For the 58th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to Raymond McCaffrey about the activism of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson after he retired from the game that he integrated, including his newspaper columns in support of Muhammad Ali’s right to refuse military service and a boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics.
McCaffrey is director for the Center of Ethics in Journalism and assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of “From Baseball Icon to Crusading Columnist” in the forthcoming September issue of Journalism History.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Raymond McCaffrey (00:05):
I bet even Dr. King, when he was on the stage with Jackie Robinson, knew he was with Jackie Robinson, you know? There is no more famous historical figure, or a few more in the twentieth century, than Jackie Robinson.
Nick Hirshon (00:28):
Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman (00:34):
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon (00:39):
And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward (00:44):
And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon (00:49):
And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
Jackie Robinson was one of the most important figures in the history of American sports. When he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, ushering in the desegregation of the national pastime. Refusing to wilt in the face of unending racial taunts, Robinson assembled a Hall of Fame career that included winning the first-ever Rookie of the Year award, reigning as the National League’s Most Valuable Player and making the all-star team for six consecutive seasons.
But despite all he did for his race on the diamond, Robinson is often remembered today as conciliatory and restrained in his approach to race relations, and fans know little of his activism or his life in general after he retired in 1956. In fact, Robinson wrote a newspaper column in the 1960s that revealed his almost militant stance, including his backing of a boycott of the Olympics and his support of Muhammad Ali’s right to refuse military service because of his religion. On this episode of the Journalism History podcast, we examine Robinson’s writing with Ray McCaffrey, a journalism professor at the University of Arkansas. Ray, welcome to the Journalism History podcast.
Raymond McCaffrey (02:34):
Well, good to be here, Nick.
Nick Hirshon (02:37):
As a baseball fan, I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation with you today about the writing of Jackie Robinson. Our listeners may know that I’m a sports fan, a sports scholar, and I live in New York City, where Robinson staked his claim to fame playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 to 1956. And even now, almost half a century after Robinson died in 1972, I still see his name all the time as I drive around the city. I actually live, and I’m recording right now, right along the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which runs through two of the boroughs of New York City, Brooklyn and Queens. And I’m a big fan of the New York Mets, and every time I go to their stadium, Citi Field, I pass through the Jackie Robinson rotunda, which includes a nine foot sculpture of his number 42, which is now retired by all the teams in Major League Baseball. So he’s still firmly rooted in the American consciousness, at least in New York. But of course he is best known and maybe almost exclusively known for what he did on the field. You did a lot of research on what he did after he retired. So what drew you to research his career after baseball?
Raymond McCaffrey (03:39):
Well, like most things I stumbled into it. I’m probably like a lot of people who listen to this podcast and probably like you in that I do a lot of juggling. So one of my juggling projects that’s been going on for years has had to do with New York in the 1960s, but kind of through the lens of sports and media because it really is such a key period. If you just look at the media, you have the kind of consolidation of newspapers, in fact, to a point where it’s almost shocking when you think that the consolidation of daily newspapers in New York in the late ‘60s basically is the same menu we have today. And then we had the introduction of, you know, the current model of TV, which is, you know, local TV, Eyewitness News and whatnot, which is you know, more straight reporting, a more diverse news team.
And so I was looking at a lot of things that were happening in New York at that time. And as you probably have run into, when you go through a lot of databases, things just pop up. And so I’m going through really looking at stuff involving, you know, the Knicks and the Jets and, and the Mets and all this sort of stuff. And something pops up on Jackie Robinson. There was a Jackie Robinson column. And I was just like, Wow. You know, in doing that work, I’ve, I’ve come across a lot of people I didn’t know who were really interesting, but everybody knows Jackie Robinson. I’m like, was he really writing a column? And so I just, I actually stored it away for a couple of years. And then, you know, it just kind of popped out again. I said, it’d be interesting to kind of look at what that was all about.
And what I found was, you know – this is not just Robinson – but the African American press you know, it’s a rich source for researchers. So this wasn’t something that I was diving into as an expert. I dove into it as somebody who knows a little bit about something at a particular time and trying to place Robinson in this period, because I think my thought, my memory of the ‘60s, particularly the late ‘60s, is what a lot of people think of, which is that’s long past Jackie Robinson’s time. You know, I can remember photographs of him in the ‘60s and, you know, I mentioned it at the beginning of the piece, but he looks so old, you know? His hair was white and he was ill. He’d been suffering from diabetes. But at the time, you know, especially when I was a kid, you know, you’re not thinking of that. You know, he’s just, he’s an old guy and what the column revealed was he had this incredible second act that became more and more interesting as I proceeded with the research.
