When Barack Obama went to Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana to watch a baseball game with Cuban leader Raúl Castro, it was a historic event. It also was historic that one of the president’s guests was Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball’s color line in 1947. But what made her presence in Havana even more historic is an important part of her husband’s—and her—story.
In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, intending for him to integrate major league baseball. He chose carefully. He spent three hours with Robinson, taking him through the situations he might encounter, calling him the kinds of names that Rickey never used and that Robinson would refuse to tolerate. Finally, Robinson asked, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
That day, the first question Rickey asked Robinson, as he asked many of his players and employees, was, “Do you have a girl?” He told Rickey about Rachel Isum, whom he married the next year, 1946. This was the same year that Robinson made his debut in the minor leagues with Brooklyn’s top farm club, the Montreal Royals, and demonstrated that he belonged in the majors.
In the spring of 1947, Rickey wanted Robinson to go to spring training and then move up to the Dodgers, but he realized, as the Dodgers broadcaster at the time, Red Barber, wrote in his account of that year, 1947: When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball, “Too many Southern states and cities had laws that prevented Jackie Robinson, a black man, from playing games with his white teammates.” Instead, Rickey decided to send the Brooklyn Dodgers to spring training elsewhere.
He sent them to Havana, Cuba.
That spring training proved historically significant in a number of ways, starting with Robinson himself. As Barber wrote, “Rickey hoped enough of the white Dodgers would see the value of Robinson as a player and ask that he be placed on the Brooklyn roster. This hope never happened.”
When the Dodgers went to Panama for a series, manager Leo Durocher learned from one of his coaches, Clyde Sukeforth—previously the Dodger scout who had introduced Rickey and Robinson—that some of the Dodger players were planning a petition drive to demand that Rickey keep Robinson off the roster. Durocher later recalled, “I had seen Robinson in a couple of the Montreal exhibition games, and that was all it took to convince me that I wanted him.” In that series in Panama, Robinson hit a staggering .515. Durocher started “testing” some of the players, talking about Robinson. He concluded, “The rumors were true, all right.”
That night, Durocher said, he was tossing and turning over the issue when he woke up his coaches, ordered them to gather the players, and addressed his team. He told them, “Well, boys, you know what you can do with that petition. You can wipe your ass with it …. 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. There’s many more coming right behind him and they have the talent and they gonna come to play.”
He had stopped the petition drive in its tracks. One of the instigators, Dixie Walker, an outfielder from Alabama who was one of the most popular players in Brooklyn Dodger history, asked Rickey to trade him. Rickey was unable to do so until the next season (and, coincidentally, acquired in exchange for Walker two of the players key to Brooklyn’s success in the 1950s, pitcher Preacher Roe and third baseman Billy Cox). Walker later became the batting coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers and became known for how well he worked with African American players; he later told a sportswriter how wrong he had been.
Another southerner, Kentuckian Pee Wee Reese, the team’s shortstop, had told the petitioners, “I can’t sign this thing. I don’t know about you guys, but this is my living. I got a wife and child. I have to play ball.” Long before that, when Reese had learned of Robinson’s signing, he had said to himself, “If he’s man enough to take my job, I’m not gonna like it, but damn it, black or white, he deserves it.” And Reese would go on to be Robinson’s closest confidante and supporter on the team.
Durocher wouldn’t stay around to manage Robinson during that first season—for reasons also having to do with Havana. The baseball commissioner’s office had frowned on Durocher’s association with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, the mobster who had just opened the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, and George Raft, an actor who often played gangsters and would hang around with them off-screen. In pre-Castro Havana, mobsters and casinos were everywhere, and Durocher steered clear. But then Rickey and Durocher saw two mob associates in box seats next to the co-owner of the New York Yankees, Larry MacPhail (in a neat twist, one of MacPhail’s partners in the Yankee operation, Del Webb, had been one of Siegel’s construction contractors in Las Vegas). Rickey and Durocher publicly objected, and their complaints received a lot of press attention.
MacPhail wound up demanding a hearing before the commissioner, Albert “Happy” Chandler, a former U.S. senator from Kentucky. MacPhail demanded that Chandler punish Durocher for “conduct detrimental to baseball.” Chandler wound up suspending Durocher from baseball for a year. As this news broke, the Dodgers issued an announcement during their final exhibition game: “The Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals. He will report immediately.”
Rickey turned to an old friend, Burt Shotton, who agreed to come out of retirement and manage the team. How much the new manager’s presence helped or hurt Robinson can be debated. On the one hand, Shotton wouldn’t wear a uniform and thus couldn’t leave the dugout during the game, meaning that when there was trouble on the field—and Robinson was subjected to beanballs when he batted and spiking on the bases—Shotton couldn’t go out there. On the other hand, Durocher was controversial and hot-tempered, and his response might have made already volatile situations even worse, while Shotton ran the team with a steady hand.
Not all of the Dodgers accepted Robinson—at first. Some were never thrilled with sharing their lives and locker rooms with an African American. But Durocher was right: during Robinson’s decade with the team, the Dodgers won one World Series and six pennants, and lost two other pennants on the final day of the season. He helped them win. Rachel Robinson helped him survive it, and has kept his name and spirit alive with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides college scholarships to minority youths and is planning a museum in Robinson’s honor. And when she went to Havana, she went to a place that played a large role in her husband’s arrival in major league baseball—and thus of many other African American players to follow.