We look back at how Jackie Robinson handled racial discrimination on the diamond.
“I don’t consider myself a particularly temperamental man,” wrote Jackie Robinson in the winter of 1955, “except on this one issue of prejudice.”
On Sunday, Aug. 26, 1956, the Dodgers were playing the second of three games at County Stadium in Milwaukee. In the dog days of August, they trailed the first-place Braves by two games after winning the opener. In 1956, finishing second sent a team home after the regular season. A first-place finish meant a trip to the World Series.
Jackie Robinson was warming up with fellow Hall-of-Fame first baseman Gil Hodges when Lew Burdette threw gas on a tinder box he first stoked with his mouth in the summer of 1953.
"“What time does the watermelon get cold?”"
Said Robinson: “Just to make sure, I asked Gil whether Burdette meant me.” Hodges replied: “You’re ‘Number 42,’ aren’t you?
"“I picked the next roller and fired the ball past Hodges into the dugout. I aimed it right at Burdette’s head. Lucky for him at missed.”"
Burdette admitted opening his mouth but denied it had any racial overtones: “I was only kidding him about his weight,” Burdette told UPI, “I hollered at him, ‘What time does the watermelon get cold?’….How many men can you get in your uniform Robbie?”
“If the ball hadn’t faded,” Jackie told Dick Young of the Daily News, pointing to his forehead, “it would’ve caught Burdette right here.”
How Jackie Robinson dealt with racism
That’s how Jackie Robinson reacted to racism in the summer of 1956. The ball flew past Burdette’s ear and crashed against the dugout wall. It almost hit Joe Torre’s brother Frank, standing near Burdette at the time. The Dodgers’ super-utility man, in his final season, was playing second base, within earshot of the first-base dugout. Robinson knew what he heard on Sunday, and told the AP it was, “racially off-color.” It was not the first time Burdette’s bigotry had enraged the Dodgers. Jackie was still smoldering that Monday.
Robinson challenged Burdette to meet him outside after the game for a fight. As the Daily News aptly noted: ‘The invitation passed unaccepted.’ Declared Jackie:
"“He didn’t accept the challenge. [Burdette] has no guts.”"
Losing and racism, the latter is the only thing that trumps the former on a list of things Jack Roosevelt Robinson despises. Burdette opened his mouth, almost got his face caved in, then backed down when confronted on even terms.
The Braves and Dodgers had a long, checkered history. It wasn’t the first time Burdette’s racist comments were at the heart of the matter. Four years of bad blood had simmered since Burdette stoked the embers of racism. This was the second time the cauldron boiled over.
In August 1953, Brooklyn was in Milwaukee, this time with a commanding eight-game lead in National League. Duke Snider led off the eighth inning with a home run that broke a scoreless tie. Hodges, hitting cleanup, then popped out. Roy Campanella, who won the 1953 MVP, then stepped to the plate.
Burdette knocked Campy down on a high hard one with his first pitch. With the count 2-2, Burdette again came high-and-tight with a fastball. Campanella dusted himself off and promptly struck out. He then took two steps towards the visiting dugout when Burdette, allegedly cursed him out and called him the N-word.
Nonplussed, Campanella stopped for a minute. The usually docile Campanella suddenly charged toward Burdette. Catcher Del Crandall and Umpire Tom Gorman grabbed Campanella as both benches cleared. Robinson, of course, led the pack and was right in the middle of the fracas. As it usually goes with baseball fights, no punches were thrown. Robinson wanted no intermediaries in 1956.
Famously even-keeled, the serene Campanella’s uncharacteristic reaction showed the destructive gravity of that word. Kentucky’s Lexington Journal took no issue with printing the N-word while removing the other expletives.
“I would have hit him with that bat on his head,” Campanella bristled, then quickly caught himself – “No, I wouldn’t,” he smiled.
The amiable Hall-of-Famer, who was paralyzed in a 1957 car accident, was built like an ox during his playing days, 5-foot-9 and 200-pounds of solid muscle: “It was the worst thing I was called in the big leagues,” said Campanella, who tried to diffuse the situation in the press. His initial reaction was to claim nothing happened.
Though he later denied it, according to Jackie, Gorman said, “nothing would have happened if Burdette hadn’t called Campy a name.” Campanella claimed Gorman asked Burdette why he started the melee with his mouth.
The father of current MLB umpire Brain Gorman later told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “If Campy kept going back to the bench nothing would have happened,” also denying his comment to the Dodger catcher. Umpire Jocko Conlon, the crew chief added: “If that’s the case then Burdette didn’t say it and my report will contain no mention of it.”
Burdette and Robinson had words just a week earlier after, Burdette called Robinson a “Black —-.,” according to The Eagle. Jackie also alleged that Burdette threw at him after the Dodgers clinched the 1952 pennant.
“Maybe it was the first time Campy heard it, but it wasn’t the first time he’s been called it,” said Robinson. This was more akin to the prideful Jackie’s innate reaction to racist rhetoric. It underscores his fortitude, when, from 1946 to 1948, Jack bit his tongue come what may to avoid trouble and make the integration of baseball as void of controversy as possible. Once free to speak his mind, Robinson was never silent on matters of race. Campanella often chose not to speak up which irked Jackie. The two later had a falling-out.
In 1947, Jackie wryly smiled while standing next to Ben Chapman for a photo after the Philadelphia Manager’s racist taunts drew the ire of the players and press alike. Jackie quietly posed for a picture at the Phillies’ request and looked the better man. One can see the visage of contempt through Robinson’s smirk, in contrast to meek Chapman’s emotionless stare. That incident helped galvanize empathy among many who were initially resistant to Robinson’s presence. As Carl Rowan and Jackie describe in Wait Till Next Year, years later Chapman chided Jackie and Pee Wee Reese during an exhibition game. “I can talk back now,” said Robinson. He called Chapman a “yellow son-of-a-b—,” and threatened to beat him up. According to Pee Wee, Chapman shriveled up like a snail. “I felt good right down to my toenails,” said Reese. “This guy got what was coming to him…we never heard another peep.”
A decade later, Robinson was Dean of the World Champions, part icon, part malcontent in the eyes of some, due to his candid, outspoken nature. Racism was still a fact of life in the Major Leagues, and America. The Montgomery Bus Boycotts were in their ninth month in August 1956. As Robinson noted, many only wanted the Jackie Robinson of 1947 who humbled himself for the sake of his race, Branch Rickey’s experiment, and the progress of America.
Wrote Jackie in 1955: “People think that a Negro because he is a Negro must always be humble — even in the heat of sports competition. But in my case maybe it goes deeper than that.” Robinson said many held extra animus toward him because he was the first. Braves play-by-play man Earl Gillespie called Robinson an “agitator,” which Robinson thought buoyed the contempt of Milwaukee fans as the bad blood between the two teams persisted.
Back in 1953, Burdette issued a tacit denial. He claimed he neither threw at nor used an epithet toward either Campanella or Robinson. In 1956 the 19-game winner could only say: “It does take guts to get yourself suspended any moron can do that. We’ve got a pennant to be won. I’m more interested in that than what Robinson has to say.”
Robinson had the last word. The Dodgers took the final game of the series and two of three. They won the 1956 National League Pennant by one game before losing their final World Series in Brooklyn 4-3 to the Yankees. After the Yanks Don Larsen pitched his perfect game, Robinson singled with two outs in the 10th inning of Game 6 to send the series to a final game. It was Robinson’s last hit in the Major Leagues.