On the afternoon of Sunday, October 15, 1972, Jackie Robinson stood on the field of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium in the brilliant afternoon sunshine. Game Two of the World Series between the Oakland A’s and the Cincinnati Reds was to be played that day, and in a pregame ceremony, Robinson was being recognized on the 25th anniversary of his joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, ending the insidious segregation existent in the modern era of major-league baseball. Although Robinson’s entry into the majors was and remains the most important cultural event in the history of baseball, major-league baseball entered the 1972 season with nary a plan to commemorate the event. It was not until 1997, 25 more years later, that Jackie Robinson Day was established with an annual celebration of Robinson and his achievements.
However, during the 1972 season, pressure built to formally recognize Robinson. Finally, at the very end of the season, before Game Two of the World Series, the baseball establishment did the right thing and properly recognized one of its greatest and most impactful players. Although Robinson’s presence at the World Series was significant in and of itself, it was of greater importance and magnitude because this moment would prove to be Jackie’s last stand. Robinson took the opportunity to criticize major-league baseball for not yet having hired a Black manager or providing post-playing-career opportunities for Black players. In retrospect, the event was also quite poignant as it was Jackie Robinson’s last public appearance before his death.
Jackie Robinson had a prickly relationship with baseball following his career as a player. His retirement was the initial cause of this contentiousness. After the 1956 season, Robinson was 37 years old and had played 10 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers, leaving his body aching and unable to perform as he had a few years before. He was looking for an opportunity that would allow for him to move on from earning a living by playing baseball and to still support his growing family. However, it was clear that opportunity would most likely not come from baseball, as no Black men were working in baseball management at that time. Toward the end of his career, he also had a turbulent relationship with Dodgers management, including manager Walter Alston, general manager Buzzie Bavasi, and, especially since the departure of Branch Rickey from the Dodgers organization, with owner Walter O’Malley.
As a result of both the erosion of his baseball skills and his sour relationship with the Dodgers, Robinson began looking for business opportunities. After the 1956 season those opportunities presented themselves in two ways. First, Robinson signed an agreement with Look magazine giving the magazine the exclusive rights to the story of his retirement. Additionally, Robinson was approached by the president of the Chock Full o’ Nuts company about taking an executive position at the company. With these opportunities before him, Jackie Robinson chose to retire from baseball. Unbeknownst to him, in December of 1956 while he was determining his future career path, the Brooklyn Dodgers negotiated a trade to send Robinson to the New York Giants.
Initially, in order to keep the Look story exclusive, Robinson indicated that he might join the Giants and continue playing. However, the Look story was leaked to the public and Dodgers general manager Bavasi became annoyed with Robinson for not telling him of his plans to retire. Robinson was in turn angry with the Dodgers after they insinuated that he was claiming that he was retiring as a ploy to get a better playing contract. The ire on both sides resulted in a quiet feud between the Dodgers and Robinson that would last for nearly the rest of his life.
Toward the end of his playing career, there had been discussion of Robinson possibly taking a management position in the Dodgers organization, perhaps taking the manager’s position in Montreal, where he had begun his career in the Dodgers system. However, Robinson felt that his contentious relationship with Walter O’Malley made that very unlikely.1 Additionally, he knew that he and all Black players faced blatant racism if they sought management positions in baseball. In his 1972 autobiography I Never Had It Made, Robinson stated that as he approached retirement from the playing field, he felt that there were “many capable black athletes in the game who could contribute greatly as managers or in other positions of responsibility but it just isn’t happening.”2
Even before he retired, Robinson was indirectly lobbying for Black players to move into coaching positions after their playing days were done. Robinson was the named editor of Our Sports, a monthly sports magazine aimed for the Black audience which had its first issue in May 1953. In the debut issue of the magazine, Milton Gross wrote an article titled, “Will a Negro Ever Become Manager in the Big Leagues?”3 In the article, Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella are confidently described as having already been assured coaching jobs after their retirement from the playing field. Monte Irvin is also identified as having managerial potential. Likewise, Oscar Charleston and Winfield Welch, both former Negro League managers, are named as potential major-league managers. Curiously, the article plays down the prospects of Robinson himself managing, although it does project that his approach would be comparable to that of Leo Durocher. None of these well-qualified Black men mentioned in the article went on to manage in the major leagues.
