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69 Years Later, Philadelphia Apologizes to Jackie Robinson

By Marc Tracy,

Last summer, the Anderson Monarchs, a Philadelphia baseball team that featured the Little League World Series star Mo’ne Davis, barnstormed through the South. They played baseball, and they also toured sites significant to the civil rights movement as a nod to the team’s heritage — it is named, after all, for the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro leagues club for which Jackie Robinson once played.

“I stood where Martin Luther King and John Lewis stood,” wrote outfielder Myles Eaddy on a team blog after a visit to Selma, Ala., adding, “It is really cool to know how far we have come.”

Nearly a year later, the team’s trip has helped inspire an apology being extended by Philadelphia to Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers at the start of the 1947 season.

The apology comes as Major League Baseball, on Friday, celebrates the 69th anniversary of Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers with its Jackie Robinson Day, initiated in 2004. Every major league player wears Robinson’s No. 42, an annual sight in baseball. What is different this year is the apology from the City of Philadelphia for the manner in which the Phillies treated Robinson when he began his career.

“Obviously, everyone learns about Jackie Robinson when they’re a schoolkid,” said Helen Gym, the council member who introduced the resolution to apologize to Robinson, which passed unanimously.

But Gym added that the Monarchs’ tour of the South and the 2013 movie about Robinson’s life, titled “42,” further piqued her interest and the City Council’s in remembering Robinson and owning up to the Phillies’ contribution to the hostility he initially encountered.

Although the resolution refers to the racism Robinson encountered as a visiting player in Philadelphia, it is generally accepted that the worst behavior the Phillies displayed toward him actually occurred earlier that season, in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, during one of the Dodgers’ early homestands.

It was then that the Phillies, led by their manager, Ben Chapman, repeatedly shouted racial slurs at Robinson when he stepped to the plate, an encounter that was vividly portrayed in “42.”

The City Council resolution states that Robinson was told to “go back to the cotton fields.” According to Jonathan Eig, whose 2008 book “Opening Day” chronicled Robinson’s rookie season, Chapman and several Phillies also made comments about Robinson’s physical features.

Robinson later said that it was the closest he came to cracking and retaliating.

“For one wild and rage-crazed minute, I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s noble experiment,’ ” Robinson once recalled, referring to Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who chose Robinson as the player he felt capable of integrating the game while having the discipline to not retaliate to the taunts and harassment he would face.

In those initial games against the Phillies, Robinson held in his anger.

“He knew this wasn’t just symbolism,” Eig said. “He knew if he could integrate Major League Baseball, it would affect lots of people’s lives. And he knew if he lashed out, he might lose the opportunity.”

For his part, Chapman would insist years later that the taunting was motivated less by racism than by a desire to gain a competitive advantage over a presumably fragile rookie. He told the writer Allen Barra that he had also used epithets against Joe DiMaggio, who was of Italian descent, and Hank Greenberg, who was Jewish.

“I can imagine the possibility that both things were true,” Eig said of Chapman, “that he was deeply racist and he thought that by attacking a black guy with this racist language he might make him snap, lose his composure, get the player to take the bait, get him thrown out for half a season, get him to quit.”

In any case, the initial taunting of Robinson by Chapman and his players created a backlash. In the second game of that series, according to “Opening Day,” the Dodgers’ Eddie Stanky, a scrappy infielder and Philadelphia native, confronted the Phillies, shouting at them and calling them cowards for verbally abusing someone who could not fight back.

Commentators weighed in, expressing sympathy for Robinson. “It was the first time a lot of white people and white reporters in particular noticed the abuse Robinson was taking,” Eig said, adding, “I interviewed a fan who had been a teenager who went to one of those games, heard the heckling, and was shocked.”

Chapman had come under pressure from within baseball by the time the Dodgers paid their first visit to Philadelphia that season, from May 9 to 11, with Robinson unable to stay in the same hotel as his teammates. He asked to have his picture taken with Robinson. The two men posed stiffly, holding the same bat.

All these years later, the City Council resolution seems like a more genuine gesture of atonement. “I’m sure Robinson would agree an apology is in order,” Eig said.

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