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Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

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Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

The 13-year-old boy, who had lost his father four years earlier, was a student at Bensonhurst Junior High on that Tuesday in April when he and some school buddies decided to play hooky and catch the Brooklyn Dodgers’ 1947 season opener against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field.

“I cut school and so did my friends. Me and four friends took the subway, got there real early, ran up to the bleachers. If you got in early, you could get the front row,” says Larry King, the iconic TV and radio show host. “The front row of the bleachers was as good a seat as any for watching baseball.”

King, who is celebrating his 60th year in journalism, was part of a crowd of 25,623 – not a sellout (and 1,000 less attendees than baseball-reference.com’s listed attendance of 26,623) – at the old Brooklyn ballpark, where a Dodgers rookie named Jackie Robinson would forever change the baseball landscape that afternoon. Robinson, the Georgia-born, UCLA standout athlete who lettered in four sports, and who later starred in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, broke baseball’s decades-old color barrier 70 years ago, April 15, 1947. The history-turning event was recognized Saturday at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, with Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, and the couple’s two living children on hand. A statue of Robinson, who died in 1972, was unveiled at the venerable stadium next to Chavez Ravine.

Robinson’s No. 42 is already retired throughout Major League Baseball and in the minor leagues, and all players wear No. 42 throughout the majors on April 15 of the regular season in recognition of the Hall of Fame Dodger. Robinson’s impact on America’s pastime and society at large was indelible and still reverberates today – Rachel Robinson presides over the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which continues to promote the former Dodger’s legacy and values, and provides educational scholarships to young African-Americans.

But to understand Robinson’s Dodgers debut in the context of 1947, the Daily News spoke with five former Brooklynites who witnessed firsthand the era when one man changed a historically all-white sport and paved the way for integration.

* * *

King, 83, says that after his father died in 1943, he went to his first Brooklyn Dodgers game with his uncle that summer. The Dodgers had never won a World Series as a Brooklyn franchise up until that point, and the Dodger fan base would have to wait a few more years for the title drought to end. King says that before the ’47 season opened, he had followed Robinson’s minor-league career with the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate, after Robinson had signed with the Dodgers organization in late 1945.

“I had followed (Robinson) in Montreal,” says King, referring to Robinson playing for the Montreal Royals. “I read The Sporting News. He was MVP (of the International League) in 1946.”

But although King was well-versed in Robinson’s nascent Dodgers career, and although newspapers, including the Daily News, had tracked Robinson’s path to his history-making debut with Brooklyn, King says now that it was a “startling” sight to see Robinson take the field for batting practice and pre-game warm-ups prior to first pitch on April 15, 1947.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“I’ll never forget (Robinson) running onto the field. He was a very dark man. The Dodgers’ uniform was the whitest uniform in all of sports. None was whiter,” says King. “The juxtaposition of that uniform against that color, it was startling, and at the same time, you knew that you were part of history.”

Four days prior to the team’s home opener, the National League Dodgers played the cross-borough, American League rival Yankees in an exhibition game at Ebbets Field.

Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls who was born and grew up in Brooklyn, was an 11-year-old baseball fan in 1947 and bled Dodger blue. Reinsdorf says now that whenever he could scrape together $1.25 in those days, he used the dough to get a general admission seat at Ebbets Field to see his heroes play. On April 11, 1947, Reinsdorf was on hand to see the official first time Robinson donned his Dodgers No. 42 jersey.

“I was there before Larry King,” Reinsdorf jokes. “Larry King says he was at the April 15th game. But that was not the actual first game that Jackie Robinson played as a Dodger. (Brooklyn Dodgers general manager) Branch Rickey kept Robinson on the Montreal roster all spring, never indicating that he was going to bring him up or not bring him up. In those days, (the Dodgers) would end spring training with a home-and-home series against the Yankees. So, (Rickey) had to make his decision and he actually put Robinson on the Brooklyn roster for the exhibition game against the Yankees at Ebbets Field. That’s the game I was at.”

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

Reinsdorf, 81, says he was an avid Daily News reader as a kid, “when it was two cents,” and The News’ back page on Saturday, April 12, 1947 ran a black and white photograph of Robinson signing autographs for kids leaning over the home dugout roof at Ebbets Field. The headline of that News’ back page edition blares: “DODGERS WIN, GET 11 IN 5th,” and the photo caption under the image of Robinson signing autographs says Robinson “was wearing Brooklyn’s uniform for the first time yesterday.” The same back page also features a photo of Yankee Hall of Famer Babe Ruth in Florida, beaming while standing next to a “50-pound sailfish he hooked in the Gulf Stream.” A year later, in 1948, the Bambino would die from cancer.

