"After Jackie": A Definition of Pressure

Originally Published: April 9, 2007
By Cal Fussman | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "After Jackie: Pride, Prejudice and Baseball's Forgotten Heroes" by Cal Fussman. Copyright (c) 2007 by Cal Fussman. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books.

After Jackie
It's hard to imagine the past. So let's start by trying to imagine the present.

Imagine a star in the world of sports we all know, Shaquille O'Neal, standing on the free throw line in the seventh game of the NBA Finals. One second remains. His team trails by a point. Thousands of people are shouting and waving their arms to distract him, and millions more are watching at home. He's one of the best players -- and worst free throw shooters -- in basketball history.

Now, that's pressure, you'd probably say.

Funny, I always thought that was pressure too. See, I grew up watching the great black ballplayers who followed in Jackie Robinson's footsteps, but I didn't have a clue about what I was seeing because I had no idea what was going on inside their heads or their hearts, in their personal lives, or even on the field.

I had no idea what real pressure was.

So let's go back in time and reconsider that word. Let's say you're standing, like Jackie Robinson, in a major league batter's box in April 1947.

You're a little tired because you're living in a hotel room with a wife and a 5-month-old baby. That's because you didn't know you'd be playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers until a few weeks before the season opener and haven't had time to find an apartment.

There's no place to escape to at night when the baby cries. And there's no place to escape to in the afternoon when you're the only black man on the ball field and the bigots in the box seats are screaming insults at you that everyone can hear.

Are they the ones, you wonder, who've been writing those letters that you've received, threatening to kill you, to harm your wife, and to kidnap your son?

You're staring at a pitcher who's holding a hard ball that, any second now, might be whistling 90 miles an hour at your skull. What makes you think so? The manager of the opposing team, the Philadelphia Phillies, has ordered his players to scream racial filth at you. Some of those players, having learned of the death threats, are holding their bats like machine guns, aiming them at you and imitating the sound of rapid fire. They're screaming at you to "Go back to the cotton fields ...!" They're asking which one of your teammates' wives you'll be with after the game.

You'd like to think that your teammates, at least, are on your side -- but how can you? During spring training some of them passed around a petition to boycott the team if you were on it. Some of them, raised in the segregated South, are likely afraid they'll be sneered at or spit on when they return home once it's known that they've shared a shower with a black man. Some, perhaps, are afraid that if you succeed, more blacks will follow you and take their jobs.

So you don't let off steam with the guys on your side about what the guys on the other side are yelling at you. You wait until your teammates have showered before you do. And you sit alone during the long train rides between big league cities. ...

At least you can count on all the people of your color, right? Well, sure ... but not so fast. You've been chosen to be the first black major league ballplayer because you're college educated and have competed against whites on a football field at UCLA, not because you're the best black baseball player of your time. Plenty of Negro League players, jealous that you're the chosen one, are waiting for you to prove yourself to them.

If you fail ...

"It might have been 50 more years before they'd let a black play," said 94-year-old Buck O'Neil, a superb black ballplayer who never became one of the chosen ones, before he died last October. "They would have said, 'You picked the best, and he couldn't make it. So there's nobody else out there. They just can't think well enough to play major league baseball.' "

And if a black man isn't considered smart enough to play baseball, what chance is there that he'll be considered smart enough to be a doctor, a business executive, a professor, or a politician? So there are 15 million black Americans counting on you.

All of that's coiled inside of you, and has to stay there, because you've promised the white man who hired you that you won't raise a finger against anyone: not the heckling fans, the opponents or your teammates. All of that's boiling inside of you because, far from being the passive man you must appear to be, you're the ex-Army officer who was nearly court-martialed for refusing to back down when ordered to get to the back of a bus.

Isn't that what a man does when he's being abused like this?

All of that's swirling through and around you in the 0:00:48 that you have to decide whether to swing at that white missile leaving the pitcher's hand -- or to duck.

Now we begin to know that word: pressure.

Now we begin to understand what the 28-year-old man named Jackie Robinson faced in 1947.

The man who brought Jackie into the Dodgers organization in August 1945 did his best to ease that pressure. Branch Rickey had sent Jackie as far from the flames of American racism as possible to prove himself in baseball's minor leagues: to Montreal. Rickey had scheduled spring training in 1947 in Cuba, far away from colored and white drinking fountains, so that Jackie could get his footing. He'd housed Jackie in quarters separate from those of white teammates to avoid racial conflict. He'd met with black ministers in Brooklyn and persuaded them to encourage their congregations to cheer for all the Dodgers, not just Jackie, to prevent provocations or fights in the stands. He'd met with the team's radio announcer, Red Barber, to make sure the Mississippian didn't sabotage Jackie with unfair comments. And he'd faced down the players on his team who'd planned the boycott.

But Branch Rickey couldn't fathom what it felt like to be Jackie.

"To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create," Jackie would later write in his autobiography about that 1947 game against the Phillies. "I could throw down my bat, stride over to the Phillies' dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches, and smash in his teeth with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all. I'd never become a sports star. But my son could tell his son someday what his daddy could have been if he hadn't been too much of a man."

By the end of that first season, Jackie had swallowed centuries of condensed pressure and performed above it. He'd bounced back from an injury sustained when -- while he was playing first base -- St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Enos "Country" Slaughter ran straight toward him instead of the base, leaped, and dug his spikes into Jackie's leg. He'd gotten the Dodgers to recognize his dignity and rally to his defense. As racial abuse poured down upon Jackie in Cincinnati, the team captain, a white man from Kentucky named Pee Wee Reese, simply walked over and put a hand on Jackie's shoulder.

By the end of that first season, Jackie had helped lift the Dodgers into the World Series. He'd been voted Rookie of the Year. And four other black men had entered the major leagues.

More were on the way, and teams began to seek out the best young black prospects. One of them, Henry Aaron, would break Babe Ruth's home run record three decades later. Another, Willie Mays, would be hailed as perhaps the greatest baseball player who ever lived. A door had been opened. A wrong had been righted. A Jackie Robinson postage stamp would be commissioned. Sport was able to guide society toward a better place. And that's how the Jackie Robinson story is usually told to America.

But that still leaves you, like me, back when I was a kid, watching Henry and Willie, eyes wide open -- and missing so much.

-- Cal Fussman