Nick Hirshon (07:18):
One of the things that really struck me about your research was baseball fans may be surprised to learn that even during his baseball career, Robinson was contributing columns to black newspapers. For example, a month before he played his first Major League game in 1947, the Baltimore Afro-American ran a three-part autobiographical series by Robinson as told to a journalist. He also had a regular column in the Pittsburgh Courier that was ghostwritten by a sports reporter. And in 1953, Robinson became the editor of what was billed as “the great new Negro sports magazine,” called Our Sports. So what do you make of Robinson’s forays into journalism even during his playing days?
Raymond McCaffrey (07:55):
Yeah, it’s unique in a lot of different ways. You saw a little bit of this, Nick, you know, kind of going into to the late ‘60s, if by coincidence that I have been kind of looking at some, some more sports stuff. And I saw, for example, like the New York Daily News ran excerpts of Tom Seaver’s book, you know, it was one of those tell-alls to Dick Schaap, and it seemed to go on for a year, you know, just every day there was a column by Tom Seaver. But with Robinson and the African American press and again, people have written about this and looked into it, but I didn’t know much, which is that it was, it was a team effort in a way that I think you can reconcile in terms of journalism ethics. I mean, it’s kinda what my other thing that I do and the sports writers but although all others in the African American community behaved as if this were a team effort.
Nick Hirshon (09:10):
Well, you mentioned in your article in Journalism History that Robinson became famous for advancing civil rights through restraint. That’s what I think makes these columns even more interesting. The president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, had reportedly told Jackie Robinson to turn the other cheek in the face of the backlash that he would receive from fans and players alike. But during the 1960s, there was this more radical generation of African American athletes that emerged. And they portrayed Robinson as an Uncle Tom who fit in by appearing less threatening to whites. And Robinson had kind of surprisingly supported the Republican Richard Nixon in his failed 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy. And he had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that was investigating the singer Paul Robeson. And those events fueled that narrative that he was an Uncle Tom. But you discovered something much different in your research about this second act of his life as you’ve called it, when he became more outspoken and even militant at times. So who was he writing for during this second act after his career ended? And what sort of things was he writing about? We’re going to get into some of the particulars. I know about Muhammad Ali and about the Summer Olympics a little bit later on, but in general, what kinds of things was he writing about and who was he doing this for?
Raymond McCaffrey (10:24):
I think that with Robinson, I found myself having to be very careful or even more careful than usual with words. Because, you know, I think one of the criticisms of history sometimes is that, you know, we do the forward push, you know and people are evolving and this and that and the other thing, you know? And I just came, even though there may be an evolve somewhere in there, I really felt that Robinson really wasn’t changing that much. Things were changing around him, and the columns were reflective of all that was going on. I think partly it certainly, you know, was directed towards the African American audience, but at the same time he’s writing the column – and some of the columns, by the way did receive coverage by the mainstream press – he was doing so many other things.
I mean, he wasn’t working, he wasn’t working in isolation. He was going to civil rights marches in the South. He was appearing with Dr. King. You know, one of the, I wouldn’t say it was funny, but it was one of those things where every once in a while you had to, you had to stop because he wrote a very humble column, you know, not that it was false, I mean, in the sense that he was Jackie Robinson. He wrote about himself. But oftentimes you could read it and not realize, I bet even Dr. King when he was on the stage with Jackie Robinson, knew he was with Jackie Robinson, you know? He, there is no more famous historical figure or few more in the, in the twentieth century than Jackie Robinson, but with the columns I, again, he had, did he, I guess you could call him conservative in the sense that he had these basic values of decency, loyalty, honesty, fairness. And his missteps,
if you consider them missteps, can be explained by this. Certainly the testimony involving Robeson which he did regret later on, or at least said he regretted later on. You know, he had said that he had been asked to do that by Branch Rickey and that he specifically was testifying to a statement that Robeson had made that he didn’t think African Americans would support a war against Russia. Now, you know, if you were looking at it through the prism of today and you were saying, it really doesn’t matter what your reasons are, you’re going to be viewed as, you know, testifying against him. You know, he may have reconsidered and I think that’s the way he looked at it later on. But if you read what he said, and particularly – in particular, a couple of days later, Robeson, there had been some writing related to a performance by Robeson and Robinson, you know, really criticized the reaction.