While The News’ Saturday coverage of that Dodgers’ ’47 exhibition win over the Yankees included a separate box with a recap of Robinson’s performance, the main story, written by famed sportswriter Dick Young, has no mention of Robinson’s unofficial debut, nor even hints that Robinson will make history in his regular-season debut. “Maybe the Brooks weren’t playing such lousy teams in the pushover papaya circuit after all,” Young wrote in the lead of the April 12, 1947 story.

Reinsdorf says that he remembers no specific buzz or hype about Robinson that day when he scored tickets to the exhibition tilt, which also had many empty seats.

“Opening Day wasn’t even a sellout either. I always went to the preseason games because I couldn’t wait until the season started,” says Reinsdorf. “In ’47, I was only 11-years-old, and I wasn’t that into social stuff. I had what we called Negro friends at that time. I knew what my friends and I were thinking about — it was not that there was going to be a black player playing for the Dodgers, but was he going to be any good?”

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

Reinsdorf says he was crushed in 1946 when his beloved Dodgers blew a 7 ½- game lead to the Stan Musial-led Cardinals in the National League, before Brooklyn lost in a playoff to St. Louis, the eventual World Series winner. In 1947, Reinsdorf says he had renewed optimism for his Dodgers, and that he was particularly interested in the two Dodgers rookies – Robinson and third baseman Spider Jorgensen – and what they were going to bring.

“I remember focusing on, ‘Were these two guys going to help put us over the top?’ None of my friends and I even cared that (Robinson) was black or (Jorgensen) was white,” says Reinsdorf. “The first time I actually focused on it, was some time during that year. I asked a friend of mine named Lester Davis who his favorite player was. And Lester looked at me like I was nuts, because Lester was black. He said, ‘Jackie Robinson, of course.’ I remember that conversation so clearly, and it was 70 years ago. That’s when I realized, ‘Oh yeah, (Robinson) is the only black player.’

“When the (’47) season started, Spider Jorgensen looked like he was going to be better than Jackie. Jackie got off to a terrible start,” Reinsdorf continues. “Jackie was hitting in the mid-.200s going into May, I think. Then he caught on and we saw what Jackie was.

(Robinson was batting .227 after the May 1, 1947 game against the Cubs).

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“Brooklyn was a melting pot,” adds Reinsdorf. “There were people of all ethnic backgrounds that lived together. It was so long ago, but I don’t recollect that there was any particular excitement or buzz about (Robinson’s debut).”

When the Dodgers opened that season against the Braves – what would be a 5-3 Brooklyn victory – King says he “knew that we were part of history,” and that he remembers Robinson receiving applause from the home crowd.

“Brooklyn always supported Jackie,” says King. “He never got booed to my knowledge. Of course, he was a hell of a ballplayer.”

In The News’ coverage of that 4/15/47 game, however, Dick Young doesn’t mention Robinson until the fifth paragraph of his game story, and even then, it is to describe Robinson’s “deft” seventh-inning bunt, in which he reached base on an error. Even when Young writes about Robinson making his major league debut, it is in the last paragraph of the story and there is no mention of Robinson breaking the color barrier, nor any historical context. “In his debut, Jackie Robinson, the majors’ most-discussed rookie, fielded flawlessly at first base but went hitless in three official trips to the plate,” Young writes. Robinson played first base, and was 0-for-3 with a run scored in his Dodgers debut.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

The Dodgers chugged along in ’47, en route to a World Series appearance against – who else? – the damn Yankees. Brooklyn lost that Fall Classic in seven games. But during the ’47 season, Oscar-winning actor Lou Gossett Jr. and Mets owner Fred Wilpon say they attended games to cheer on their Dodgers, and witness Robinson’s feats up close. Gossett Jr., who is African-American, says he had to sit in a section of Ebbets Field reserved for blacks.

“I went to games that season. Everything Jackie did, I did as if I was catching the ball like him, as if I was running the bases like him,” says the Brooklyn-born Gossett Jr. “We’d cheer for him from the gut. There was a whole section of black people, cheering for him from the gut.”

