By Sam Bush
Seventy-three years ago today, April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the major league color line when he became the game’s first African-American player.
And even though there is no baseball today because of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s instructive to remember how Robinson changed the game, but also what he endured and overcame along the way
Philly was a brutal place for Robinson when he broke into the big leagues in 1947. Phillies manager Ben Chapman and others taunted Robinson with racial slurs and more.
Phillies pitcher Curt Simmons grew up in Allentown, Pa. He made his big league debut late in 1947.
“It was a rude awakening,” Simmons said in an interview in 2008.
But by the time Robin Roberts joined the Phillies as a rookie in 1948, he said Chapman instructed his players to stop.
“Let him sleep,” Chapman said. “Anybody gets on him, I’m going to fine you.”
“Jackie had beaten their brains in so much that by ’48 they were convinced it wasn’t bothering him,” Roberts said in a 2008 interview.
“[Chapman] learned his lesson about Robinson,” Simmons said.
Robinson, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962, faced Roberts, who was inducted into the Hall in 1976, more than any other pitcher in his career. He hit .281 with five doubles, nine home runs, 21 RBIs and an .815 OPS in 176 plate appearances against him. The two became friendly from their time together on NL All-Star teams. They even golfed together.
“I consider it a privilege to have competed against Jackie Robinson, a man I very much admired,” Roberts wrote in his book. “We battled toe-to-toe many times, and I learned that sometimes the media misinterprets good hard competition. Years after I retired, I attended a banquet and Howard Cosell was at the head table. When Cosell saw me, he said to the head table, ‘Well, here is Robin Roberts, the man who disliked Jackie Robinson so much.’ Of course, Howard could not have been more wrong, but he somehow assumed that because I had competed so hard against Jackie that I had negative feelings about him. To the contrary, I had more respect for Jackie than virtually anyone I played against. He was a helluva ballplayer and an even better man.”
Robinson’s walk through the visitors’ clubhouse in 1950 after the Phils beat the Dodgers for the National League flag convinced him of that.
“Think about that,” Roberts once told writer Joe Posnanski. “Think about how much class that took. I couldn’t have done it. I’ll tell you that.”