You know? Similarly with Nixon, we, we look at it with hindsight, but, you know, at the time, you know, Richard Nixon was Eisenhower’s VP. He campaigned in favor of civil rights. Robinson was suspicious of Jack Kennedy, as many people were. They didn’t, you know, let’s be honest, Kennedy, as many know, you know, really had not done much as a senator. So people didn’t have much of a track record. Boy, Lyndon Johnson was more critical of Jack Kennedy than Jackie Robinson, but with time based on the record, he came to support Kennedy and he, with time, became a fervent opponent of Nixon. And based on what Nixon’s actions were. In particular, Nixon, you know, seemed to be very supportive of, you know, what some people call this Southern strategy where the Republicans certainly in the Goldwater campaign for president in ’64 basically decided that, you know, they were gonna reap the benefits of being on the other side of the civil rights law, you know, which is, some would say, is where we are today.
And so Robinson changed on the issues and, and we can talk some more about how he changed on the issues with sports. What I will say, though, is it would have been far easier for him. I mean, I don’t think he would have been capable of doing it, but boy, it would seem to be far easier if he didn’t say anything at all, you know, ’cause he was in the middle of, you know, he was in the middle of everything. He couldn’t be, you know, radical enough for people on the right and he couldn’t be conservative enough for people, you know, who were opposed to him. So you had the younger athletes, you know, who were organized by Harry Edwards for the most part, who were, you know, on the left advocating pretty strong positions, which he actually had pioneered himself, but he just didn’t have the rhetoric that they had. And then at the same time, you know, you have another part of the country that is as polarized on the war and on the right. And he wasn’t there either because he was respectful of people like Ali to a certain extent.
Nick Hirshon (16:51):
And we’ll certainly get into how Jackie Robinson felt about figures like Muhammad Ali and some of the athletes involved in the 1968 Olympics boycott. But first you’ve mentioned how he shared his opinions on the civil rights leaders of the era in his columns. You discussed how he attended the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. How did Jackie Robinson feel about Martin Luther King Jr.? And I know he also had some different feelings here about Malcolm X.
Raymond McCaffrey (17:21):
You know, he idolized Dr. King. And I think on a very basic level, he was in complete agreement with King’s approach to fighting for civil rights. Robinson, all along from the beginning of the column, felt that the way to achieve civil rights was through, he used to call it, the power of the buck and the ballot, you know, voting, but also economic action, boycotts, what have you. Because you know, the lesson, certainly the lesson with the, the bus boycotts in the South and whatnot is that those were, that was the most effective way. The buying power of the African American population was really powerful. So he agreed with Dr. King on, on that front. He also, even though, you know, this seems like a kind of jarring, binary course, but the main difference he saw between Dr.
King and Malcolm X was he saw Malcolm X, his movement and the Nation of Islam as a kind of separatist movement, in other words, to kind of, for African Americans to live separately, you know, more or less than mainstream society. He didn’t believe in that. And I think he felt as if what he had done in baseball was, was a comment other than that. And he backed Dr. King. The only time he was really challenged, and I mentioned it in there with Dr. King, is when Dr. King finally came out against the Vietnam War. And the war was a, was a really thorny issue for Robinson. Again, I think it was just based on his kind of loyalty. You know, his son had been in the war. And, and during, you know, some of this period when he’s writing, his son is in Vietnam.
So he remained a supporter of the Vietnam War even when Dr. King officially came out against it, which was in ’67, I believe. He gave, Dr. King gave this famous speech in New York where he basically, you know, he melded together the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement, which were in some ways, you know, operating in isolation, and basically said that the, you know what – it’s an amazing speech to read Dr. King’s speech because he, and he got a lot of criticism for it. The Times criticized him. the NAACP denounced Dr. King. But he essentially voiced the opinion that is almost like the conventional wisdom today, which is in addition to many other things, the Vietnam War was a racist war in that a disproportionate number of poor African American soldiers were involved in it.
