Dodgers at forefront of Black History Month

Dodgers at forefront of Black History Month

LOS ANGELES -- As Major League Baseball recognizes Black History Month, the Dodgers remain as much a shining example of the impact of African-Americans today as they were when Jackie Robinson first wore Dodger Blue in Branch Rickey's historic "Noble Experiment."

The Dodgers have an African-American co-owner in Magic Johnson. They have one of only two current African-American managers in Dave Roberts. Don Newcombe, at age 90, and a special advisor to chairman Mark Walter, left the Negro Leagues in 1946 to sign with Rickey's Dodgers and join Robinson and Roy Campanella as the first African-Americans in the Minor Leagues.

"I am here thanks to the sacrifices made by Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and others of their era that overcame similar hardships and turned challenges into opportunities, creating a Dodger legacy that endures today," Johnson said when he and Guggenheim Baseball Partners purchased the Dodgers in 2012. "Our debt to Jackie for his impact on society, and athletes like me, can never be repaid."

Roberts on history with Baker

Robinson arrived in Brooklyn in 1947, Campanella in '48 and Newcombe in '49. Along with Cleveland's Larry Doby, who broke the color barrier in the American League, they endured death threats, isolation and insults at a time when restaurants, hotels and restrooms remained segregated in many parts of the nation.

In 1968, Newcombe hosted civil rights trailblazer Martin Luther King Jr., for dinner at his Los Angeles home while King was concluding a tour of speeches, protest marches and peaceful demonstrations. Less than a month later, King was assassinated.

According to Newcombe, King said: "Don, you'll never know how easy you and Jackie, and Larry and Campy, made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field."

"After everything he'd been through, here he was telling me how we'd helped him with the movement," Newcombe said. "I'll never forget that."

Obama's connection to Jackie

The Dodgers broke the color barrier in baseball, but the impact was far greater than just sports. At a 2010 event, President Barack Obama recognized the presence of Newcombe as "someone who helped ... America become what it is. I would not be here if it were not for Jackie and if it were not for Don Newcombe."

When Roberts was named manager, he fielded almost as many questions about his race as he did about his readiness for the job.

"My father educated me about Jackie and his story," said Roberts, whose father is African-American and whose mother is Japanese-American. "I went to UCLA and so I played at Jackie Robinson Field. Just seeing that really resonated with me and what an impact Jackie made on society and what a leader he was.

"Jackie and Newk were trailblazers, and they really took a leap of faith and had to endure a lot of grief and pain and suffering. And I think for me, it's a responsibility to kind of continue that legacy that these men and women paved for us."

The Dodgers are expected to unveil a statue of Robinson at Dodger Stadium later this year.

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers since 1989, and for since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.