Gossett Jr., who turns 81 May 27, adds that when he was a kid, he would go to games courtesy of the Knothole Gang, a charitable organization attached to teams that provided free passes to kids who wanted to go to baseball games.

But Gossett Jr., who won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his unforgettable role as a drill sergeant in “An Officer and a Gentleman,” says he also remembers his family crowded around “this beautiful Grundig radio,” listening to Dodgers games and the voice of Red Barber.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

The Fleer “Dubble Bubble” baseball cards that Gossett Jr. says he collected then are long gone now. “I wish I had them,” Gossett Jr. says with a laugh. “Probably worth a fortune now. Who would have known? But my experience with the Dodgers was indelible.”

Wilpon, 80, went to Lafayette High School with King and Hall of Fame Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax, and Wilpon says that although he was not at the Dodgers’ season opener, he did attend a Dodgers game during Robinson’s rookie season.

“I remember attending a game in (Robinson’s) first season in ’47. That was my first ever night game with my father,” says Wilpon, who was 10-years-old during the ‘47 season. “To this day, I remember walking into Ebbets Field through the rotunda, which was smaller than the current Jackie Robinson Rotunda, which needed to be a part of Citi Field. While going to my seats, it was just magical when I saw the field and lights. On that night, the Dodgers were wearing a satin uniform and I can remember to this day walking down the aisle with my dad. I was just mesmerized. When I was young enough to still sit on my father’s lap, we only had to buy one ticket.”

Mesmerizing is how Reinsdorf describes Robinson when he was on the baseball diamond.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“Even when (Robinson) wasn’t hitting, you could see how exciting he was, because whenever he got on base he was a threat to steal,” says Reinsdorf, who went to Erasmus Hall High School in Flatbush. “He ran wild on the bases. He could bunt, he could hit a home run, he could do anything to win a game. He probably was not the best player I ever saw, but he was the most exciting player I ever saw.”

Gossett Jr., who went to Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School, says that before Robinson’s arrival, Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese was his favorite Dodger, but that he switched favorites once Robinson was on the team. Gossett Jr. says he even imitated Robinson’s bow-legged batting stance when Gossett Jr. played in a sandlot league.

“He so affected me,” Gossett Jr. says of Robinson. “I played sandlot. We played in Coney Island, Gravesend Park with the “Sugar Rays,” a team sponsored by (boxer) Sugar Ray Robinson. I was the only black kid on the team.

Everybody else was Italian.”

* * *

Reinsdorf says he would take the subway to Ebbets Field for games, but that he would always walk home afterward “to save the nickel.” A few years into Robinson’s Dodgers career, Reinsdorf says he was at the stadium for a night game and that he was sitting with his friend. Reinsdorf’s one-and-only chance to meet Robinson came and went that night, a missed opportunity Reinsdorf says he still laments.

“There was a sold-out game one night. We were sitting in our unreserved, general admission seats. Some guy came by and he said, ‘Would you two kids like to be on the “Jackie Robinson Show”?’ (Robinson) had a pregame radio show at Ebbets Field. We thought we were pretty smart and we said, ‘You’re just trying to get our seats.’ We weren’t going to give up our seats,” says Reinsdorf. “So we turned down this alleged offer. About a half hour later, two other kids came walking by, so excited, and said, ‘We were just on the “Jackie Robinson Show”!’ We thought we were pretty savvy. So I missed my one and only opportunity to meet Jackie Robinson.”

Reinsdorf says that although he would occasionally travel to the Bronx to take in a Yankees game, it was sacrilege for Dodgers fans to ever enter the Polo Grounds, the then home stadium for the New York baseball Giants in upper Manhattan. Remember, this was the golden era when Gotham boasted three professional baseball teams.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“I would not set foot in the Polo Grounds. I hated the Giants. I wouldn’t spend any money there,” says Reinsdorf.

Robinson’s play sparked many a debate among young baseball fans at the time, including King, who says that he had only one fistfight as a kid because of an argument with a friend over whether Robinson ranked higher than his Yankee counterparts.