And so, but, but Jackie Robinson came out and, and, and said, you know, “I’m still, I’ll always be his supporter, even though I disagree with him about this one subject.” Now I will say with Malcolm X, it’s, I feel, I feel like with his relationship with Malcolm X, a lot of it must have happened off camera because what you see in the columns, there’s a real jump. He, some of the early, I mean, he was in, you know, what would be considered now, like a tweet war with Malcolm X, where he criticized, well, he criticized Malcolm X for a number of things. And I, one in particular, he did not attend the – Malcolm X did not attend the funeral of a civil rights leader who was killed in the South. Jackie Robinson criticized him and then Malcolm X, you know, essentially called him a Tom at a rally.
And it devolved from there. But there is, after Malcolm X’s assassination, a couple of years later, he referred to him in a column in passing as kind of a guiding influence. You know, Jackie Robinson was trying to understand, you know, how things are changing. And he would refer to Malcolm X telling, telling him that, you know, a day will come when, you know, you know, your, our children are not going to accept the things that we did. So, and I think he even called him his friend. So I think, you know, it’s so easy when we, when, you know, a lot of times, particularly, you know, we’ve been in the journalism business where you don’t have much room and these things become so binary that Robinson supported King, didn’t support Malcolm X. I think it’s probably a little more complicated than that, but I do believe with both of them, it was, it was very much based on you know, his feelings of fairness and whatnot.
Last thing I’ll say, as long as you brought up the Vietnam War, he changed his stance ultimately on the Vietnam War and was aligned with Dr. King. We really didn’t know this until after his death, with the, with the publication of his posthumous autobiography, which is really something to read, what he said in there. And indeed I put in the beginning of the piece that some of what Robinson said, particularly about standing up for the national anthem, was accurately tweeted by Colin Kaepernick recently on one of the annual Jackie Robinson Day anniversaries. So whether we call that an evolution or not, I think he, his, his opinions among things changed, but the kind of governing mechanism that led him to change intellectually and morally and spiritually never really changed.
Nick Hirshon (24:40):
Well, and as you talk there about the kind of relationship or reflection between Colin Kaepernick, looking back on what Jackie Robinson had said about the boxer, Cassius Clay, who announced in 1964, that he would be using his adopted Muslim name, Muhammad Ali, and you found that Robinson actually supported Ali’s right to pursue religious freedom from the start. At one point, Robinson wrote, “During my own career in sports, I came to learn that there are many writers who like tame Negroes who stay in their place. Of course, by backing up his words with deeds, Clay or Ali has clearly demonstrated where his place is right up there at the top.” So how do you feel Robinson wrote about Ali?
Raymond McCaffrey (25:27):
Well, I think the way he wrote about Ali, again, was very consistent with the way he wrote about a lot of other issues. Now, one thing that is rather, I would say, even moving about Robinson, is he was always – I’m sure he was this way in life – but in his columns, he’s almost paternalistic with the younger African American athletes. Not in a patronizing way. And you know, it’s obvious when you think about it, he understood what they were up against. And when I, when I mean what they were up against is this, this rare and brief opportunity to succeed in sports, but also to succeed, set yourself up for the rest of your life. And so he was patient. And so some of what he said about Ali was almost instructive. So let’s think about the things that Ali stood for, certainly in the beginning. Well, he was against the war and Robinson was a supporter of the war.
He was aligning himself with the Nation of Islam and Robinson obviously thought that was not the way to go. Also you know, the, on the loyalty front, he, oddly enough, he thought that Ali’s act, or his shtick, “I am the greatest,” was really something that African Americans ought to pay attention to, because nobody was saying it. And yet he in particular Ali, quite famous at the time, but he fought Floyd Patterson, who had been one of – not only Floyd Patterson had been one of Robinson’s great friends, but Floyd Patterson did a lot of work in the South appearing, you know, at civil rights rallies and whatnot. So I would say that it’s pretty clear that Robinson loved Floyd Patterson. And Ali, you know, part of his genius as a showman was to drum up the gates. We saw this most famously when he fought Joe Frazier.
