Iconic imprints

April 15, 2007

During the 1947 baseball season, Jackie Robinson maintained complete composure in service of the greater good. Along with boxer Joe Louis, Robinson helped lay the integrationist groundwork for the civil rights movement that would follow in the 1950s. And for that, he's the only major league baseball player honored with a retired number by every franchise.

In the rush to celebrate Robinson the social iconic figure, some forget the greatness of Robinson the player. He was already 28 when he reached the majors, so his career totals don't pop the eyes. But Robinson was a perennial contender for the batting title, reached base more than 40 percent of the time, hit with terrific power for a middle infielder and panicked defenses with his daring base running.

"He beat me a thousand times in a thousand ways," wrote Leo Durocher, Robinson's one-time manager and later antagonist. "Getting a base hit, making a play, making the double play, hitting the home run, stealing a base, stealing home, upsetting my pitcher with his antics on the bases."

Here's how sports figures remember Robinson:

Don Newcombe

Pitcher Don Newcombe signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers about a week after Robinson, though he didn't reach the majors until 1949. Like many black players at the time, he wasn't sure why team president Branch Rickey chose Robinson.

"There were better ballplayers than Jackie," Newcombe remembered. "But as it turned out, he just had more going for him overall. He was educated. He had been a second lieutenant in the war. And he had been through the mess of bigotry before as an athlete at UCLA."

The young pitcher roomed with Robinson in 1949 but said he didn't get to know him well at first.

"Jackie had so much going on off the field that you hardly ever saw him in the room," Newcombe said. "People were just exorbitant in using Jackie's time. No one realizes how exhausted he was before he even got to the ballpark, but he never turned anyone down."

Newcombe often witnessed Robinson's courage firsthand. At the team's first game in St. Louis in 1949, a crowd of 10,000 blacks massed outside Sportsman's Park, unable to fit into the cramped section of bleachers reserved for non-white fans. Robinson said he, Newcombe and Roy Campanella wouldn't play that day if the stands weren't opened to black patrons. Cardinals officials opened the stands.

"He was doing these things long before any civil rights leaders came along," Newcombe said.

Years later, the pitcher hosted Martin Luther King Jr. for dinner about a month before King was assassinated. "He said to me, `Don, you have no idea how much easier you and Jackie and Roy made it for me,'" Newcombe said. "Jackie feared no man. He did everything he could to make this a better country for people of our color."

And he could play a little baseball, too.

"He was the most electrifying player I've ever seen," Newcombe said. "He didn't have the strongest arm, he wasn't the fastest guy in the league or the most powerful. But he could find more ways to beat you than anybody. If you had a losing attitude, Jackie Robinson didn't want to have anything to do with you."

Corey Patterson

Patterson, the Orioles' center fielder, spent time as a kid in Florida and Georgia, Jackie Robinson's home state, but no matter where he was attending school, Patterson heard tales of Robinson.

"All the kids knew who he was and what he had accomplished," Patterson said.

The son of a former NFL player, Patterson grew up loving baseball. And he said he soaked in as much as he could about Robinson.

"I have learned about him ever since I was pretty much a little kid, whether it was from my parents or from grade school," Patterson said. "For what he had to go through, not only on the field but off the field, too, I don't know how he could have handled it.

"And then, on top of that, he had all that pressure to play well and we all know baseball is the most mental game out there."

When he heard that Major League Baseball was honoring the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier, Patterson wanted to be a part of it. He was asked to wear Robinson's No. 42 today, and he enthusiastically agreed.

"I think it is great," he said. "I think it is another way to recognize what Jackie Robinson did not only on the field for African-Americans, but what he did for society as well."

Cal Ripken Jr.

Ripken was born too late to have seen Robinson on the field. But the Hall of Famer-elect has devoted his post-playing career to spreading the gospel of baseball among children.

No one deserves more credit than Robinson for opening the game to a wider populace, the former Oriole said.

"Jackie Robinson was so courageous and opened so many doors in so many ways," he said. "We don't really know how great Jackie could have been, because he played with such a greater weight of responsibility on his shoulders. But we can all be thankful for him."

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