“I had the biggest fight I ever had in my life with Herbie Cohen. Herbie was the only one of our gang who was a Yankee fan. We had a Giants fan, a Yankee fan, and all the rest were Dodgers fans,” says King, referring to his childhood friends. “We used to argue position by position. They were great arguments – (Roy) Campanella or (Yogi) Berra? We get to second base (where Robinson played later). The Yankees had a second baseman named George (Snuffy) Stirnweiss, who led the league once, hit .309 (in 1945). Herbie said, swear to God, ‘Jackie Robinson never won a batting title. George Stirnweiss won the batting title. I think Stirnweiss is better than Robinson.’ The only fist fight I ever had in my life. I hit him, he hit me. We hit the lamppost, chins bleeding, over Robinson versus Stirnweiss.”

While Reinsdorf used to practice his pitching skills in the Parade Grounds of Prospect Park, Wilpon’s pitching prowess developed at Lafayette High, where in the early 1950s, the lefty Wilpon got more attention than another southpaw, Sandy Koufax, Wilpon’s Lafayette classmate and friend. Wilpon’s pitching skills even provided him with an opportunity to pitch batting practice to the Dodgers one day. Yes, Fred Wilpon once pitched to the likes of Robinson and Pee Wee Reese.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“I was just a 16-year-old kid. I pitched batting practice to the Dodgers one summer, but that was not uncommon if you were a sandlot player and they had some interest in you,” says Wilpon. “I got to meet all the players including Jackie Robinson and share a locker room with them. They treated me like a player and not just a kid. It was an amazing experience for me. They always encouraged me to throw curveballs to left-handers which of course you didn’t do during batting practice. They called me ‘Lefty’ and laughed after I threw some curveball."

Koufax was a basketball standout at Lafayette, but he eventually signed with the Dodgers before the 1955 season, and made his debut that year when Brooklyn advanced to the World Series and finally toppled the Yankees. Koufax didn’t pitch in the ’55 Fall Classic, but he spent his first two seasons playing alongside Robinson and he says the pioneering player left a forever impact on Koufax.

“(Robinson) was a great teammate and a great competitor,” says Koufax, 81. “And he was certainly nice to me. A wonderful human being.”

After their improbable ’55 title, Robinson played one more season for Brooklyn, when the Dodgers returned to the World Series against the Yankees. The Dodgers lost in seven games in the ‘56 World Series, which featured Yankee pitcher Don Larsen’s perfect game – the only such feat in World Series history. Following the 1957 Dodger season, with Robinson already done playing, team owner Walter O’Malley moved the team west to Los Angeles, a gut punch that still causes Brooklyn fans to wince.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“I’m still crushed. I still hate Walter O’Malley,” says Reinsdorf.

The White Sox owner adds that there are still arguments over whether city planner Robert Moses is really to blame for the Dodgers’ move out of Brooklyn. But Reinsdorf still points the finger squarely at O’Malley.

“Some believe it really was Moses’ fault. But it wasn’t, it was Walter’s. Moses wouldn’t let (O’Malley) move (the team) to downtown Brooklyn, where he wanted to go,” says Reinsdorf. “Moses wanted him to go out to Flushing Meadows (in Queens). I remember O’Malley saying, ‘We can’t play in Queens and be the Brooklyn Dodgers.’ And I remember thinking, ‘You can’t be the Brooklyn Dodgers in Los Angeles either.’”

Wilpon says crushing doesn’t even begin to describe his hurt when his childhood baseball team left the borough.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“Crushing isn’t a strong enough word. More like devastating,” says Wilpon. “My family loved the Dodgers. My dad loved the Dodgers. We watched every game we could together and went to about 15 games a year with him. That’s why Ebbets Field made such an impression on me. I never rooted for another team after they left. I stayed with the Dodgers until the Mets came (in 1962).”

King, meanwhile, says he had taken up a new baseball rooting interest when he began his career on Miami radio in 1957, the same year the Dodgers played their final season in Brooklyn.

“I left in April (of ’57), and (the Dodgers) left at the end of the year. I was very sad for the borough,” says King. “But I started rooting for the Orioles because they trained in Miami. When the Orioles beat the Dodgers four straight in 1966 (World Series), I was rooting for the Orioles. But when I moved to California in 1996, I re-established my love for the Dodgers.”

King, who has interviewed many of the most famous people of the 20th and 21st centuries, says he got to meet Robinson twice after Robinson was finished playing. King says he remembers the Dodgers icon being “strongly opinionated” and “passionate.”

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“(Robinson) was just as incredible off the field, as he was incredible on the field. He was a moderate Republican, and he supported (Richard) Nixon in 1960 (during the presidential race). He told me he supported Nixon because Nixon was pragmatic,” says King. “And he doubted that (John F.) Kennedy knew any black people, even though later (Robinson) would come to appreciate (Kennedy).”

