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I’ve been with the Dodgers for 56 years now, and have seen a lot of talented, driven and special players in my day.
But none more competitive than Jackie Robinson. I played with him in Brooklyn, and can say from experience that he had the heart of a lion.
Jackie characterized all of the above qualities, and did so while representing the Dodgers to the utmost degree of class, dignity and character. Jackie also represented Major League Baseball’s progress, and the vision of Walter O’Malley and Branch Rickey thus establishing the Dodger tradition of innovation.
When you hear talk of a five-tool player nowadays, you have to look at Jackie as the prototype. He could beat you with his bat, he could beat you with his legs and he could beat you with his arm. More than anything though, he wanted to beat you bad if you weren’t wearing a Dodger uniform. So much so that when he was traded to the Giants at the end of his career, instead of reporting, he quit because he hated them so much he just refused to go into their clubhouse.
Before Jackie became a Dodger, he lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track and field at UCLA. His athleticism was only bested by his character. Branch Rickey chose Jackie because he knew what kind of guy he was. There were more talented players in the Negro Leagues than Jackie, but there was more at stake than just baseball.
Mr. Rickey knew what Jackie would have to endure. Playing in Brooklyn was one thing, but when the Dodgers would leave Vero Beach after Spring Training, we would start playing games in Miami and work our way to Brooklyn through cities like Tampa, Mobile, Chattanooga, Nashville, Birmingham, Louisville, Washington D.C. and into New York to play a few games against the Yankees.
Our spring games overflowed with fans. In fact, so many African-American fans came out to watch Jackie they would have to rope off sections of the outfield for crowd control. Jackie would have to take a lot of abuse both on and off the field, but the "Captain," Pee Wee Reese protected him and all the other teammates supported him. Mr. Rickey had to release a few Southern players who refused to support Jackie as a Dodger before they brought him to Brooklyn.
When Jackie was on the field, he was exhilarating. Every at-bat was exciting, and when he got on base, things happened. Our opponents would take shots at him at every base he reached. He knew what they were trying to do, but he never backed down, he never half-stepped, he never relinquished his competitive zeal. He played baseball like he was still in a pair of shoulder pads taking handoffs in the UCLA backfield. His style was not one of reckless abandon. He knew what he risked every time he stepped on the field, but he refused to be intimidated.
Jackie was also a good friend. He loved to shoot pool with the guys and was very social with everyone in our clubhouse. I’ll never forget what he said to me during my Major League debut. I was struggling a bit and had a few runners on base. Jackie came to the mound from second base and said, "Settle down now. We’ll get you a double play and get out of this." His encouragement meant the world to me.
As we remember Jackie, and honor his legacy throughout the Majors, let’s try to exemplify one of his most profound statements: A life is only important as the impact it has on other lives.