One of my childhood hero’s was a Southern Californian who won major letters in four sports: track, football basketball and baseball at UCLA. From the first time I had heard his name, and the exploits about him from my grandfather, Jackie was a magnet for my attention. The first time I saw him was on television, on the Mutual Television Network from Ebbets Field, there he was at second base. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I had to see him in person.
My Dad took my brother (Mike) and I to Milwaukee County Stadium sitting in the then left field bleachers down the third base line. We were in the 8th row, even with Sid Gordon of the Braves playing in left field. The view was made memorable with all eyes on the hero of the Braves, Eddie Mathews, playing at third. After the pitcher finished up his practice throws, Crandall threw it to Mathews who threw it to Logan who threw it to Dittmar and then to Adcock as they whipped the ball around the infield and gave it back to the pitcher.
Then HE came up to bat. At age 32, Jackie Robinson made $38,000 in 1953, $3,000 less than he made the previous year although he was an All-Star and easily one of the biggest draws in all of baseball. That salary would be equivalent to $326,475.51 today (less than the Major League minimum but huge by 1953 standards. Bobby Schantz, star pitcher of the Philadelphia A’s made $24,000 that year. The youngster, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees made $17,500 while Yogi Berra made $36,000. Stan Musial was one of the tops with $80,000.) The world was not equal in those days. But, an average house cost $9,550. A gallon of gas cost $0.20; average cost of a new car was $1,650 and the average salary in America was $4,000. You get the idea. Times were different.
So much for the ‘stuff’ of the day’. Today was baseball. A game with the Milwaukee Braves and the Brooklyn Dodgers was about to begin. Jackie Robinson was the lead off batter and was at the plate facing Johnny Antonelli. As I remember it, he walked, stole second, went to third on a ground out and then the picture I hoped for was directly in my view. Eddie at third. Jackie bopping up and down, faking to steal home then back to third. He caused havoc on the base paths. Eddie really didn’t know what to do. Should he play his usual position at third with a right-handed batter at the plate or should he stay nearer the bag to keep Jackie close. Everyone was confused, except Jackie. The left-handed pitcher was clearly upset by this force of nature at third. Then bang! Like a shot Jackie stole home. In an instant, THE moment was over.
“Did you see that? Did you see that?”, I repeatedly asked anyone who was near. Old white men in the crowd complained that Robinson was cheating. “You don’t go jumping all around when you’re on base.”, they would say, complaining that the home team just didn’t stand a chance against the Robinson led Dodgers. “But did you see that?”, I asked my Dad and Mom, who were smiling at the event they just witnessed. My Grandma and Grandpa were smiling as well as my Grandma plainly stated, “That was Jackie Robinson.”
What a statement. It shot through my bones as it was the projectile fact fired from the canon of all that was truthful, my Grandmother’s wisdom.
Then, as if a blessing had occurred, Jackie Robinson came out and played left field, right in front of us. I could nearly reach out and touch him, he seemed that close. He had come up a second baseman, but now the Dodgers played Junior Gilliam at second. There he was. Right in front of me…now in left field, Jackie Robinson. His cleats looked big league. They were polished. His away flannels were baggy looking. But there he was, looking intense, flipping the ball back and forth to “Duke” Snider in Center before the beginning of the bottom of the first.
“That’s Jackie.”, I kept thinking to myself. I was clearly living an out-of-body experience. For the rest of the game, Jackie Robinson and I were one in thought and into the game. There he was. Right in front of me bigger than life. No. It was life itself. There was Jackie Robinson. What a day.
But for all that happened that day, my Grandmother’s comment kept replaying in my mind. Nothing else was so clear on that day. Nothing was so vivid in my mind as we drove home, back to Beloit. Nothing else mattered even though the Braves lost another to their rivals, the Dodgers, in that first year of Major League baseball in Milwaukee. Jackie has stolen 17 bases that season and I had just seen two of them.
I had seen Jackie Robinson play baseball.
That next week was a dream as I retold the story what seemed like a hundred times to friends and acquaintances. During that week, I went to the corner store on Hackett a little more than a block from our home on Lincoln, and bought a pack of baseball cards. This time they were Topps, not Bowman. Bowman were my favorite but I wanted to try my hand with Topps. After I got back home and gave the groceries to my Mom, I went out on the back steps and carefully, separated the wax paper covering the pack of cards without tearing the wrapper, slowly pealing back the covering to see what treasures were inside.
And there, on top of the pack was #1 for the 1953 Topps series, Jackie Robinson.
I was now the luckiest kid in the world.
I took out that card today and looked at it again. Today Major League baseball honored this man with every player wearing his number, “42″, on their uniform.
There he was again, right in front of me. I saw Jackie play…again. This time, it was as bright a memory as when we were heading home to Beloit so very long ago.