Just a man: Kahn talks 'Rickey and Robinson,' integration of baseball

Posted at 3:53 PM, Oct 08, 2014

Of all the hats Jackie Robinson is known for wearing, here’s one the general public isn’t familiar with: Collection agent.

When Our Sports, the African American-focused magazine that journalist and author Roger Kahn started with Robinson, folded due to a lack of ability to attract advertisers after running five issues in 1953, it folded, owing Kahn $150.

It wasn’t a huge deal to Kahn, but Robinson would have none of it. After asking Kahn if he was paid, and Kahn said no, Robinson drove to the Flatiron Building in New York City where the offices were located, and in Kahn’s words, Jackie “raised his voice, and said, why haven’t you paid Roger Kahn?”

They hadn’t paid Kahn because the business was bankrupt — and Robinson still managed to get $100 out of them. Since it wasn’t the full amount owed, Robinson took Kahn to a clothing store he owned, and told him to pick out a jacket.

Kahn said when Robinson died, he lost “not only a friend, but the best collection agent I ever had.”

This anecdote, along with many more reminiscences, pepper Kahn’s latest book, “Rickey & Robinson: The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball,”  which the 87-year-old author has declared his last.

Kahn is best known for 1972’s “The Boys of Summer,” which many (including Sports Illustrated in 2002) consider to be one of the best sports books of all time.

As the former Brooklyn Dodgers beat writer, Kahn is uniquely qualified to share his personal, first-hand experiences of what really happened behind the scenes during the integration of Major League Baseball.
Kahn wasn’t just a friend to Robinson: He was a witness to an era that many alive today can’t fathom, though reverberations of that time are still felt in societal struggles that continue to plague the United States.

The Scripps National Desk recently spoke with Kahn about “Rickey & Robinson” and what it was like to call Jackie Robinson friend.

What are some of your favorite memories of Robinson?

I wanted my children to spend a little time with Jackie, and I took them to his place on Cascade Road in North Stamford, Connecticut.

In his foyer, there was a trophy case, and inside was a football signed by the 1940 UCLA team.

My youngest son, Roger, looked at it and said, “Oh boy, dad, that’s a football, let’s have a catch!”

Of course, I was embarrassed at first and tried to explain it wasn’t the kind of football you had a catch with. And then Jackie said, “Go have a catch.”

So we did, and the grass was wet and we managed to not drop the ball; it was a shining moment for Roger.

My older boy told Jackie he wanted to become an architect; he was 14. So Jackie showed him around his house that he had designed with his wife, explaining things.

He really was a very nice man when he wasn’t being yelled at.

Why is Jackie Robinson’s story big for someone who isn’t necessarily a baseball fan? Why do so many people care about this?

First of all it’s a very dramatic story, he’s a very dramatic athlete.

And between 1880 to 1946, no one who was black was allowed to play organized baseball professionally.

The press was pretty passive about it. The Daily Worker, the communist party paper, did cover it. There wasn’t much else.

When Branch Rickey signed Robinson to the Montreal Royals for the 1946 season, he wanted him to play a year in the international league. The next year, he was called up by the Dodgers.

Jack was the first player of color in organized baseball in the century.

Without giving too much away from the book — what is one surprising thing you remember about Robinson and that time, that would surprise fans that feel like they know him?

The book really focuses on the tumultuous time of integration, and baseball.

Now after Jack finished with baseball… (Dodgers co-owner Walter) O’Malley never liked Robinson. It wasn’t simple prejudice. As soon as he had an opportunity, he got rid of him, and after the 1956 season, he sold him to the Giants. Jackie already had an agreement with Chock full o’Nuts to become a company executive, and so he retired instead.

Jackie became vice president of a chain of lunch counters in New York (Chock full o’Nuts) and worked at Freedom National Bank in Harlem and at an insurance company. He became very close to Nelson Rockefeller — if Rockefeller had beat Goldwater in ’64, Robinson would’ve been in the cabinet or in an embassy.

He also worked with Nixon. Once he told me, “Don’t get on my ass to be with Nixon, because my family is.”

Robinson remained a Republican, which most people don’t know. Jackie’s mother was a Republican, because Lincoln was.

Once, Jackie was introduced to John F. Kennedy by Chester Bowles, a senator from Connecticut.

When Kennedy shook Robinson’s hand, he said, “I’m a man from Massachusetts, I haven’t had a chance to know many negroes.”

Jackie didn’t care for Kennedy after that, he thought Kennedy should’ve made it his business to know negroes.

Have you seen the movie “42”? Do you feel like it was accurate?

I haven’t, and it might be great, but I don’t know. I was working on the book, and I didn’t feel like exposing myself to the Hollywood version.

How dangerous was it for Robinson, back when he was getting death threats?

It mostly occurred during spring training. They would train in Florida, the teams would barnstorm north in the Pullman cars. They ate and slept in them, and in the South in 1950, they needed to shower at the ballpark.

Mobile, Montgomery, Miami, New Orleans — everywhere in the South — restaurant, taxis and hotels were all separated. It was a schizophrenic way to live, the train was integrated. I was always glad to get out of the South.

There was a death threat in Atlanta, and the FBI showed up.

Now, a determined man with a rifle can kill you, as we know from JFK. There were FBI guys in the clubhouse, and I asked Jackie if he would play; he said yes. He singled to center field. I asked him “How did you concentrate?” He said if he heard a shot, he was going to “run to my black people in center field from behind the rope.”

Why did Rickey treat Robinson differently from other people when he could have been awful? Was there anything in his past that made him more accepting?

Rickey came from a community that was very anti-abolitionist. He was a baseball player and a coach while he was an undergrad at Ohio Wesleyan University. Once, when they got to Hotel Oliver in South Bend, Indiana, they didn’t want to let the black guy stay.

Rickey raised his voice — it was 1910. The hotel then let him stay, on the floor, but only if he stayed in the same room with Rickey, and he wasn’t allowed to mingle with the others.
Rickey woke up later and heard the first baseman weeping, and saw him clawing on his hand, saying “black skin, black skin, why can’t you be white?”

Rickey said that after that, he thought, “Somehow, someway I will find a way for blacks to play baseball.”

What was it like to actually watch Robinson play, compared to watching baseball today?

He was a great home run hitter. He hit long, hard drives, not tall and high. He was a great bunter, and had an uncanny ability to change direction.

He never stole more than 40 bases, but he concentrated on disrupting the pitcher. Jackie said once, “If I don’t have to jump back, I haven’t taken a big enough lead off first base.”  He was an exciting player to watch.

In Jack’s first major league year, baseball was the first unchallenged most popular sport. There were two seasons, the baseball season and the offseason. Baseball had a great hold on the American consciousness.