Vahe Gregorian

Before changing history, Jackie Robinson’s path was paved by time with KC Monarchs

NLBM president speaks on Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson was born 100 years ago on Jan. 31. Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick offered perspective on his life.
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Jackie Robinson was born 100 years ago on Jan. 31. Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick offered perspective on his life.

Jackie Robinson was born 100 years ago Thursday, Jan. 31, and this much everyone knows or should know and will forever bear repeating and ought to perpetually inspire awe:

Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial covenants in housing were unconstitutional in 1948, and before Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from Morehouse College and President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces that same year …

Before the Supreme Court in 1954 determined in Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., that “the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ ” has no place in public education …

Before Rosa Parks in 1955 refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala. …

There was Robinson, the focal point of the so-called “noble experiment” in 1947 to integrate baseball – then indisputably America’s pastime and in many ways its cultural touchstone.

His pioneering role in altering circumstances that seem unfathomable now, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick said Tuesday, makes him one of the most vital forces in American history.

It’s a point to which King, the civil rights leader of our time, seemed to allude in a 1962 essay he wrote for the New York Amsterdam News.

“Back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom,” King wrote then. “He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides.”

A stature Kendrick suggested resonated like the “first man on the moon” for many African-Americans also was fraught with danger for Robinson. He risked being lost in space as he faced an all-consuming challenge that hinged on not just how he played but how he behaved.

“For those who subscribe to the belief that one person can not invoke change, all you have to do is look at Jackie Robinson,” Kendrick said. “Because as dynamic a leader as King was, he was just that — a leader. And there were a legion of followers. So he wasn’t isolated and alone.

“But when Jackie walked out on that field, it was nobody but Jackie Robinson. And he has to perform. And if he didn’t perform, it was going to be indicative of an entire race of people. And as (Buck O’Neil) would say, (it would be), ‘I told you so; I told you they weren’t good enough to play in this league. I told you they couldn’t take it.’

“All of that. Shouldering 21 million black folks on his back when he walked across those (chalk) lines.”

So this all merits fresh celebration and commemoration on this occasion. But it’s also a moment to reflect on something less universally understood about the trail blazed by Robinson: It first went through Kansas City in 1945, when he played for the fabled Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

Some might think that’s just incidental, but Kendrick can explain why it was a crucial part of what came to pass — and how his brief time here also came to encapsulate both the breakthrough and consequences of integration in baseball.

“That’s the side of the story that’s not often told,” he said. “We don’t get Jackie Robinson if not for the Negro Leagues and the Kansas City Monarchs. And that story really has never been expounded on.”

The story essentially begins in 1944, after Robinson had received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army after being court-martialed and found not guilty for refusing to move to the back of a military bus in Fort Hood, Texas — a fascinating story in itself and the topic of an upcoming symposium at the NLBM tentatively scheduled for April 1.

Branch Rickey, who would later boldly impact history by signing Robinson, of course knew about this episode and Robinson’s inclination to stand his ground. Contrary to popular belief, though, Rickey didn’t want to sign someone docile for this role but someone who could temper his passion when the abuse came.

“It was so out of character for him to take the kind of abuse that he was taking while playing for Brooklyn. But he did it for the greater good,” Kendrick said. “Sometimes you have to be stronger not to fight back.”

But in between Robinson’s discharge and being signed by Rickey in 1945, the connective tissue was Robinson’s time with the Monarchs — his first professional sports team and what led to him being chosen by Rickey.

For plenty of reasons, this might all have gone quite differently.

With a roster decimated by players serving in World War II, including O’Neil, Willard Brown, Ted Strong and Hank Thompson, Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson was looking for more players than he otherwise might have.

Perhaps that’s why he accepted a recommendation of star pitcher Hilton Smith, who had seen Robinson play at Fort Hood, and sent him a contract sight unseen. Or maybe it was because he received the letter Robinson wrote when he heard the Monarchs were looking for player, as Robinson put it in his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made.”

Either way, Kendrick figures Robinson wouldn’t have been invited if the Monarchs had their full contingent. And whatever the case, he added, “Little did (Wilkinson) know he was signing a man who was going to put him out of business.”

