TRUE BASEBALL HEROES : JACKIE ROBINSON, AN AFRICAN-AMERICAN, AND HANK GREENBERG, A JEW, SHARED A SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP AS TWO MEN WHO ENDURED YEARS OF UNIMAGINABLE BIGOTRY.
WE live in an age of second thoughts about civil rights progress, black-Jewish cooperation, and the impact of pro sports on minority communities. The 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's desegregation of Major League Baseball recalls another troubled time with a surer moral compass.
In leading a major civil rights advance, Robinson was encouraged at a critical point in the 1947 season by Jewish slugger Hank Greenberg. Their friendship was not an isolated incident but highlighted strong bonds of mutual support between African-Americans and Jews.
When Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, the African-American press often emphasized that blacks and Jews were joined in a common struggle against bigotry. Black papers acknowledged Jews' disproportionate support for the civil rights cause, and praised Jewish journalists and sportswriters like Walter Winchell and Shirley Povich of The Washington Post for their prominent role in the campaign to desegregate baseball. Winchell at that time conspicuously accompanied African-American boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson around Miami when its hotels still posted signs: ``No Negroes, Jews, or dogs allowed.''
Headlines of the day suggest other parallels between the African-American and Jewish struggles. In May 1947, early in Robinson's rookie season, the press reported that an all-white jury in Greensville, S.C., had acquitted 28 ``confessed lynch murderers,'' charged with torturing a black man to death. That same month, reflecting strong black support for the creation of Israel, the Chicago Defender condemned Great Britain and the U.S. State Department for their ``unbelievably shameful double crossing'' of Holocaust survivors whose desperate attempt to reach Palestine on the ship Hatikvah was brutally thwarted by British sailors using tear gas and fire hoses.
As Robinson suffered unprecedented abuse from opposing players and fans during 1947, he received strong support from Jews. When the Philadelphia Phillies visited Brooklyn in early May, their manager, Ben Chapman, ordered his players to harass Robinson with a barrage of racial insults so venomous that Jackie came close to a nervous breakdown. Winchell immediately denounced Chapman on his radio broadcast, and the Jewish press exposed the connection between Chapman's racism and anti-Semitism.
As a New York Yankees player in the 1930s, Chapman earned a reputation for shouting anti-Semitic insults at Jewish fans. Soon after ordering the attack on Robinson, he also hurled insults at a Jewish GI who had lost a leg in combat.
The most dramatic display of Jewish solidarity with Jackie Robinson came from Hank Greenberg. The legendary Detroit Tiger slugger, then finishing his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was the first opposing player to offer Robinson encouragement. Probably no major-league player before Robinson had been more abused by players and fans than Greenberg, who was continually taunted for being Jewish.
Unlike Robinson, who was ordered by Brooklyn management not to respond to racist taunts, Greenberg warned the bigots he would physically retaliate.
Strongly identifying with the Jewish against Nazism, Greenberg became the first major-leaguer to enlist in the army in World War II. Unlike many other players who became athletic directors in the service, he volunteered for combat. Along with his four home run titles, he won four battle stars.
On May 17, 1947, in a Brooklyn-Pittsburgh game, Robinson laid down a perfect bunt and streaked down the line to first. The pitcher's throw pulled first baseman Greenberg off the bag. Reaching for the throw, he collided with Robinson, who was able to get up and reach second.
African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith suggested that, had the collision involved a player other than Greenberg, it might have sparked a riot.
The next inning Greenberg walked, and asked Robinson, who was playing first base, if he had been hurt in the collision.
Assured by Robinson that he hadn't been, Greenberg said to him, ``Don't pay attention to these guys who are trying to make it hard for you. Stick in there. . . . I hope you and I can get together for a talk. There are a few things I've learned down through the years that might help you and make it easier.''
Greenberg's support deeply moved Robinson, and was widely praised in the African-American press. Jackie told The New York Times: ``Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.''
Although Robinson suffered harassment unparalleled in baseball history, he recognized a kinship with what he called the ``racial trouble'' that Greenberg also had experienced.
In his autobiography, Greenberg emphasized his strong admiration for Robinson, coupled with disgust at the racist behavior of his teammates: ``Here were our guys, a bunch of ignorant, stupid Southerners who couldn't speak properly . . . and all they could do was make jokes about Jackie. They couldn't recognize that they had a special person in front of them.''
Greenberg also recognized differences as well as similarities between his experience and Robinson's: ``Jackie had it tough, tougher than any player who ever lived. . . . I identified with Jackie Robinson. I had feelings for him because they had treated me the same way. Not as bad, but they made remarks about my being a sheenie and a Jew all the time.''
Both these stars continued to fight racism and anti-Semitism after retiring from baseball. Greenberg helped further desegregation as the general manager of the Cleveland Indians - for some time the only American League club with a significant number of black players.
Having himself been barred from hotels as a Jew, he successfully pressured them to admit players regardless of race.
As Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledged, Robinson's contribution to fighting bigotry extended far beyond his role in desegregating baseball. While sharply criticizing organized baseball for integrating too slowly, Jackie tirelessly raised funds for the civil rights cause. But when a CORE official in 1966 shouted at Jews, ``Hitler made a mistake when he didn't kill enough of you,'' Robinson demanded that he be ``retired . . . as unfit to speak for anyone'' - the first African-American leader to condemn the statement.
And when the ``black nationalists'' singled out Jewish-owned stores in Harlem for picketing, Robinson denounced their ``use of the slimy tool of anti-Semitism and racism, the very tactics against which we cry out, when they are employed against us.''
This season, baseball fans at National League parks and the All-Star Game will have the opportunity to view the Museum of Tolerance's exhibit, ``Stealing Home: How Jackie Robinson Changed America.''
They - and the current crop of young superstars - have much to learn from these most valuable players for all seasons.
Photo: Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson steals home as part of a triple steal in the Boston Braves-Brooklyn Dodgers game at Ebbets Field in August 1948.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Apr 6, 1997|
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