Jackie Robinson: Gone but not forgotten
Dodgers legend continued to be a force after his playing days
There was life after baseball for Jackie Robinson, although it was short and certainly bittersweet.Robinson made a significant contribution as a business leader, a civil rights and political activist and a newspaper columnist when he retired from the Brooklyn Dodgers after the 1956 season, his 10th and final one after breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947. "He was a transforming figure who made life in America better," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said about Robinson on the day he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2005. "He was a heroic freedom fighter, who was blessed with enormous gifts outside the lines." Although there were numerous awards, including his 1962 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Robinson was racked by diabetes and his health swiftly deteriorated. He became estranged from his beloved Dodgers and remained mostly detached from professional baseball until shortly before his death on Oct. 24, 1972 -- only 16 years after he retired. A year before Robinson passed, white-haired and nearly blind, he endured the mind-numbing death of Jackie Jr. -- his first-born child -- in an automobile accident, coming after years of drug abuse. Robinson was a Republican, but he was not afraid to cross party lines. In 1960, he supported Richard Nixon in his race against John F. Kennedy for the presidency, because he felt Nixon would be a better candidate for the civil rights movement, a position Robinson later regretted. For that reason, he supported Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in 1968. He was firmly behind then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and actively campaigned for him, ultimately working in Rockefeller's administration. During his life, Robinson was never afraid to speak out publicly when asked. He masterfully testified before a House Un-American Activities Committee in support of singer Paul Robeson, who was assailed for his perceived Communist ties. He also gladly testified on behalf of Curt Flood -- during Flood's losing case to overturn baseball's reserve clause -- and was one of the few former players to do so. In 1956, Robinson was traded to the archrival New York Giants. Though that event is often related as the impetus for the end of Robinson's career, it's only part of the story. At the time, Robinson had already agreed with William H. Black, the president of Chock Full o' Nuts, to quit for a top administrative position in the coffee company. The late Walter O'Malley gave him plenty of cover. The news of the pending trade was relayed to Robinson by then-general manager Buzzie Bavasi in a telephone call, Arnold Rampersad, now a Stanford professor, wrote in his book, "Jackie Robinson: A Biography," published in 1997. "Jack heard Bavasi's message with a widening smile, because its timing seemed to confirm the wisdom of his decision to quit baseball," Rampersad wrote. The trade -- for relief pitcher Dick Littlefield and $35,000 -- was only one facet of Robinson's falling out with O'Malley, who never offered Robinson a chance to coach or manage within the organization. But the seeds were sown years earlier when Branch Rickey, Robinson's mentor and the general manager who made it possible for him to play in the big leagues, left the Dodgers. In 1950, O'Malley and Rickey, both then one-fourth owners of the club, battled for control of the franchise. O'Malley maneuvered to purchase the other two shares. Wanting complete control, O'Malley offered to buy Rickey's share for $300,000, Rampersad wrote. Realizing that his days with the club were over, Rickey went into the market and found a buyer for $1.05 million. By club rule, O'Malley had to match that offer to buy the share, doing so with more than a little chagrin. O'Malley later learned that the offer was backed by John W. Galbreath, owner of the Pirates -- a club Rickey would almost immediately take over as general manager. "In O'Malley's eyes, Rickey had cheated him out of the sum," Rampersad wrote. Rickey's moves had long become suspect in O'Malley's eyes as the two battled within the organization. Even at the time, with Major League Baseball not fully integrated, the signing of Robinson was viewed as Rickey's biggest Dodgers' coup. But even the prescient O'Malley couldn't have foreseen that it gave Rickey a legacy, which will last as long as the story of Robinson's emergence is told. Robinson took the falling out and trade personally. His retirement was not announced by the Dodgers. It was held for an issue of LOOK Magazine, a slick national, largely photographic weekly that had an exclusive financial agreement with Robinson to pen a series of three stories that year. Without fanfare, Robinson quietly cleaned out his Ebbets Field locker in January 1957 and never stepped foot in the old Flatbush ballpark again. The Dodgers, of course, moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, while Robinson remained in the east, ultimately moving from New York to Connecticut. Until his death, Robinson rarely went to functions at Dodger Stadium. He attended a ceremony honoring his 1962 Hall of Fame induction and was there for the last time in '72, when the Dodgers finally retired his No. 42, along with the numbers of Sandy Koufax and Roy Campanella. Strangely, only three years earlier, the Dodgers had given away Robinson's famous number. It was worn for two months late in the 1969 season by Ray Lamb, a pitcher who was called up on Aug. 1. Lamb -- who played five years in the big leagues, but only one more for the Dodgers -- felt so squeamish about it that he gave up No. 42 for the 1970 season, said Mark Langill, the team's historian. By decree of Commissioner Bud Selig, No. 42 is now retired throughout baseball, but Lamb, not Robinson, was the last player to wear it for the Dodgers. Black, the Chock Full o' Nuts president, turned out to be one of Robinson's greatest benefactors, allowing him the time and flexibility to work on his columns (which were largely political), partake in his extensive fund-raising efforts for the NAACP and work behind the scenes on political campaigns. Robinson remained at the company until 1964. He also co-owned a clothing store, a construction company, founded the Freedom National Bank of Harlem and even delved back into baseball, working a stint in 1965 as a commentator on ABC's "Game of the Week." Though Robinson's voice was always a strong one, he never seemed to find his post-baseball stride. His final public appearance -- at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series between the Reds and A's -- came on Oct. 14. By that time, Robinson was so infirm that he had to turn down a fan's request that day to autograph a baseball, Rampersad relays in his book. "I'm sorry," Robinson told the fan. "I can't see it." He died of a heart attack only 10 days later at about 6:30 a.m. in his Connecticut home. The Rev. Jackson eulogized Robinson at the funeral, telling mourners that "even in death, he [has] figured out ways to continue the struggle." Nearly 35 years since Robinson's death, those words continue to ring true.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.