“When Jackie Robinson stepped on the field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, for us Black folk, it was our Neil Armstrong landing on the moon,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Now, 75 years after Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, the Los Angeles Dodgers left their spikes at the ballpark to walk in his footsteps.
A group of Dodgers players and coaches toured the museum, which Kendrick called a civil rights and justice institution seen through the lens of baseball. Robinson would use his fame and prestige to become a civil rights activist.
“It’s emotional. It’s exciting,” said Dave Roberts, manager of the Dodgers.
Roberts thinks young major league players understand the monumental achievements of Negro Leaguers integrating under harsh circumstances. “It’s sinking in,” Roberts told CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield Saturday. “I think as we go forward, really that appreciation of our history and how that came to be is so important.”
Roberts is one of only two Black managers in Major League Baseball along with Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros. Roberts is also half Japanese.
During the tour, Dodgers pitcher David Price posed with a statue of Satchel Paige, the Negro League turned Major Leagues mega-star some players called the best and fastest pitcher ever, and shook the hand of the ever-effusive Kendrick.
Price said he used to write book reports for school on Satchel Paige. “Bob (Kendrick) always says he threw 105 (miles per hour) with pinpoint accuracy. And he was a showman.”
Reflecting on the visit, Price added he appreciated the chance to be there. “It was awesome to see some of the uniforms, hear some of the stories,” Price stressed. “It makes you extremely grateful to see all they went through, so we can live out our dream of playing major league baseball.”
Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson echoed his teammate’s comments.
“As an African American baseball player, a major-leaguer, you just feel a sense of pride and a sense of gratitude for what these guys have gone through and sacrificed,” Thompson said.
Both Price and Thompson thanked the Negro Leaguers for putting them in the position they are in now.
“It needs to be publicized more, in my opinion,” Thompson urged. “There’s a lot more progress to go, but it’s something to be celebrated.”
When Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts practiced for his sixth straight All-Star Game, a huge media platform, he wore a shirt which spoke to his growing role as a voice for inclusivity. The shirt read, “We need more Black people at the Stadium.”
Betts has also narrated a video, quoting directly from Robinson. “If you are going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what’s going on, in my opinion you are wasting your life,” Betts read.
Breaking the color barrier
“It’s special, tremendous,” Kendrick agreed. “The Dodgers’ visit has taken on deeper meaning with the landmark anniversary of (Jackie) Robinson breaking the color barrier, and with some of the ills we are seeing crop up in society again.”
After Robinson’s debut, into the 1950s, the Dodgers added Negro Leaguers Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, “Sweet” Lou Johnson, “Junior” Gilliam, Dan Bankhead and Joe Black. Kendrick pointed out that those signings happened before half of the major league teams had even a single African American player.
The Robinson-era Dodgers stood on a pedestal in the Black community for their inclusivity. For racist haters, the team stood for something else.
“They were absolutely called the ‘N team’ with vileness directed at the Dodgers because of all their Black players,” Kendrick said.
But Kendrick added the ex-Negro Leaguers could take the taunts for many reasons, including because many had been disciplined by World War II armed forces service, 40% had attended college, and barnstorming showcase tours toughened them up.
“White fans would fill the ballparks to see the Black stars,” Kendrick said. “But later, the Black players could not go out into the neighborhoods those White fans came from and eat in a restaurant or find a hotel that would let them stay the night. They ate peanut butter and crackers on the bus and slept on the bus.”
Kendrick credits Black soldiers for propelling the movement to integrate.
“How could they risk dying fighting for this country against racism overseas, and then accept racism here at home?” Kendrick said. “The growing sentiment was those (Black) players should be allowed to play in this country.”
The current Dodgers would not have heard such history lessons at the Negro League Museum during this year’s landmark anniversary, but Covid protocols shortened the 2020 season, delaying an interleague series with the Kansas City Royals. This week’s visit was the first for the team to the City of Fountains since 2014.
For Saturday night’s game, both teams are honoring Robinson by wearing uniforms from two of his former teams. The Dodgers are wearing 1955 Brooklyn uniforms, and the Royals are wearing the 1945 uniforms of the Kansas City Monarchs.
At the Royals stadium Saturday, there was more celebration of Negro League excellence, with “Buck” O’Neill taking the spotlight. They brought the former Monarch’s player and manager’s MLB plaque from Cooperstown to Kansas City for public display.
Reflecting on the many Black players who took the field after the color barrier was broken, Kendrick mentioned the second Black player to join a major league team was Larry Doby, signed by Cleveland a couple of months after Robinson’s debut.
“He barely gets mentioned,” Kendrick said. “He’s our Buzz Aldrin who walked on the moon right after Armstrong and nobody talks about him.”