At a salary of $400 a month, Robinson made his Kansas City debut on May 6, 1945, going one for four with an RBI double in a 6-2 victory over the Chicago American giants. Primarily at shortstop, he played 41 games for the Monarchs and hit .345 with 10 doubles, four triples and five home runs and played in the East-West All-Star Game.

Staying at the Street Hotel at 18th and The Paseo, in the historic jazz district near where the NLBM now stands, it’s believed that this is where Robinson gained some of his love for jazz — an aspect of his life that the NLBM will honor again in mid-April with its “Jazz & Jackie” program.

While here, Robinson also was known to enjoy the ribs at Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q, later purchased by George Gates and to become the forerunner to the renowned Gates Bar-B-Q chain.

But Robinson, who grew up in California and had been a multi-sport star at UCLA, was troubled by much that he experienced in that time.

“He wasn’t fond of playing in the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said.

Not the least of that sentiment was the pervasive Jim Crow laws that isolated the black community in the 18th and Vine District — vibrant as it might have been.

“Everybody stayed within the confines of those 13 blocks,” Kendrick said.

Until they’d board a bus out of town, which made for further frustration for a man who had grown up and gone to college spared of the sorts of things he was encountering on the road.

By way of example, Kendrick recalled a story related by O’Neil about a filling station in Muskogee, Okla., where the team either had played an exhibition or was passing through.

Stepping off the bus, the players were greeted pleasantly enough by an attendant, who began filling two 50-gallon tanks. But when Robinson started walking toward a restroom marked “white men only,” the attendant called out, “Boy, where you going?”

When Robinson replied he was going to the bathroom, the attendant responded, “Boy, you know you can’t go to that bathroom.”

To which Robinson turned and said, “Take the hose out of the tank.”

Upon further review, perhaps realizing a major sale was at stake, the attendant said, “OK, you boys go to the restroom, but don’t stay long.”

Moreover, in his book, “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” Jules Tygel writes that as a “nondrinker and nonsmoker” Robinson never “quite fit into the boisterous” lifestyle. In Robinson’s autobiography, he wrote of the never-ending bus trips and constant inability to get decent accommodations or food on the road.

“You were lucky if they magnanimously permitted you to carry out some greasy hamburger with a container of coffee,” he wrote. “In those days a white ballplayer could look forward to some streak of luck or some reward for hard work to carry him into prominence or even stardom. What had the black player to hope for? What was his future?”

Then in August 1945 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Robinson was approached by Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth. He was there on behalf of Rickey, who had been studying the possibility of integrating baseball and considering who just the right person might be. There were others it could have been, of course, another story in itself. But the Robinson-Rickey meeting on Aug. 28, 1945, made that point moot.

“I tell people all the time, I don’t know whether or not you believe in divine intervention, but there was something extremely divine that happened in that room that day that literally changed the course of American history. Because both of these very strong-willed individuals had to come to one accord,” Kendrick said. “Rickey had to trust that Jackie wouldn’t fight back. He’s a natural born fighter. Rickey understood if he fights back, it’s over, it’s a wrap.

“And Jackie had to put his faith in a white man that he just laid eyes on. That he’s not going to leave him hung out to dry.”

After a season in Montreal with a Dodgers affiliate, Robinson took the field for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. And changed everything.

Even if it was the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues, anticipated by Wilkinson, a white man who knew he couldn’t block Robinson from his dream but understood that it was time to sell his interest in the Monarchs.

Even if it took 12 years for the Boston Red Sox to become the last team to integrate — soon to be featured in a permanent exhibit at the NLBM on barrier breakers across baseball.

Even if, by Kendrick’s reckoning, Robinson would be “distraught” by the state of race relations today 47 years after his death at 53 following a heart attack.

“Race is still one of those kind of flammable things in our society,” Kendrick said. “And what we’ve seen in recent times is a level or hatred kind of rearing its head once again that is so alarming. …

“I think he would see some of the things that we’re seeing happen in our society, some of the inequities that are still so prevalent and I think he would be saddened by that. His heart and soul was about creating equity, giving people opportunities and not having the color of their skin dictate what they could and couldn’t do.

“Along those regards, we still have work to do.”

Just the same, to channel Gandhi, Robinson made himself “the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Monumental and lasting, at that, even a century after he arrived.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.