Jackie Robinson’s contribution to American history will be remembered with particular poignancy over the next several days, between the opening of the movie “42” and the 66th anniversary of his major league debut.
Whether we see the film or reflect about the meaning of the “42” on every jersey across the major leagues on April 15, it’s important to know why Dodgers executive Branch Rickey chose Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier. What was it about Robinson that assured Rickey that he would be able to perform with singular grace while enduring the vilest threats?
“He was a man who was educated,” explained Don Newcombe, Robinson’s teammate with the Dodgers for six seasons.
“He knew what to do about pressure. He knew how to handle pressure. He had it happen to him while he was in the military as a second lieutenant, how he was treated because of the blackness of his skin.
“He had a man with him in the military (during World War II) named Joe Louis, the world’s heavyweight champion. Joe Louis instructed him while they were there together about a lot of things he was going to run into, because Joe ran into them while he was boxing. Jackie learned — and learned well — and appreciated what Joe did for him. He never forgot that. He passed it onto other people like me and Roy Campanella and all the others that followed.”
Newcombe debuted with the Dodgers in 1949 — a little more than two years after Robinson — and went on to become the first player in major league history to win the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP.
Now 86, Newcombe works for the Dodgers as a special adviser to chairman Mark Walter. He spoke with FOXSports.com before a game between the Dodgers and Giants at Dodger Stadium last week.
I asked Newcombe if it would have been possible for him to handle the historic responsibility his close friend bore, as the first African-American player in Major League Baseball.
“(Former Dodgers general manager) Buzzie Bavasi said in his book that Don Newcombe was the guy we wanted, but he was 19 years old and a high school dropout and not able to handle the pressure that was going to happen, so we had to pass on him being the person we wanted,” Newcombe said. “That’s what he said in his book.
“I couldn’t have done it. Being a pitcher, a pitcher could not have done it. You hit a guy one time with a baseball and you might have a riot. Jackie warned me so many times, and so did Roy Campanella: ‘Be careful where you throw your fastball. Don’t hit anybody.’ ”
What is Newcombe’s message to young people who will see “42” — and the generations to come?
“Look at, learn, appreciate what he did, because had he failed, there’s no telling where baseball would have gone to, downward, as far as civil rights and the racial degradation that was going on in this country at the time,” Newcombe said.
“Jackie and then Roy Campanella and I — and the ones that followed us — we all worked and couldn’t fight back.
“We just hope they appreciate that Branch Rickey said, ‘If Jackie fails, the deal is closed. No other owner in baseball will pick it up.’ ”