While the civil rights movement churned in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, Robinson became a leading voice and activist in the fight for racial justice in the U.S. King says he had the opportunity to interview another famous King during that same era – civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and he says Dr. King corrected Larry King shortly after the interview began.

“I introduced him by saying, ‘My guest is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He can certainly be called the founder of the American civil rights movement,’” says Larry King. “And Dr. King said, ‘We’ve just met, but I’m going to correct you. Jackie Robinson is the founder of the American civil rights movement.’ That’s what (Dr. King) called him.”

King says he thinks Red Barber, the Dodgers announcer who preceded the legendary Vin Scully, used to refer to Robinson as “Jack,” not “Jackie,” out of respect. Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, has always referred to her husband as “Jack,” and Scully uses “Jack” as well, when referring to Robinson.

Jackie Robinson: 5 famous Brooklynites share memories of Dodgers legend on 70th anniversary of big-league debut 

“Vin probably got it from Red,” says King. “It was a popular term at the time, before there was a Jackie Robinson. I knew Red Barber well. He thought he was giving (Robinson) the due respect. Jackie was an imposing figure, and he had a beautiful speaking voice, and was highly intelligent.”

* * *

Every day he goes to his office at Guaranteed Rate Field (formerly U.S. Cellular Field), White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf is able to admire several artifacts from his childhood days rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Two items in particular are dear to him.

“After the Dodgers left (Brooklyn), my brother was riding his bike past Ebbets Field when they were knocking it down (in 1960),” says Reinsdorf. “He looked in and there was one workman there. My brother said, ‘Can I get a couple of seats?’ And the workman told him, ‘Sure, here take these two. Give me five bucks.’ My brother went in his pocket and had something less than two dollars. The guy let him have two seats. My brother put them on his bicycle and walked the bike back home. Ebbets Field was not more than a mile, mile and a half from where we lived.

“My father took (the seats) and put them in the storage room of the apartment building we were living in, and kept them for a number of years,” Reinsdorf continues. “And years later, when I bought my first home, he sent them out to me. They’ve been in my office ever since.”

When Citi Field was built, one of Wilpon’s wishes was to have the old-style ballpark pay homage to Robinson. The rotunda at the stadium’s entrance is worthy tribute to one of Wilpon’s childhood heroes.

“I have had a long relationship with Rachel (Robinson) and her family. It goes back to when she started the Jackie Robinson Foundation,” says Wilpon. “Jackie Robinson is obviously more than just a Hall of Fame baseball player. He’s an American icon. He did as much for the civil rights movement as anyone. He was a great man and Rachel is a remarkable woman. The Mets and Judy (Wilpon’s wife) and I personally have supported the Jackie Robinson Foundation and many of their other initiatives.”

King and Gossett Jr. are now Los Angeles residents, and both still ardently root for the Dodgers, with King usually seen at home games in his customary seats behind home plate. The Dodgers last won the World Series in 1988.

While King says players now may not fully appreciate the impact or legacy of Robinson, Gossett Jr. says the current divisiveness in American society could use a 21st-century savior.

“We desperately need one another now. It’s becoming a no-brainer,” says Gossett Jr., who has a foundation called Eracism, which is devoted to promoting racial harmony. “Jackie was my role model. The other ones were older – Ralph Bunche. But heroes? The Brooklyn Dodgers. Everybody loved Jackie. America is supposed to be a team. I think the one good thing about the (2016) election is that we’re awake now.”

King says that when he met Robinson, the Hall of Fame Dodger told King then that baseball still “had a long way to go” from the work Robinson had started. But baseball in 2017 has players from all corners of the world, and there are African-Americans in front office roles and in manager positions. The population of African-American players in the game has dropped off significantly in the last three decades, however.

Will another player like Robinson ever come along to create a similar transcendent moment? We can only hope.

“In the moment, we didn’t recognize the significance of Robinson’s impact to the extent we do today,” says Wilpon. “We certainly recognized that an African-American man was leading the charge for others to eventually play in the big leagues. That was monumental. But I didn’t realize at the time how monumental it was for our country and what it did to push the civil rights movement and the iconic man and great leader (Robinson) would become. Jackie had a short life, but one full of impact and a career not only as a great player, but a remarkable citizen and leader.”

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