JIM THIELMAN: How Robinson’s No. 42 Went From Insignificant To Iconic

Accolades will shower Jackie Robinson once again this April 15, the 75th anniversary of him scaling baseballs racial wall.

Every big leaguer since 2007 has worn Robinson’s No. 42 on April 15. It’s the only number retired by all 30 major league teams — the first retired by an entire sport.

It held no significance for him.

Robinson played when athletes wore the jersey handed to them by a clubhouse man dressed in a white T-shirt and baggy gray pants with a Lucky Strike in his phiz.

Jackie wore No. 28 in football and No. 18 in basketball during his two years as at UCLA. He wore No. 9 with the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946. He wasn’t going to wear No. 9 in Brooklyn. It belonged to shortstop Arky Vaughan.

Vaughan was a quietly efficient player, later regarded by baseball numbers guy Bill James as the second best shortstop in baseball history. Vaughan was so quietly efficient that the Baseball Hall of Fame misspelled his name on commemorative envelopes distributed during his induction.

He was one fellow who went out of his way to be nice to me when I was a rookie,” Robinson told a reporter after Vaughan drowned at age 40 in 1952. “I needed it.”

A high number

No Dodger broke camp in 1947 with a higher number than Robinson. No Dodger had ever worn No. 42, aside from George Jeffcoat’s two innings on opening day in 1939.

Only three other Dodgers were issued a number above 39 in 1947. Starting pitcher Harry Taylor accounted for most of the scant 49 games those three played. Even today, high uniform numbers are usually given to those destined to ride buses.

It’s well-known that some connected with the Dodgers grew antagonistic as Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey prepared to hire Robinson off the minor league Montreal roster.

Arguably, No. 42 was an insult, a scarlet letter.

The Mahatma in Havana

Branch Rickey was a church-going family man who was nicknamed ‘The Mahatma’ for his shrewd grasp of baseball business.

Rickey tamped down spring training publicity in ’47 by having the players train in Cuba, then Panama. Distance from Brooklyn didn’t insulate Rickey from rumblings.

The Dodgers stayed at Havana’s integrated Hotel Nacional, a resort with swimming pools and fine restaurants. Because Rickey planned to ease black players into the mix, he lodged Robinson, catcher Roy Campanella and others at a hotel in old Havana. Robinson was livid, but went along with it, grudgingly.

Rickey grew bolder at the end of March. He wore a white shirt, Panama hat, speckled bow tie and a held a lit cigar as he spoke with a reporter in Gran Stadium, still used in Havana.

“No player on this club will have anything to say about who plays or does not play on it. I will decide who is on it, and Durocher will decide who does the playing.”

That was sharp-dressing Leo Durocher, who cared about winning even more than he cared about money, women and gambling, and he cared about those a lot.

Rickey admired Durocher as a manager more than as a man, saying Leo possessed an infinite capacity for immediately making a bad thing worse.”

Durocher had been a 5-foot-10, 160-pound, slick-fielding shortstop for the Yankees. Teammate Babe Ruth nicknamed him  “the All-American Out.”

Yankee manager Miller Huggins liked Durocher and told him to “never lose that self-assurance that you’re the best. You’ll be here when all those guys with strong backs and weak minds are gone.”

Huggins was right. After a lost season in 1938, Dodgers’ general manager Larry MacPhail named Durocher manager. Ruth was the other prominent candidate for the job.

The Kitchen Speech

Durocher was in his ninth season as the Dodgers’ manager when the team escaped three-hour practices under a hot sun on Cubas lumbar-rattling concrete infields and headed to Panama.

“The Montreal club, including Robinson and three other Negroes, came to Panama, too,” Durocher recalled in a magazine interview long ago

Coach Clyde Sukeforth had scouted Robinson and would manage him in his major league debut. The former catcher was picking up talk that some players were circulating a petition opposing Robinson.

“What did the damn fools think they were going to do, strike?” Durocher said.

Huggins had been right about Durocher. He was smart. He unmasked rookie curfew breakers by approaching suspects with a cigar and asking for a light, hoping the player would betray himself by handing over a book of matches from a local night spot.

Unsure if his players were circulating a petition, Durocher spent a day in Panama praising Robinson to select players. “The total reaction, though somewhat guarded, was very discouraging,” he recalled.

Ready for bed that night, Durocher quit playing coy. He roused his coaches and told them to herd the players into a huge kitchen in the club’s lodgings.

Some arrived buckling their trousers, some in pajamas. They sat on chopping blocks and counters, and leaned on appliances.

“Boys, you know what you can do with your petition,” Durocher began.

“And here’s something else to think about when you put your head back on the pillow: From everything I hear, he’s only the first, only the first, boys. And they have the talent and they come to play. Unless you fellows wake up, they’re going to run you right out of the ball park.

“I don’t want to see your petition and I don’t want to hear anything more about it. The meeting is over. Go back to bed.”

Ah, what might have been

Robinson, who died in 1972, went to the World Series six times in 10 seasons with the Dodgers. Durocher didn’t make it to opening day in ‘47.

Baseball’s commissioner suspended him for a year for being Leo, which included gambling and enjoying the company of actress Lorraine Day. She eventually divorced her husband in Mexico and married Durocher the next day, creating more scandal when the divorce was nullified.

Hall of Famer Durocher is one of 11 managers with at least 2,000 major league wins. Vaughan, who uncharacteristically sparked a dispute with Durocher that raged through the clubhouse in 1943, said he was the best manager he had played for.

There are hints of hypocrisy from those who purposefully sparked Durocher’s suspension, including friend-turned-foe Larry MacPhail, the heavy drinking baseball executive who associated with gamblers.

Former Minnesota Twins’ general manager Andy MacPhail said, “My grandfather was bombastic, flamboyant, a genius when sober, brilliant when he had one drink and a raving lunatic when he had too many.”

Durocher highlighted some of MacPhail’s traits while failing to defend himself.

U.S. Supreme Court judge Frank Murphy also pressured commissioner Happy Chandler to suspend Durocher. Murphy had voted against internment of Japanese during World War II, calling it racism, yet some historians believe he often crusaded for morality to hide the unfounded fact that he was gay.

It would have been a minefield of a summer had Leo managed the club. He was eventually replaced by calm Burt Shotton, who had no uniform number. He wore street clothes in the dugout.

Durocher had told players in his kitchen speech, “I’ll play an elephant if he can do the job, and to make room for him, I’ll send my own brother home.” It was not just talk.

Durocher grabbed one of his many headlines in 1936 when he was playing for St. Louis and Casey Stengel managed Brooklyn. The pair had continued an on-field argument under the grandstand, where Durocher hit Stengel with a bat.

Stengel explained, “It was a case of mistaken identity. Durocher was unable to distinguish between his fist and a bat.”

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