But sometimes he would position the other fighter, you know, particularly if he was African American, as kind of, you know, the, the establishment. And so Patterson would not call Ali by his name, which really few people did back then. Called him Clay. And so he, he beat him up pretty badly in the ring, kind of taunted him. And so that, that angered Robinson. But if you look in, in the, in the columns, despite the fact that, you know, he was angered by it, he was supportive, one, that Ali had the choice to, to adopt whatever religion he wanted. He also – his criticism of Ali was really interesting in that he felt that when he behaved the way he did with Floyd Patterson, he was missing an opportunity to, to show people what it, what it could have been like to be, you know, a proper Muslim, he thought.
So he was reasoned. Now, though with time, Robinson just became so exasperated with what he saw as a grave injustice that was going on with Ali. And so it kinda, it almost, it hit all the things. He still looked at Ali as, you know, a younger athlete who was being taken advantage of in some ways by people and anybody who’s read any of the books about Ali, it seems like almost everybody did, you know, on both sides of various races. But he saw the legal principles as being, you know, violated. And towards the end, his columns were incredibly vocal about the injustice involving Ali. So I think it’s – his approach to Ali really shows you what Robinson was like, that he could disagree with Ali about so many different things and yet become his champion.
And, you know, when you’re, when you’re talking about Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, those are the, you know, they’re the two most, you know, most important athletes, certainly, you know, along with a couple of others, just in terms of the whole, the athleticism and also the civil rights fight of, you know, any in, in the last half of the twentieth century and certainly of all time. And I think that the fact that they’re from different eras, but really interacted in such a way, it’s just a kind of an amazing thing.
Nick Hirshon (31:16):
Robinson also supported a plan by African American athletes to boycott the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The athletes were protesting the International Olympic Committee for continuing to invite countries practicing tacit racism, such as South Africa with its segregationist apartheid policy. They wanted African Americans to be appointed to the United States Olympic Committee and the U.S. track team’s coaching staff. So how did Robinson express his feelings about the boycott in his columns?
Raymond McCaffrey (31:44):
Honestly, which is kind of a wonderful thing. His first column about the boycott, I actually believe that he was responding to a phone call he had received from Howard Cosell of all people asking for a comment. And Robinson, at first, wasn’t sure how he felt, which I think is pretty honest because, you know, you’re throwing a lot of different things at him at the same time. He, one, which, you know, I kind of knew this but had to be reminded of it in that, you know, his brother had been an Olympic champion. His brother Mack had been the, kind of the famous other guy in all those Jesse Owens films. He had finished second to Owens. And so, you know, he believed in the Olympics, but very quickly he turned and supported the boycott because essentially what the boycott was all about was a position he had taken at the very beginning of his column.
He believed that this is part of the buck and the ballot point of view. He – one of the events that he had really campaigned against for a number of years was this you, and you probably, I don’t know if it was still big when you started to follow New York sports, but the, the New York Athletic Club had an annual indoor meet in the Garden, usually like February. And it was kind of the, the opening of the, of the winter track and field season, which is kind of an interesting part of track and field ’cause you don’t run the same distances, but it’s, but it’s a big deal and all the great stars would show up at the Garden. And the New York Athletic Club had been accused of all sorts of kind of tacit racism with membership and anti-Semitism. And Jackie Robinson, along with an editor at the, at the New York Amsterdam News had openly campaigned for a boycott.
They were successful to a certain extent. They got the New York mayor, Wagner, to actually resign his membership, but the athletes didn’t join in. And, you know, so Robinson’s response was, you know, pure Robinson. He was disappointed. He felt that, you know, a medal was not as valuable as, you know, your standing as a man, to use the language that he used. And yet he was once again paternalistic, understanding that for these athletes, this was it. And he knew. And that’s the other thing that I appreciated is that, you know, who would know sports better than Jackie Robinson? And he really knew sports and not just like, you know, who was important in sports, but he understood that track and field was much different even from baseball or football or basketball. You know, you got – back in those days, you got one shot. You basically had one cycle.
If, you know, if you were a sprinter, you know, we, you don’t see what you have today because you were an amateur, you couldn’t make money. And so for these athletes, this was it. So to ask them to boycott was asking a lot, but he kept up with this. And so ironically, I guess it was about this time where he started to get a lot of flak from the movement that led to the call for the boycott. And, and so the leader of that movement, I mentioned briefly earlier, Harry Edwards, who became an academic, a sociology professor, and has written a lot and people have written a lot about him. And you know, he was, Harry Edwards was critical of the generation that Robinson came from, people like Jesse Owens and whatnot, for not being the kinds of activists that he wanted. But what he ended up doing was precisely what Robinson had advocated.
