Baseball greats break barriers

Baseball greats break barriers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- They didn't stop at changing baseball.

They changed America.

Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Larry Doby came along 11 weeks later to break the American League's color line with the Cleveland Indians. Frank Robinson became the Major Leagues' first African-American manager with the Indians just after the 1974 season.

They broke barriers that transcended their deeds in a baseball uniform. Not everyone could throw or hit or remove a pitcher. But for a segment of society often denied the chance to prove its talents or assume a position of leadership, they were beacons for civil rights and humanity.

The inaugural Civil Rights Game presented by AutoZone between the Cardinals and the Indians at AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday -- which will be aired on ESPN and MLB.TV, with a two-hour pregame show beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET -- will celebrate their gains in baseball and in American life. Jackie Robinson, Doby and Frank Robinson are a part of that history.

The following is a look at the three men that have gone beyond the box score and into society.

Jackie Robinson
The National Archives carry teaching documents that cover the history of America. On one of those Web pages are links to some of Jackie Robinson's most important works. In the top right corner of the main page is a photo of Robinson smiling beneath his Dodgers cap in a baseball uniform.

But beside the photo are the words of his daughter, Rachel Robinson, who has worked tirelessly for equality and education.

"To the average man in the average American community, Jackie Robinson was just what the sports pages said he was, no more, no less. He was the first Negro to play baseball in the Major Leagues. Everybody knew that. ... In remembering him, I tend to de-emphasize him as a ballplayer and emphasize him as an informal civil rights leader. That's the part that drops out, that people forget."

After being asked by Branch Rickey, the visionary general manager who signed him, not to retaliate for demeaning words and actions, on and off the field, for the first two years of his career, Robinson didn't stand for any violation of his human rights. He continued that philosophy after his career.

According to Jules Tygel's 1997 book, "Baseball's Great Experiment," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, who along with Roy Campanella joined the Dodgers after Robinson, "You'll never know what you and Jackie and Roy did to make it possible for me to do my job."

Robinson fearlessly used the access he gained through his fame to challenge injustice, even if it meant confronting those at the top of society. After President Eisenhower urged patience from African-Americans seeking equality, Robinson replied with a letter saying, "17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change. We want to enjoy now the rights that we feel we are entitled to as Americans."

Robinson didn't fear disagreeing, stepping outside the norms of the Civil Rights Movement. For example, he backed then Vice President Nixon in 1960, instead of eventual President Kennedy because he felt Nixon showed more promise in civil rights.

In a letter to President Johnson, Robinson asked the administration to refrain from saying that such opposition would damage the credibility of the Civil Rights Movement. Just months before his death in 1972, he warned the Nixon Administration in a letter that younger African-Americans would not wait for civil rights the way his generation had.

Robinson didn't forget about strides that needed to be made in baseball, either. In 1969, Robinson refused to participate in an old timers' game because of the failure of baseball to add black managers or front-office personnel. Robinson's last public appearance was on Oct. 15, 1972, when he agreed to throw out the first pitch of the 1972 World Series.

In keeping with his constant push for equality, he used the occasion to announce over the public address system that he still desired that a black manager be hired.

Larry Doby
For much of history, Doby was overshadowed by Robinson. Playing in Cleveland while Robinson was in New York no doubt had something to do with it. Simply being second, as opposed to first, was part of it. Doby also became baseball's second black manager when he took over the Chicago White Sox in 1978.

Robinson embraced and sought the leadership role and even the backlash that came with it. Doby had a different approach.

In obituaries after Doby's death on June 18, 2003, he is quoted recalling his first meeting with Indians owner Bill Veeck. Unlike Robinson, who spent time with the Dodgers' top Minor League club in Montreal, Doby went straight from the Negro Leagues to the Majors.

"'Lawrence,' -- he's the only person who called me Lawrence -- 'you are going to be part of history,'" Doby said Veeck told him.

"Part of history? I had no notions about that. I just wanted to play baseball."

Nonetheless, Doby came to understand the impact of his baseball efforts.

"We can see that baseball helped make this a better country," he said in a speech to college students. "We hope baseball has given [children] some idea of what it is to live together and how you can get along, whether you be black or white."

Doby took no back seat to anyone on the field or, unfortunately, in terms of having to rise above heartbreaking treatment.

When he joined the Indians, four teammates refused to shake his hand. No one would throw to him during warmups until Joe Gordon, who would compete for a position, did so and befriended him. Doby was asked to play first base and didn't have a glove for the position, yet no teammate would lend him one and he had to borrow one from one of the opposing Chicago White Sox.

In one of his last interviews, published by the Web site, Doby noted that an opposing shortstop once spit on him when he slid into second base.

But Doby played with greatness and class, and reached out to the next generation. He opened several playgrounds. At one of the openings, in Cleveland in 1997, he said: "I hope that this city and cities across the country will continue to work together to make this a better place for all of us. I think the most important thing, besides being involved in your games, is teaching. Teach your friends, teach your fellow man what it is to love one another."

A Camden, S.C., native, Doby was such an inspiration in terms of helping those less fortunate that the Class A Charleston River Dogs have retired the No. 14, which he wore with the Indians.

Frank Robinson
No one handed Robinson anything.

Whether it was battling racism as a player in the Minors, fighting for what he felt was a proper salary as he became one of baseball's stars through the 1950s and 1960s, or preparing for his post-playing career, Robinson demonstrated that accomplishment could win out over everything.

A July 5, 2006 article in the Contra Costa Times recalled Robinson's words from early in his playing career:

"If you can't swing the bat and run the bases and catch the balls and maybe a little more besides, nobody's going to follow you. You're just a little tin soldier waving a tin sword."

Robinson proved that the work ethic is mightier than the sword.

At a time when players were scratching for decent wages and sometimes taking outside jobs in the winter, Robinson was stripping teams of reasons not to hire him. Late in his playing career, Robinson spent his winters managing the Puerto Rican Winter League. Robinson's club won a pennant in 1968.

He was ready by the time the Indians named him player-manager. Robinson broke managerial color barriers in the American League with the Indians, and in the National League with the Giants in 1981. Robinson also pioneered advances for African-Americans off the field. The numbers of African-American players have declined in recent years, but the attention Robinson brought to the front-office issue starting in the 1970s has opened doors for all minorities off the field in what may be his greatest contribution to the sport.

He remains a living example of a man who refuses to stop working. At the request of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, Robinson became the manager of the league-owned Montreal Expos in 2002 and stayed with the club, which became the Washington Nationals in 2005, through last season. Robinson, now 71, has returned to the MLB offices.

When he was hired to manage the Indians, Robinson didn't forget what it took to get him there. As the famed broadcaster Bob Costas once recalled, Robinson said, "I only wish Jackie could be sitting here beside me."

But it's OK. Pioneers like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Frank Robinson walked a brave path first, and will always walk with those who succeed them.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.