|

Remembering Jackie and lessons learned

by Dave Wiggins

One cool thing about being an old coot like MAS is that when Hollywood cranks out a historic docudrama, you often remember experiencing the event portrayed first-hand.

So it is with “42″ — the movie about Jackie Robinson breaking the big league color barrier in 1947.

MAS vividly recalls, as a squirt growing up in suburban Philadelphia, watching Jackie in action for the Brooklyn Dodgers during that exciting and, um, well, colorful (no pun intended) era.

Watching “42″ in the theatre, though, MAS couldn’t help but shake his head at how blissfully naive he was at the time.

When Jackie integrated MLB, he was doing much more than just providing scintillating play. He was changing the course of American history by initiating the Civil Rights Movement.

As time passed, MAS came to more fully understand the magnitude of what he had seen.

And what a trip to enlightenment it was.

The journey began in the early 1950s, by which time Robinson had been joined on the Dodgers by Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and several other “colored” players.

Several times a season, Dad, MASbro and myself — armed with “hoagies” (Philly-style subs) — would make the one-hour drive from working class Ridley Township to Shibe Park way up in North Philadelphia to watch the hometown Phillies perform.

We would arrive quite early to score the best 75-cent general admission seats, in mid-upper deck and even with third base — that’s where the too-pricey reserved seats ended (they cost a whopping $1.50).

The games the Fightin’ Phils played against the Brooklyn Dodgers were unlike any others I used to see.

For starters, instead of the usual 12,000 people in attendance, the place was jammed to its 34,000-seat capacity.

And more than half of the fans were “colored people”, who were rarely there for games against other teams.

Jackie and Co., a National League powerhouse by then, usually administered a butt-whipping to the home team.

And to my surprise, the black folks loved it. They all rooted hard for the Dodgers and would go nuts whenever the visitors scored a run.

The sight of all this left Li’l MAS — 8 or 9 at the time — a li’l more than bewildered.

Finally, I turned to my Dad and asked “Why are all these colored people from Philadelphia rooting for BROOKLYN?”

Pop answered: “Because Brooklyn has colored players and we don’t.”

“Yeah, but these folks are from Philadelphia,” continued the son Dad called “The Pest.” “Why aren’t they rooting for the HOME team?”

Dad, a fair and decent man — now departed, just shrugged and left me to figure that out for myself in time.

A few years later, I finally realized what was going on.

Back then, blacks lived in isolated sections of towns — and most often not by choice. That, I learned, falls under segregation.

Life in Brooklyn might not have been much better than in Philly for colored folks but at least the big league baseball team representing that city allowed fellow blacks to play for it.

It was a “blood is thicker than water” thing.

The Pest had eventually answered his own Shibe Park question.

Growing up, I also learned — personally — that separate was not always equal.

Fast-forward to summers between high school years: MASbro and myself were the only white guys on an all-black semi-pro baseball team in our area, sponsored by oil industry giant Sunoco.

We had a ball.

I vividly recall fielding a hard-hit ground ball as a shrimpy second baseman and — thinking I had plenty of time to throw the runner out — lobbing the ball to first base.

It sailed 2 meters over the first baseman’s head.

After the half-inning, our coach, “Doc” Bea — an elderly former star pitcher for the Negro League Pittsburgh Crawfords, took me aside and said in his own inimitable down-home style: “Lookie here, li’l man, don’t be loafin’ dat ball ovuh to fu’st base, now.”

Lesson learned: always throw it hard.

But all wasn’t fun and games.

Y’see, we played on a ball diamond with a skin infield that was carved out of a cow pasture. An old farmhouse served as our rec center.

Across the highway were the pristine white folks’ facilities, including a new multi-purpose sports building and a state-of-the-art baseball complex — neither of which we could use.

That was just the way things often were back then — even in the north — and we all unwittingly just went along with the program.

Until Jackie Robinson started to bring major change to the situation, that is.

Indeed, “42″ is important because, in two hours, it teaches today’s younger generations what it took MAS many years to learn.

And it reminds us old coots to be ever-vigilant to make sure justice is done.

If you think you already know the Jackie Robinson story, go see “42″ anyway. It portrays Jackie’s heroic and monumental accomplishment in a uniquely entertaining way.

You’ll actually feel like you’re there with Jackie as he’s breaking into the bigs — on and off the field.

The visual effects used in the baseball scenes are fantastic.

When Jackie is at bat, it’s like you’re the home plate umpire in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, New York’s Polo Grounds and the other famous ballparks of the day depicted in the film.

The stadiums are recreated down to the smallest detail.

The Shibe Park scenes were so realistic, I could swear I saw Li’l MAS sitting in his upper deck perch munching on a hoagie. Once more, he’s with his Dad.

Movies just don’t get any better than that.

Contact Man About Sports at: davwigg@gmail.com