"I Was Allowed To Dream AfterThat"—Henry Aaron
It's hard to fathom what baseball was like before Jackie Robinson debuted with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.
But the struggle was only beginning. In the new book After Jackie, author CAL FUSSMAN sits down with dozens of current and former players to discuss Robinson's significance, 60 years after he broke the color barrier. They recount the trials and triumphs that both preceded and followed his 10-year career.
Henry aaron 1954 to 1976 Braves, Brewers 755 career home runs; 21-time all-star; 1957 NL MVP I can remember being a kid in Mobile, Ala., sitting on the back porch when an airplane flew over. I told my father, "When I grow up I'm going to be a pilot." You know what he said? He said, "Ain't no colored pilots." So I told him I'd be a ballplayer. And he said, "Ain't no colored ballplayers."
There were a lot of things blacks couldn't be back then. There weren't any colored pilots. There weren't any colored ballplayers in the major leagues. So it was hard to have those dreams.
Then Jackie came with the Brooklyn Dodgers to Mobile for an exhibition game in 1948. I went to hear him talk to a crowd in front of a drugstore. I skipped school to meet Jackie Robinson. If it were on videotape, you'd probably see me standing there with my mouth wide open. I don't remember what he said. It didn't matter what he said. He was standing there.
My father took me to see Jackie play in that exhibition game. After that day, he never told me ever again that I couldn't be a ballplayer.
I was allowed to dream after that.
1949 TO 1960 DODGERS, REDS, INDIANS 1956 CY YOUNG WINNER AND NL MVP
Do you know what Jackie Robinson's impact was? Well, let Martin Luther King tell you. In 1968, Martin had dinner in my house with my family. This was 28 days before he was assassinated. He said to me, "Don, I don't know what I would've done without you guys setting up the minds of people for change. You, Jackie and Roy Campanella will never know how easy you made it for me to do my job."
Can you imagine that? How easy we made it for Martin Luther King!
Jackie faced a real threat every time he stepped up to the plate. Opposing pitchers threw at him all the time. That was a given. It was hard to hit Jackie because his reflexes were good and he could get out of the way. But how many times did I see Roy lying on the ground after being hit? He was a big guy and a bad ducker. He was one of the first in baseball to use the hard plastic insert in his cap. They threw at him because he had black skin, and they couldn't hit the other guy with black skin often enough to satisfy them.
They can deny it all they want. They can talk all they want about how much they cared about Jackie and how much they loved Jackie and Roy and what great guys they were. But they didn't care about Jackie and Roy when we first joined that club. And that includes some of our own teammates.
Every time we'd arrive in St. Louis on the train, me and Jackie and Roy would have to get our suitcases and carry them through Union Station and stand on the curb trying to find a cab. Sometimes we had to wait 30 to 45 minutes because white drivers wouldn't pick up black guys. They'd just drive by us in that St. Louis heat.
We'd finally get a cab that would take us to a substandard hotel with no air conditioning, while the white players went on their air-conditioned bus from Union Station to the Chase Hotel. Not one of them—not one of the white guys on the Brooklyn Dodgers—ever got off that bus and said, "I'm going to go with Jackie, Don and Roy just to see how they have to live, just to find out."
The first St. Louis hotel Jackie had to stay in back in 1947, then Roy in 1948 and me in 1949, was called the Princess. It was a slum. We moved to the Adams Hotel after a friend of ours bought it, but he couldn't afford air conditioning. Many nights, we had to soak our sheets in ice water and put them on the bed just to get a little relief from the heat and humidity. Try that sometime. We kept our windows open even with the trolleys running up and down the street below, because in that heat, you needed to get some air. There we were, members of the great Brooklyn Dodgers.
We later heard that one of our teammates, who will remain nameless, was sitting on the bus in St. Louis and said to nobody in particular, "F—them black sonsabitches. We didn't ask them to be here. They asked to be here."
"JACKIE BREAKING THE COLOR LINE WASN'T JUST FOR AFRICAN-AMERICANS WHAT ABOUT THE LATIN AMERICANS WHO WERE BLACK?"
