising, as companies sought to capitalize by attaching his image to their products. Everyone wanted a piece of the Great Bambino.
Burns breaks from his coverage of Ruth to discuss racism further. The Harlem Renaissance saw a flourishing of black culture, and Rube Foster established the Negro Leagues. The style of baseball encouraged by Foster sounds exciting enough to make me wish I had been around to watch some Negro Leagues games. Indeed, between Ruth in the MLB and style of the Negro Leagues, the 1920s must have a been a fun time to be a baseball fan.
During this time period, coverage of baseball underwent some changes. The sports pages became a daily feature of urban newspapers, and the personalities of baseball writers varied widely. Fans could also track games via animated scoreboards, displayed in the cities. The development of radio broadcasts of baseball games allowed fans to follow along with the action as it happened.
Burns makes a passing mention of some of the other big hitters of the era, such as Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and George Sisler. Of those sluggers mentioned, Hornsby got the most attention, but not nearly the amount of attention that Babe Ruth received. Walter Johnson received a nod for his continuing domination as a pitcher in what had become a hitter’s game, and in 1924, he helped lead the Senators to a World Series victory over the Giants. Lou Gehrig, a rookie during the 1925 season, received a nod as well, his consecutive games streak already underway.
During this time also, Buck O’Neil joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the best team in the Negro Leagues. Branch Rickey, meanwhile, developed baseball’s first farm system with the St. Louis Cardinals. Teams around the majors quickly followed suit and minor league baseball was thus born.
It was a booming decade for the sport. However, the disc concludes in the year 1929, when the stock market collapsed and the onset of the Great Depression was upon the nation.