Robinson was covered in mainstream papers mostly by invisible ink: AN AMERICAN HERO

April 15, 1997|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

When Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line on April 15, 1947, the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper treated it as an epochal event; The Sun, as an afterthought.

Typical, given the times.

The Afro-American celebrated Robinson's debut in grand style: seven stories, seven photographs, an editorial and cartoon.

The Baltimore Sun's coverage was scant - three paragraphs on the sports page of the morning paper and one in the evening, which mentioned Robinson in the last sentence of its baseball roundup:

"Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn's Negro first baseman and first of his race to reach the majors since 1884, failed to get a hit in three official trips to the plate, but his sacrifice-error play in the seventh inning set up the subsequent tying and winning runs."

For readers of the Afro-American and other black weeklies of the era, Robinson was a pioneer. For readers of The Sun, and most mainstream dailies, he was a postscript, a footnote. Or less.

Several Southern newspapers censored their sports coverage on Opening Day, deleting all reference to the integration of major-league baseball in Brooklyn.

"They 'whited it out,' so to speak," said Ron Story, who teaches a class about Robinson at the University of Massachusetts. "Within the context of the time, this was not such a bad thing. Better to ignore it than be negative."

On April 15, the black press chronicled Robinson's every move, hung on every word, detailed every swing. Each inning, they noted where he sat in the dugout - and with whom. They polled fans at Ebbets Field on Robinson's chances. After the game, they followed him from the clubhouse, past throngs of cheering fans, and squeezed into his car for one last quote.

Not a white scribe in the bunch. To the establishment press, Robinson was the invisible man.

"The white media thought this was a passing fad; they hesitated to go overboard," said Sam Lacy, sports columnist for the Afro-American for more than 50 years. "They couldn't accept that this guy was going to be a success."

As the season progressed, the white press warmed to the Dodgers rookie. Even the Sporting News, long a critic of the Robinson "experiment," relented and named him Rookie of the Year.

Fifty years later, the media rush to cover the golden anniversary of Robinson's debut. The same newspapers that scuttled coverage in 1947 are now scrambling to re-create the story. Lacy, 93, is hounded for interviews, right up to Ted Koppel of "Nightline."

"The publicity is laudatory now," said Earl Smith, professor of sociology at Wake Forest University. "Jackie Robinson is on cereal boxes and commemorative patches and HBO specials. Everyone says what a great thing happened 50 years ago, but few remember how it really unfolded in the press."

Less with a bang than a whimper.

"The dominant belief was that [integration] wouldn't work, that baseball was a thinking man's game, and that black athletes could run and jump and do little else," said Smith. "That a black man could enter this domain upset so many reporters - and readers. So they buried their heads in the sand."

On April 10, the Dodgers signed Robinson to a major-league contract, a milestone that received more attention than his first big-league game. The liberal New York press heralded the move. The Daily Mirror saw "no resumption of the War Between the States as the major league color line was finally torn down."

The New York Post reasoned: "As [Robinson] himself said, 'When Uncle Sam put a gun in my hands, he didn't ask my color.' The same feeling should prevail now that [Dodgers president Branch] Rickey has put a big league bat in his hands."

Elsewhere, the story made barely a ripple. Paul Menton, sports ++ editor of Baltimore's Evening Sun, called Robinson "the only player among the Negroes who had potential major-league ability, or even sufficient skill to play in Triple A baseball." The Sun reported the event but failed to run Robinson's photo.

The Atlanta Journal gave Robinson's signing a cursory nod - four paragraphs on its second sports page, beside a whiskey ad. Journal columnist Ed Danforth welcomed Robinson's entry as a "sideshow to keep you from yawning" during a long season.

Coverage tailed off quickly. The press moved on to juicier stuff: Robinson's arrival coincided with baseball's one-year ban of Brooklyn's bad-boy manager, Leo Durocher.

"This year sees a Negro, Jack Robinson, having his first chance in the big leagues," a Sun editorial announced. "But the really big change, of course, is the absence of [Durocher], the most colorful personality in recent baseball history." (A Sun headline blared, "Managerless Ball Team to Start Negro Star At First.")

Quiet revolution

By April 15, integration fell below the fold in many papers, marking perhaps the quietest revolution in American lore.

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