1959 TO 1972 DODGERS, PIRATES, EXPOS; 1962 NL MVP
1961 TO 1977 YANKEES, A'S, BREWERS, DODGERS 1964 AL STRIKEOUT LEADER
I'll tell you what opened my eyes. Remember, at the end of Jackie's career, when the Dodgers traded him to the Giants? Jackie told them he'd retire before he'd play for the Giants.
That rankled a lot of people. A lot of people said, "How could he do that? How could he stop playing baseball?" But of course, he could. He could do whatever he wanted to do within the law.
Jackie showed them that he could make his own decisions and control his own destiny.
1959 TO 1976, 10 DIFFERENTTEAMS TWO-TIME NL BATTING CHAMP (1962 AND '63)
After a while, Jackie got involved in the civil rights marches. He was marching—and I was impressed. You know, he stood up against a lot of people. He spoke his mind. Jackie had a message. Baseball was just part of the deal.
1961 TO 1979 CUBS, CARDINALS 938 CAREER STOLEN BASES; TEAMMATE OF CURT FLOOD, WHO CHALLENGED BASEBALL'S RESERVE CLAUSE IN COURT
Jackie Robinson showed you how not to live in the shadows. Curt Flood showed that you could take your talent and market it to anybody you want. Curt was an expansion of Jackie because his message went out to other sports. Curt opened the doors so that players could take advantage of the free market system, just like other Americans.
That changed everything.
Cut the head off the snake. That's how they look at it: Cut the head off the snake. Kill the spirit of the black man, and it'll kill the whole family.
Many years ago, I was honored in Mobile by an organization of white men. My daddy came. But they didn't want to let him in. See, I could go in and be honored, but they wouldn't accept him. This is what I'm talking about. Cut the head off the black man. Demoralize him. Tell him, "Even though the home run hitter's your son, we don't want you." Tell him you can't do this, you can't do that. Tell him what he can't be.
That's why you have to keep looking back on the things that Jackie Robinson went through, because it all comes back to the same thing. They just kept beating on him, beating on him, beating on him. They were thinking they could cut the head off the snake. And Jackie couldn't fight back. That's the
first thing Branch Rickey told him: You can't fight back. If Jackie hadn't been strong enough in his mind, he'd never have made it. The whole thing would have been set back years. If he'd made one mistake, if he'd crossed the line Rickey laid out for him, everybody would have said, "Told you so. He can't do it."
And if he hadn't done it, you'd never have seen a Henry Aaron. You'd never have seen a Willie Mays. You'd never have seen an Ernie Banks. What I went through was basically the same thing that Jackie went through. They hounded him because they knew he could play baseball, and they didn't want him to. They hounded me because they knew I was going to break Babe Ruth's record, and they didn't want me to. Cut the head off the snake.
That home run chase was supposed to be a really great thing in my life, and yet it was probably one of the saddest. I try not to dwell on it. I'm sure right now people are writing Barry Bonds and telling him, "You ain't never gonna get Hank's record whether you break it or not."
I think the circumstances are different with Barry because he's going through all this steroids stuff. Most of it is simply because of the press. They've accused Barry of taking these prohibited substances. So I'm not going to sit here and say that Barry is guilty. I can't do that. Because black people have been found guilty before we were proven guilty for many, many years.
Barry going after my record doesn't put me in a conflicted position. None whatsoever. Records are made to be broken. It doesn't really make a difference to me whether he breaks it or Ken Griffey Jr. breaks it or if, years ago, Harmon Killebrew had broken it. I've held the title long enough, and now it's time for somebody else to have it.
What's important for me is what I'm doing now. Jackie used baseball as a platform to help others, and those of us who've been successful have to learn how to pull the others up. I was talking recently with one of the boys who's been in my Chasing the Dream Foundation since he was 9 years old. He's now in a performing arts school. He plays the harp. And there were 11 colleges after him, trying to give him scholarships.
Now, I'm not a big fan of the harp. I don't know what the heck's going on with the harp, really. About the only thing I know about harps is that you don't see too many black people playing 'em. But whatever the top of the line for the harp is, I told him, "You've got to go for it." I don't think this young man understands what's in front of him, but he'll learn. And this keeps coming back to Jackie, because Jackie showed us the way.
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