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Goold: On Jackie and the Cardinals

Goold: On Jackie and the Cardinals

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TOWER GROVE • There is a scene, as you’d expect, in the new Jackie Robinson biopic “42” that shows Cardinals Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter speeding for first base and, as he arrives, driving a cleat viciously into the back of Robinson’s leg.

The moment is inextricably linked to the Robinson narrative. It did happen during the 1947 season. And the perceived malicious motivation – which Slaughter would deny still decades later – fits into history as an anecdote for what Robinson faced on the field.

What’s not in the movie is what happened next between Robinson and Stan Musial.

From Great Time Coming, a superb biography about Robinson by David Falkner:

Later in the season, in a game between the Dodgers and Cards, Enos Slaughter, on a routine groundout, crossed the first-base bag and deliberately spiked Jackie. It was all Robinson could do to check his desire to retaliate. His pitcher, Ralph Branca, had a no-hitter at the time, and that helped. Robinson spent his fury barking at Branca to stay focused. The next inning, though, when Robinson reached first base, he let Stan Musial know that he would like to take Slaughter and some of his cohorts apart. “I don’t blame you,” the Cardinal star quietly replied.

Today, the 66th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson debuted and battered through baseball’s color barrier, players throughout Major League Baseball will wear the familiar No. 42, the only number retired throughout the majors. There will be a celebration at every ballpark today as part of Jackie Robinson Day, and for the first time since 2007 there will also be a ceremony at Dodger Stadium. Sixteen years ago, commissioner Bud Selig retired “42” and only one active player, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, still wears it every game because he was grandfathered in. When Rivera retires at the end of this season, the only 42s to take the field in a big-league game will be the ones worn on a day like today*.

* It was Ken Griffey Jr. who started this trend by asking Selig if he could wear 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. Other players followed. Now whole teams do it.

The Cardinals, who play in Pittsburgh tonight with 42s on their backs, are very much a part of the Robinson history, right down to the standings. Branch Rickey, who signed and promoted Robinson in order to force baseball to integrate, came to the Brooklyn Dodgers after using the Cardinals as his crucible for building a baseball club. (The modern minor leagues were his idea and the Cardinals were the first to employ them so successfully.) The Cardinals won the pennant in 1946 and Rickey wanted to give the Dodgers a jolt to surpass the Cardinals, which they did during Robinson’s rookie season. And the St. Louis-based Sporting News wrote at the beginning of the season that Robinson, if he was six years younger, would only have received a workout with a Class B team. At the end of the season, Robinson won the magazine’s Rookie of the Year award.

And then there are the moments like the one described above.

It just didn’t happen that way at all.

When it comes to the Cardinals and their reaction and role in Robinson’s rookie season, many stories and legends have been blended and combined into an anecdotal soup for the sake of drama or convenience. Of course, there is the rumored strike. Many historians, writers at The Post-Dispatch included, have failed to provide evidence that there was ever any organization to the rumored walkout of Cardinals players from a series against Robinson’s Dodgers. An article in The New York Herald Tribune was the match that burned the Cardinals as bigots by describing the strike they allegedly planned for a May series. The article's sources traced back to dinner conversation that included the Cardinals longtime team doctor, Dr. Robert Hyland, and his worry that the Cardinals wouldn't play the Dodgers.

Baseball historian Jules Tygiel, in his seminal book Baseball's Great Experiment, writes that the Cardinals strike “although generally accepted as an integral part of the Robinson legend, remains an extremely elusive topic.” Subsequent biographers have echoed that statement. In Opening Day, author Jonathan Eig writes “it’s clear that something did happen, but maybe not (like The New York Herald Tribune) described.” Hall of Fame baseball writer Bob Broeg, who covered the Cardinals for the Post-Dispatch and served as the papers contributing sports editor and columnist for decades, often wrote descriptions like this about the strike: “I've resented the story and the legend that only a threat of suspension from league president Ford Frick kept the team from boycotting. There were some disgruntled players, as well as on other clubs, including some teammates of Robinson. But in Frick's autobiography, he wrote the Cardinals were marked unfairly in the Robinson matter.”

Frick did help “mark” the Cardinals by sending a letter to the club that later went public and hinted that at least he had concerns that the Cardinals would strike or that other teams would and the Cardinals would fit as an example. The letter read, in part:

If you do strike, you will be suspended from the League. You will find that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do will encounter quick retribution.

That brings us back to first base and the conversation between Musial and Robinson.

It probably didn’t happen the way described above.

Musial was often described as supportive of Robinson and baseball’s integration. Writers pointed to his youth, when he played with African-American players on the fields of Donora, Pa. In his biography on Musial, George Vecsey quotes Julius Hunter, a writer in St. Louis, who described how “while (Robinson) was catching the nastiest worst hell of his life, with catcalls and objects being hurled onto the field in a very racist St. Louis at the time, Stan was one of only a couple of the Cardinals who stayed above it all.” One story holds that because of what Musial said at first base to Robinson or because of what Musial said to stop the rumored strike Slaughter slugged him in the gut. That was the reason behind Musial’s departure from the team for a stomach ailment, not the appendicitis that was advertised. Vecsey does tremendous reporting to pry truth from legend in a whole chapter devoted to Robinson and Musial in Stan Musial: An American Life.