And, and it coalesced at that meeting in 1968 in a much more overt way than Robinson ever would’ve done. But Harry Edwards led this huge protest outside the Garden. And at some point, at least in the telling of the story, that they actually started to crash the gates and the police came in and, and very few athletes went to that meet simply ’cause they were scared. So the Olympic boycott was an outgrowth of that, and Robinson backed it. But, but once again, his logic, same logic he always used. He said that what really swayed him was comments by Tommy Smith. Now your listeners, some of them may know immediately who Tommy Smith is, but they’ll know better the picture of him because he, along with John Carlos, famously donned the black gloves when they won the Olympic medals in ’68 and raised their fists to the air. Smith had won the race.
But before that Smith said that he would be, he basically said everything that Robinson had been saying all along, which was I’d much rather sacrifice a medal than my standing as a man. And Robinson said to hear that from Tommy Smith, who was undeniably the best 200-meter runner in the world, to say that, Robinson was there. And his column came to an end in ’68, Robinson’s column. And, you know, they were never really explicit about what happened. Although he did mention in passing in the summer that he had suffered a heart attack. That may have had something do with it, but his column ended before the Olympics. But after that protest there were stories in the African American press and elsewhere, Robinson backing them, backing the two of them, and criticizing the Olympic Committee from tossing them from the village. But again, you know, when you look at his reasoning, it’s not like he made a radical change. You know, he had a kind of a fundamental approach to things that adapted and evaluated things. So, yeah, the irony is he, you know, was looked at as, you know, somebody who was not radical enough, but he was, he was there, you know, he was there when it was happening.
Nick Hirshon (39:27):
You describe at the end of the article and towards the end of Jackie Robinson’s life, he became disillusioned about baseball, particularly about the lack of a single African American manager. And in 1971, he said, “Baseball is still wallowing around in the nineteenth century, saying a black can’t manage, a black can’t go into the front office.” He also initially turned down the offer to throw out the first pitch at the 1972 World Series. Then he eventually accepted. But he said at the ceremony, “I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but I must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at the third-base coaching line one day and I see a black face managing in baseball.” He died just weeks after that. And what kind of strikes me reading your piece is that he appears to have ended his life bitter about the game that he integrated.
Raymond McCaffrey (40:22):
Yes. I think, when you look at his columns, the one area that probably understandably in which he kind of lagged behind his criticism of other sports was baseball. You know, he really believed that, you know, his experience and it wasn’t, you know, he didn’t draw attention to himself. He drew attention to the people who had supported him, you know, many, you know, certainly Branch Rickey, but some of the other players on the Brooklyn Dodgers. And he, he always believed that this was an example of how, you know, racism could be overcome by people working together, becoming friends. So he held onto this through the ‘60s. He was the editor of a book where various baseball players and managers came in and talked about civil rights in a positive way. And yet it seemed like almost cruelly, every, every time he, you know, he would move on, there’d be somebody who would say something terrible about, some, something racist.
And in particular, the area that really angered him was the continued racism when it came to viewing African American baseball players of worthy of being in management either as managers or front office people. And a lot of this was just set out and open. And of course, you know, the most famous interview, you probably know, Nick, was on Nightline with after his death where an executive with his team that was the LA Dodgers then, told Ted Koppel, you know, basically the way that everybody in baseball looked at African American players as potential managers and just said it, said it as if he didn’t know that what he was saying was racist. And so Robinson had heard enough of that and became more and more angered by it. And so he used it as leverage with Bowie Kuhn, who was the commissioner of baseball, who wanted him to appear at this ceremony.
And I would urge people who are still listening at this point and are interested to go to YouTube and take a look at that appearance by Robinson and, you know, and look at the second meter. I mean, he was like a heat-seeking missile. He got, he went from standing by his family to the microphone, which is placed in the middle of the field, said his piece, and he got to his complaints so quickly and then was gone. It is really so interesting to see. It encapsulates in just in those brief seconds, and it was seconds, where he was at. You know, I don’t know exactly where he was, where his state of mind was. I think he was probably, well, he must, certainly was disconsolate about a lot of things. So I, you know, I think we mentioned that his, his son died. His son had been to Vietnam and came back and had trouble with drugs, had – and it had generated a lot of press coverage, by the way.
