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One who was there recalls Branch Rickey's fight for civil rights

This column is written on Lincoln's birthday. Last Jan. 20 I went to the post office and found the doors were shut, which was a pertinent reminder that it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday observance. King led the way to the opening of doors that had always been slammed tight in this country against blacks. His massive march on Washington in 1963 was the final blockbuster in his fight for freedom for black people. I still respond to his eloquence when he cried, ``I have a dream.''

Years before King led the fight in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 to desegregate busses, however, two men had joined the battle for equal rights for blacks. They didn't know each other and wouldn't until late in 1945. As Kipling wrote, ``Lest we forget -- lest we forget.'' As Al Smith said, ``Let's look at the record.''

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In March of 1945, Branch Rickey, headman of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and I had a late luncheon at Joe's Restaurant, in Boro Hall, around the corner from the offices of the Dodgers. I was the principal announcer for the ball club. Here in essence is what Rickey said after binding me to secrecy, except for telling my wife.

``In 1904 I was the coach of the Ohio Wesleyan baseball team, and we went to South Bend, Ind., for a series with Notre Dame. My best player was the catcher, Charley Thomas. He was black. The clerk at the old Oliver Hotel refused to register Charley and yelled so everyone in the lobby could hear, `We don't register Negroes in this hotel.' I said, `But we are guests of Notre Dame, and this is my catcher.' The clerk yelled even louder, `I don't care who you are or who he is . . . we don't register Negroes in this hotel.' I asked would it be all right if he slept in my room as long as he didn't register. The clerk reluctantly agreed. I gave the room key to Charley and told him to wait here until I could settle the squad.

``When I got to the room, this fine young man was sitting on a chair, tearing at his hands, and sobbing as though his heart would break. `It's my skin, Mr. Rickey, it's my skin . . . if I could just pull it off I'd be like everybody else . . . it's my skin, Mr. Rickey . . . it's my skin.' ''

``All these years,'' Rickey went on, ``all these years I've heard that boy's cry. Now I'm going to do something about it. My family says I'm too old, that every hand in baseball will be against me, that the press will cut me to pieces. But I'm going to do it. The board of directors agrees with me. You are the next person to know.

``I'm going to put a Negro on the white Dodgers. I've put a team in the Negro Leagues . . . I've got my three top scouts searching for Negro talent . . . They think they are searching for the Brown Dodgers. But also they are searching for a Negro for the white Dodgers and they don't know it. Their reports will come to me. I'll make the choice. He has to be the right one. There cannot be a failure.''

Martin Luther King Jr. was 16 when later that summer of 1945 Rickey sent for Jackie Robinson for a personal interview. Rickey had never seen Robinson, but his scouts had said he was the best black player. Rickey now had to decide whether Robinson was the right man spiritually, morally, whether his friends were sound people. Rickey knew Robinson was hot tempered, never took anything from anyone, and was physically capable of dealing with any man. Rickey knew too that the year before, Lieutenant Robinson refused to move to the back of a bus in Fort Hood, Texas. The white US Army brass trumped up a court-martial over his ``uppity'' refusal. All charges were dismissed. The adjutant general gave him his honorary discharge. Jackie then began playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. I often heard Rickey say that Robinson was the most competitive player he'd known since Ty Cobb.

For three hours Rickey tested, evaluated, and finally came to the conclusion that Robinson was the man if he could control his temper. Rickey didn't use profanity, but this morning he told Robinson every foul, profane curse ever spoken. ``For,'' said Rickey, ``this is what you'll hear.'' He took Robinson into the South, into Jim Crow, into segregation.

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Finally, Rickey said, ``Can you do it? You'll have to promise me that for three years . . . three years . . . you won't answer back. You'll have to turn the other cheek. There is no other way it can be done. Three years. Three years. Now -- can you do it?''

Robinson said, ``Mr. Rickey, I've got to do it.''

White professional baseball was integrated at the minor-league level the next year at Montreal. Robinson nearly tore the international league apart. The next spring, 1947, Robinson was put on the white Dodgers and helped the team win a pennant. He was Rookie of the Year. He was sorely tormented, but he kept his three-year promise. He did it.

One white man went against all of his profession, then had the ability to select the one black man who would and who could do it. Later that summer, Bill Veeck broke the American League's unwritten shut-door policy with Larry Doby. The tide was turned. And today, nearly 40 years later, black athletes share the spotlight with their white colleagues throughout the sports spectrum. ``Lest we forget -- lest we forget.''

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