After Robinson dismissed the thought that he himself would get a job in the baseball establishment, he continued to lobby for the desegregation of baseball management for others. In a 1962 newspaper article he is quoted as criticizing the American League for being slow to integrate its teams, but also commented on the absence of Blacks in management positions. Robinson declared, “The most serious problems [sic] facing Negro ballplayers today is the off-the-field baseball jobs.” He went on to say, “[T]here’s little place in the baseball world for a retired Negro ballplayer.”4 In his book Baseball Has Done It, published in 1964, Robinson pointed out that the Dodgers employed only one African-American, in a rather menial job, and that most clubs employed no African-Americans in their offices. He went on to state, “Without belaboring this point I know that many Negroes are qualified as private secretaries, road secretaries, statisticians, press agents, head scouts, farm supervisors, coaches, and managers,” and “that any experienced player with leadership qualities can pilot a ball club to victory, no matter what the color of his skin.”5
Later, in 1968, in an article titled “There Are No Rickeys Today,” he took Larry MacPhail, the Yankees’ general manager, to task for offering the excuse “that it is difficult to find qualified Negroes with the right educational background for front office jobs.” Robinson retorted that “The clubs spend all kinds of money, time, and effort scouting for talent. Yet, they find it “difficult” to look right over their noses to discover quite a few articulate, intelligent players who could fit quite ably into administration.”6 Robinson generally remained at a distance from major-league baseball after his retirement and watched as many Black players retired from baseball with no opportunities to stay in the industry.
Over the years, Jackie Robinson’s health suffered severely. By 1972, he was suffering from diabetes as well as advanced heart disease caused by blockages in his arteries and hypertension. He was also losing his eyesight, due in part to strokes that had caused ruptures of blood vessels in his eyes.7 Twenty-five years after he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, although he was only 53 years old, Jackie Robinson was an old man.
Compared with the response that Jackie Robinson and his accomplishments rightfully receive today, the attention he was given in 1972 by the baseball establishment was quite underwhelming. The first recognition he received from was a June 4 ceremony held by the Los Angeles Dodgers as a part of their Old-Timers Day. Initially, Robinson declined to take part in the event. However, the ownership of the Dodgers had now been passed on to Walter O’Malley’s son, Peter, who took a diplomatic approach to Robinson. Peter O’Malley also called upon Robinson’s former teammate Don Newcombe, a Dodgers employee, who successfully persuaded Robinson to attend.8
Before the event, Robinson met with Peter O’Malley and discussed with him his concerns regarding the lack of post-playing careers in Organized Baseball for Black players. Robinson later reported that he was heartened that O’Malley “felt Frank Robinson has tremendous ability and that the club also recognizes the talents of Maury Wills and Jim Gilliam.”9 Still, Robinson remained pessimistic, stating prophetically, “I don’t think we’ll see a Black manager in my lifetime. I don’t think that’s the Black man’s loss as such, but baseball’s loss and America’s loss.”10
Given our perspective today, it is surprising that the event held by the Dodgers was not focused upon Robinson. The day was actually billed as Casey Stengel Day at Dodger Stadium, with Stengel being recognized and managing one of the teams of old-timers. In a separate pregame ceremony, Robinson and his former teammates Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax received equal billing as their numbers retired by the Dodgers. Although the retirement of all three players’ numbers was certainly appropriate, the ceremony really had nothing specific to do with the anniversary of Robinson making it to the majors and recognizing what he had to endure once he got there. That anniversary was not celebrated until after the season, during the World Series.
Joe Black, Robinson’s former Dodgers teammate, was working as a representative of the commissioner’s office in the early 1970s and had been advocating for some time that baseball “do something, anything” to recognize Robinson.11 Commissioner Bowie Kuhn eventually agreed to honor Robinson, but again Robinson was reluctant to take part, once again citing his dissatisfaction with the plight of Black players in gaining management positions in baseball after retirement. Kuhn in his autobiography asserts that he was able to convince Robinson to take part during a lunch meeting at which Kuhn made his case that he was lobbying baseball’s owners to hire more Black former players.12
Another angle that major-league baseball took to entice Robinson was to also make the event a tribute to Robinson’s son Jackie Jr., who had died earlier that summer, and to support and make donations to Daytop, the drug-rehabilitation center where Jackie Jr. had been treated.13 Ultimately, Robinson agreed to take part in a ceremony at which he would be honored before Game Two of the World Series and would throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Video of the on-field ceremony captures the brief but powerful event.14 Robinson is joined on the turf of Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium by his family: wife Rachel, daughter Sharon, and son David. Additionally, Commissioner Kuhn, National League President Charles Feeney, Dodgers President Peter O’Malley, commissioner’s public-relations director Joe Reichler, former teammates Joe Black and Pee Wee Reese, and Larry Doby, who also debuted in the majors 25 years before, all joined Robinson on the field. Former Dodgers radio announcer Red Barber was the master of ceremonies.
