On a perfect day for baseball in May 1947, two future Hall of Famers collided on the field of play and bred bonds of tolerance we can still learn from today.
The veteran slugger Hank (aka “the Hebrew Hammer”) Greenberg was at first base when Brooklyn Dodgers rookie Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major league baseball player in the modern era, dashed down the base path to beat out a hit. Within seconds, the two players had slammed into one another, both of them landing on the ground.
Race tensions were fraught at the time. The season — Robinson’s very first in the Major Leagues — was just a month old, but even before he stepped onto the field Robinson had been the target of unrelenting racial jeers, taunts and threats. One team manager was egging on his pitchers to deliberately throw at, not to, him. Some feared that even an unintentional collision like this could escalate into violence.
Greenberg knew all that from personal experience. He himself had been subjected to virulent anti-Jewish insults throughout his career. So when the two players got up to resume play, instead of being nonplussed, Greenberg offered Robinson encouragement, and friendship: don’t let the hatemongers get to you, he told him; hang in there and keep on playing.
Robinson, who would have been 100 years old last month, continued to do just that and went on to become both a baseball hero and a civil rights hero, regularly speaking out against racism and anti-Semitism. The photography exhibit “In the Dugout with Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait of a Baseball Legend” commemorates his legacy. It is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through Sept. 15.
The show features 32 for the most part previously unseen photographs of Robinson on the field, in the dugout and in the clubhouse with his teammates, at home with his wife Rachel and son Jackie, Jr., and being cheered on by Brooklyn Dodgers fans.
They were originally taken for Look magazine in 1949 and 1953 by staff photographers Kenneth Eide and Frank Bauman. Many evoke Robinson’s distinctive speed and athleticism as he runs between bases and fields his position in the infield.
We see him at bat — and then on the ground, apparently, hit by a pitch. Was it deliberately thrown at him? “It was well known that he was thrown at, not only because he was a great baseball player but because he was breaking barriers,” said Sean Corcoran, the museum’s curator of prints and photographs and co-curator of the exhibit. “We don’t know the specific incident in the photo, but he faced this on a regular basis.”
We see Robinson sitting in the dugout beside various teammates: catcher Roy Campanella (No. 39), second baseman Jim “Junior” Gilliam (No. 19), shortstop Pee Wee Reese (No. 11), and first baseman Gil Hodges (No. 14). One photo captures Robinson with his close friend, the shortstop and team captain Reese, who because of his Southern roots was also nicknamed the “Kentucky Colonel.” In one of the several articles he wrote for Look, Robinson highlighted the importance of Reese’s welcoming friendship, stating, “A Kentucky Colonel kept me in baseball.”
Several other photos depict Robinson in conversation with teammates in the clubhouse. “These are my favorites in the show,” says Corcoran, the curator. “You see the unguarded openness among the players,” and their comfort and rapport with one another. Another photo shows the unmistakable affection with which the Brooklyn fans held Robinson, with youthful fans hanging over the dugout from their perch in the stands as a smiling Robinson signs autographs for them.
The exhibit also includes a brief but sweetly mesmerizingly black-and-white home movie that shows Robinson hitting and fielding in the backyard with his young son and two of his neighborhood friends. Some of the historic artifacts on display — including Robinson’s fielding glove and a Brooklyn Dodgers pennant featuring a likeness of Robinson — might even bring tears to the eyes of anyone who ever visited Ebbets Field, the grand Brooklyn stadium where the Dodgers played. There is also a baseball signed by the 1952 Dodgers, many of whom were legendary in their own right, including future Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Reese and Campanella, as well as Hodges, Ralph Branca, Carl Erskine and Preacher Roe.
Additional photos capture Robinson working at the typewriter, presumably on one of the Look articles, the last of which, in 1957, announced his retirement from baseball. In that article he reflected on his most cherished memories. They included “the catch I made in 1951 that kept us from losing the pennant that day; the final out in the 1955 Series that made us World Champions; and the time, during my first hard year with the Dodgers , when I was standing on first base beside Hank Greenberg of the Pirates. He suddenly turned to me and said, ‘A lot of people are pulling for you to make good. Don’t ever forget it.’ I never have.”
In his post-baseball career, Robinson became the first African-American vice president of a major U.S. corporation, Chock Full o’Nuts. He died in 1972 at 53.
This centennial year will be marked by additional programs honoring Robinson, culminating in the opening in December of the Jackie Robinson Museum, now under construction in Lower Manhattan. “In addition to paying tribute to his breaking barriers in sports and his athletic prowess, it will be a place of very dynamic dialogue around social issues that this country is still wrestling with,” said Della Britton Baeza, president of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which partnered with the Museum of the City New York to present the exhibit.
Future programs at the Jackie Robinson Museum will include collaborations with the Museum of Jewish Heritage. “The Robinson family and the Jewish community were very close,” Baeza said. “Robinson denounced anti-Semitism as odious as racism.”
And the relationship between Robinson and Greenberg carries on: Steve D. Greenberg, Hank’s son, is one of the directors of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. ✿
“In the Dugout with Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait of a Baseball Legend” runs through Sept. 15 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave., mcny.org.