Vecsey counts three different versions of the first-base talk. There is the one mentioned above. There is the one that involves a fight between Slaughter and Musial afterward or perhaps during the alleged discussions of boycotting the games. There is the one recalled later by witnesses at the game. Vecsey writes, “The fight version is bogus.” He illustrates how Branca did have a no-hitter going in the game, but the righty was out of the game when the spiking happened in the 11th inning. Robinson did reach first base in the 12th inning with a leadoff single. Roger Kahn, celebrated author of The Boys of Summer, quoted Robinson telling Musial, “I wish I could punch the son of a (gun) in the mouth.” Musial, during interviews, often said there was an exchange but it “happened so quickly.”

The response quoted in Falkner’s book is better, cleaner, sharper.

It’s ready-made for the movie. It fits the script of history if not the facts.

The facts aren’t so tidy.

“You have to admire a guy like Robinson going through what he did,” Musial said in 1978 as part of former commissioner Happy Chandler’s oral history project, and later quoted in Vecsey’s book. “He was pointed out, you know, as different, and ‘course I’m sure a lot of the players and pitchers worked harder to try to not let him succeed against them, you know, and so, you know, you kinda gotta admire him in a way. …

“What I’m trying to say is that I was glad Jackie came along.”

Today offers a chance for everyone to share that sentiment.

***

I will be hosting a chat this afternoon at 1 p.m. St. Louis time at StlToday.com. I cannot begin to guess (bullpen) what the main topics (bullpen) or prevailing concerns (bullpen) will be when the gates (bullpen) open for questions (bullpen).

***

Edward Mujica, the Cardinals seven-inning reliever, pulled the team out of the ninth Sunday and could offer a more veteran look to save situations if the club goes his direction tonight. After the game, he stood up for status quo, saying Mitchell Boggs was the right choice for the ninth.

"For me, Boggsy is the man right there," Mujica said. "He’s got the ninth inning. Rosey has the eighth and I’ve got the seventh. Boggsy is the man. He has to be there. He’s got pretty good stuff. He’s got pretty good stuff. We’re trying to keep it going because we’ve got a long season. It’s different (in the ninth). It’s totally different in those three innings, very different in the ninth. You have to go out there and be as quick as possible. You try to have the save and the win for the team. It's totally different (in the ninth). You have to prepare your mind and everything.”

***

In the weekly Cardinals Insider, I explored something new for Adam Wainwright and a few other pitchers this season, an approach that partially explains a spike in strikeouts so far this year. The Cardinals are encouraging elevation. They want pitchers, like Wainwright, to raise his fastball into the penthouse of the strike zone in order to play off his curveball. Lance Lynn, tonight’s starter, and Shelby Miller are being urged to climb the ladder because they have the horsepower to get a swing and miss up there. As always, there was some good stuff that didn’t reach the story because of space. One was the thought by Derek Lilliquist that hitters have changed in the past five to eight seasons as sinking, sinking, sinking has spread in baseball.

“There has been this evolution of hitters,” Lilliquist explained. “What they used to go after belt high has dropped down to mid-thigh. That’s the area you want to avoid now. They drop the bat down more. If you can find that area belt and above and then knee to the floor, you’re going to have a good day.”

***

ESPN The Magazine is reprinting some of its best stories during an anniversary celebration. One of those top stories is Lindsay Berra's on Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.

***

The Cardinals have gone one time through the rotation with the starters allowing a grand total of one run. According to Tom Orf and his magical database this is the third time since 1996 that a Cardinals rotation has pulled off that five-game, one-run feat. The staffs that did it:

April 9-14, 2013

Jaime Garcia – ND, 7 IP, 7 H, 0 R

Adam Wainwright – W SHO 9 IP, 4 H, 0 R

Shelby Miller -- W 7 IP, 1 H, 0 R

Jake Westbrook W SHO 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R

Lance Lynn W 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R

Sept. 29-Oct. 3, 2010

Jeff Suppan -- W 6 IP, 5 H, 0 R

Kyle Lohse – ND 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R

Jake Westbrook – W 7.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R

Chris Carpenter – W, CG 9 IP, 4 H, 1 R

P.J. Walters -- W 7 IP, 3 H, 0 R

May 19-23, 2009

Kyle Lohse -- W 8 IP, 4 H, 0 R,

Todd Wellemeyer -- W 6 IP, 4 H, 0 R

Adam Wainwright -- W 8.2 IP, 5 H, 1 R

Chris Carpenter -- W 5 IP, 3 H, 0 R,

Joel Pineiro --SHO 9 IP, 3 H, 0 R

***

KMOX has a fascinating interview with Jackie Robinson from a visit he made to St. Louis in 1960 and the station will replay it tonight after the Cardinals game. In the clip that I had a chance to hear, Robinson does not shy away from any topic, and he throws some haymakers when talking about politicians of the era. One caller asked about presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s religion. Another caller asks whether a law forbidden interracial marriage should be considered. (“I don’t think any individual has the right to tell anybody else whom they should or should not marry,” Robinson says in quote that reads the same despite the different question being asked today.) What sounds like a kid cuts through the political and social questions to switch the conversation back to baseball.

All he wanted to know was the toughest pitcher Robinson ever faced.

“There was a righthander over in Cincinnati, Ohio, by the name of Ewell Blackwell,” Robinson says in the KMOX interview. “And you’ll remember Ewell. Ewell was a man that looked to a righthander like he was falling out of a tree. … Righthanders didn’t want to stay in the batter’s box when Ewell Blackwell threw. He not only threw from almost at third base, but he was quick, good curveball and actually we were kind of afraid to hit against him.”

Enjoy the 42s.

-30-

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