Some time back my dad—who grew up in both Atlanta, GA and South Bend, IN—mentioned that as a kid he had gone to see a minor league baseball game in Atlanta in which Jackie Robinson played. We didn’t talk long about it, but he described the event as somewhat uplifting,
I admit, for several reasons, I was cautious as I heard him tell the story.
Sometimes, you know, memory can distort things, especially when you want it to.
Still, when he mentioned the event again yesterday, I did enough light googling to see that the event had actually occurred. Still angsty about breaking Dad’s memory, I left it there.
I had some quiet time by myself today, though, and I thought about my dad’s story, so—with no little reluctance—I did a lot more Googling.
Happily, it turns out he was probably right.
Or, at least as right as a twelve-year-old boy can be anyway, and as right as I can find on Google.
His details were a little messed up. Rather than an actual minor league game, it was a spring training exhibition between the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers and the AAA Atlanta Crackers. And rather than “just” Jackie Robinson, the game also included Roy Campanella, a second African-American. Still, it seems pretty clear that on April 8. 1949 (or, since the teams played three times, perhaps the 9th or 10th), my dad did witness the first interracial sporting event to have occurred in Atlanta’s history. It also seems clear that the event was—at least in the park—a civil and mostly uplifting affair. The Dodgers won two games of three, the segregated fans (roughly half Black, the other half White), settled into their separate but equal seats in Ponce de Leon Field and enjoyed the games.
I note Dad’s recall of the story didn’t include the part where the KKK made outward reference to the law—both written and unwritten—and outward threats to the series, to which Branch Rickey (the Brooklyn GM) basically said “pound sand, either the entire team plays or the entire team does not play.” Dad’s recall doesn’t include the governmental gymnastics that occurred prior to the event. Life is always messier than a 12-year-old boy can recall, I suppose.
Still. I was happy to find his recall was considerably more correct than not correct.
In the end, I’m not sure how I think about it.
On the one hand, it’s cool. I mean. How could it not be cool?
On the other hand, while Dad has often talked about going to Chicago with his uncle to see the White Sox, this little brush with cultural significance hadn’t come up until recently. So now I get to add this event to my “If I could Time Travel” list. I mean, hell yes to the idea of jumping into a time machine to see both Dad as a kid and Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella playing at something close to their peaks—not to mention the rest of the Brooklyn guys. Pee Wee Reese, for example, was a guy from Louisville, which I still think of as where I’m from when asked about it. I bowled in an alley named after him when I was Dad’s age at the time of that game. I’d like to have seen Reese play, too.
Still, Robinson would have to be the draw, right? And there’s more there than just the cultural aspect of past history. He was the National League MVP that year—his third in the league, hitting .342 with 16 homers and 37 steals. That would be one helluva three-game series to take in, I suppose.
Then on the other, other hand, it also strikes me as odd that Dad hadn’t told me that before. Baseball had been in our life earlier, of course. He’d coached both me and my brother in Little League. He gave me a slide rule (yes, dammit, a slide rule!) so I could calculate batting averages as a kid. We often watched the Cubs together. I suppose that a large part of it is that I never asked him about those days.
Never crossed my mind, you know?
Why would it?
I mean, why would I ask my professorial father if he’d ever seen Jackie Robinson play baseball?
So, yeah, who is to say how things come about. All I can say for sure is that I’m glad he told me when he did.
Think about that next time you’re with someone older, though.
Take a minute to look at them. Ask yourself what stories they might have to tell.
Now is the time, you know?
Now is the time.