After everyone assembled on the field, Barber introduced the baseball dignitaries along with the Robinson family. He then introduced Kuhn, who came to the microphone. Kuhn congratulated Robinson, and then read a statement from President Richard Nixon commending Robinson both for his pioneering baseball career and for his work championing the fight against drug abuse, especially with the youth of America. After reading Nixon’s statement, Kuhn called Robinson, who was escorted by his wife, Rachel, to the microphone. Kuhn once again congratulated Robinson and presented him with a small trophy. Robinson then delivered a brief speech to the crowd at the ballpark and the national television audience, estimated at 60 million, who tuned in this Sunday afternoon.15
Jackie Robinson led his remarks by expressing humility, stating, “I was just really a spoke in the wheel of the success we had some 25 years ago.” He then thanked Pee Wee Reese for attending the event and also expressed that “it would have been a real pleasure if Mr. Rickey could have been here today.” Robinson then stated that he was thankful that his family was with him for the day, and thanked “baseball for the tremendous opportunities it has presented to me and also for this thrilling afternoon.”
Then Robinson, for the last time publicly, took the opportunity to reprimand baseball and express his conviction that baseball should be doing more to continue the progress of racial equality that he had started more than 25 years ago. Robinson eloquently and purposefully declared, “I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit that I am going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a Black face managing in baseball. Thank you very much.”
After the on-field ceremony, Robinson was escorted off the field to the stands where he would make the ceremonial first pitch. As he made his way across the diamond, Dick Williams, the Oakland A’s manager and Robinson’s former Dodgers teammate, came up to and effusively shook hands with Robinson and kissed his wife, Rachel. Moments later, Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan respectfully approached Robinson and shook hands. Robinson then made his way to the stands, and was handed a ball by Bowie Kuhn. Despite his failing eyesight, Robinson looked strong as he threw the ceremonial first pitch to Reds catcher Johnny Bench. The game was then played, with the A’s winning, 2-1, on their way to winning the Series.
On October 24, 1972, just nine days after the celebratory event, Jackie Robinson died in his home of a heart attack. His appearance at the World Series provided Robinson, for the last time, with a platform to remind baseball and America what he had accomplished, and what he had spent most of his life championing. It would be more than two years before Frank Robinson was hired to be the player-manager of the Cleveland Indians for the 1975 season. More than two decades later, in 1997, acting Commissioner Bud Selig announced that Jackie Robinson would be celebrated annually across baseball each April 15, now named Jackie Robinson Day.
RICHARD J. PUERZER is an associate professor and chairperson of the Department of Engineering at Hofstra University. His writings on baseball have appeared in: Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, The Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series; Pride of Smoketown: The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords; and The Negro Leagues Were Major Leagues, and the journals: Black Ball; Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture; The National Pastime; The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture proceedings; Zisk; and Spitball.
1 Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 299.
2 Jackie Robinson and Alfred Duckett, I Never Had It Made (New York: Putnam, 1972), 118.
3 Milton Gross, “Will a Negro Ever Become Manager in the Big Leagues?” Our Sports, Vol 1 No 2, May 1953: 7, 58-61.
4 “Jackie Calls American League Shortsighted,” New York Amsterdam News, July 14, 1962: 30.
5 Jackie Robinson, Baseball Has Done It (Brooklyn, New York: Ig Publishing, 2005), 211-212.
6 Jackie Robinson, “No More Rickeys,” New York Amsterdam News, February 24, 1968: 17.
9 Bob Hunter, “Dodgers and Ex-Star Robinson Bury Hatchet at Stengel Day,” The Sporting News, June 24, 1972: 9.
10 Ross Newhan, “No Black Manager in Jackie’s Time,” The Sporting News, July 1, 1972: 24.
11 Dick Young, “An Impatient Man in a Slow-Moving World,” New York Daily News, October 25, 1972: 55.
12 Bowie Kuhn, Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner (New York: Times Books, 1987), 113-114. There are numerous reasons to be skeptical of Kuhn’s assertion, including the fact that he states that the meeting took place on June 20, 1972, just three days after the death of Robinson’s son, Jackie Jr. Kuhn also claims that when Robinson made his on-field plea for a Black manager in major-league baseball, he credited Kuhn with supporting the cause. Video of the event show that Robinson did not mention Kuhn at all with regard to the topic.
13 Young. Daytop received the donations of a station wagon from the Chrysler Corporation and a double-decker bus from Greyhound.
https://sabr.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/research-collection4_350x300.jpg300350sabr/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/sabr_logo.pngsabr2021-12-21 13:07:022021-12-21 13:07:02Jackie’s Last Stand: Jackie Robinson’s Last Public Appearance and His Appeal for the Integration of Major League Baseball Management