And Robinson just, you know, you want to find out what kind of a person he was? Read the New York Times stories after his son got arrested. He just sat down and talked and blamed himself. I mean, he was so honest. But I think, you know, is anybody who, if you’ve been in the news business and interviewed people who have lost children in particular, they kind of don’t bounce back very well, if at all. And I think he, that saddened him. And yet he also, we, there’s a way to look at what he did in that last appearance as a sign that he wasn’t going to stop. He wasn’t going to stop at all. You know, again, he could’ve, you know, he could have done, like, what 99.9% of athletes and public figures do at those. You show up, maybe you throw out a ball and then you go, ‘Let’s look at the game.’ He was on a mission, and the mission really continued. So yeah, there’s a lot of sadness at the end, but you know, as, as, as I mentioned at the end of the piece and yet, we soon after had our first African American baseball manager.
Nick Hirshon (45:33):
And his legacy certainly endures today, as I mentioned before, myself growing up in New York City being born fifteen years or so after Jackie Robinson passed away, so long after he had retired as a player, and still learning so much about him when I became a baseball fan, going to those Mets games. His number retirement ceremony across baseball actually occurred as you mentioned in your article at the Mets stadium, Shea Stadium, in the ‘90s with Bill Clinton in attendance while he was president. You see that 42 everywhere you go now across baseball. Of course, the movie that you referenced in your article with Harrison Ford and Chadwick Boseman that came out about Jackie Robinson, called 42. So he is certainly still part of an American consciousness. And so grateful that you did all of this research to show us this other side of the man, not just the guy on the field and kind of the legend and the myth, but let’s take a real look at what he endured afterwards in some ways sad, certainly what he went through.
And like you said, he aged very quickly and he died far too soon. But that he still kept fighting and he still felt so committed to this cause, that even when he’s experiencing this grief about losing his son, when he had had a heart attack, when he’s suffering of diabetes and he’s near death, that he still decides to take this final stand.
Before you go, Ray, we always end this podcast by asking the same question I’d like to now pose to you. Since you’ve done all of this work in journalism history, not just about Jackie Robinson, but many other topics. And I know you’re prolific here with sports journalism and some aspects of political journalism. Why do you think journalism history matters?
Raymond McCaffrey (47:19):
I think that the importance of the media in society, you know, can’t be underestimated. And what I’m not saying, you know, if you’ve been, I know you’ve been a reporter, Nick, and I was a reporter for a lot of different years. And in the industry, anytime we talk about anything about journalism, usually it’s considered navel gazing, you know? So we kind of, so when we talk about the importance of communications and media, it sounds like we’re being self-congratulatory. I don’t mean that at all. I just mean that, you know, without kind of going off on a tangent, we just can’t underestimate how journalism in particular helps us with, you know, our construction of our own social reality, you know? I also, the last thing I’ll say about journalism history is it’s one of those areas where you can almost like do the proverbial, put your back to the dartboard and throw it over your shoulder and wherever it lands, you’ve probably got a pretty good story.
Nick Hirshon (48:36):
Certainly. I think that’s one of the things that I love about journalism history, as you were describing earlier, just going through old newspaper articles, right? And then seeing that, ‘Oh, here’s a, you know, here’s something that I never thought I would be interested in. Jackie Robinson had a column? Wow. I didn’t even know that that existed.’ And then you go down a whole other thread of research and it could just be one article, one blurb, one advertisement, whatever that turned you on to something that could then be the next five, ten years of your life researching this subject. Jackie Robinson is certainly such a fascinating one who has been covered a lot by historians, but I think that you found a kind of nontraditional way of looking at him and looking at the history of journalism. He obviously was not a journalist and it’s not really even in how he was covered, kind of looking at the kind of connection between how he was trying to appeal to different readers and reach them even after his star in a way had faded at least on the field, a way of keeping himself relevant and becoming a public figure for the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
Nick Hirshon (49:42):
So we certainly appreciate all the work that you’ve done here. Congratulations on putting together this fantastic piece. And thank you for joining us on the Journalism History podcast.
Raymond McCaffrey (49:52):
Well, thank you, Nick.
Nick Hirshon (49:54):
Thanks for tuning into this episode of the Journalism History podcast, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis. Until next time, I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”