Crossing the Line
Jackie Robinson Broke Race Barriers and Baseball Records
Al Gionfriddo, a reserve outfielder with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, told me about the racist taunts that bombarded Jackie Robinson. The fans in Cincinnati were particularly abusive, he said, and Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman was notorious for spewing his animosity toward the first black ballplayer in the major leagues. It was one thing to hear Gionfriddo recite his memories of a bygone era. It was quite another to see and hear the virulence reenacted on the big screen in the newly released movie 42.
The film is firmly focused on that season, from Robinson’s debut on April 15 to the Dodgers’ clinching of the National League pennant. Although it ultimately portrays the triumph of Robinson and his squire, Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey, over the forces of hatred, it does not apply much Hollywood gloss to their struggle.
There was considerable resistance among the Dodger players themselves to the arrival of Robinson into their fraternity. Several of them signed a petition saying they would refuse to take the field with him. Most of them relented when Rickey threatened to trade them, but Kirby Higbe, a pitcher from South Carolina, remained adamant. That brought Gionfriddo, who started the season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, to Brooklyn—and resulted in his only mention in 42.
“I’ve been traded for an Italian outfielder named Al Jonfreedoe,” says a disgusted Higbe, played in the movie by Brad Beyer. “To Pittsburgh!” Higbe was one of five players that Rickey sent to the Pirates in exchange for Gionfriddo. The journeyman outfielder would have his moment of fame for making a running catch of Joe DiMaggio’s long drive in the 1947 World Series, but he spent the rest of his playing career in the minor leagues. Gionfriddo came to Santa Barbara as general manager of a minor-league club in 1962 and stayed in the area until his death in 2003.
Gionfriddo was proud of his ability and thought he should have stuck in the majors. Rickey sent him to the Dodgers’ farm club in Montreal, he said, to boost the attendance there with the attraction of a World Series hero. The Dodgers did have a younger outfielder to promote to the big club — future Hall of Famer Duke Snider. Gionfriddo’s reminiscences pointed out something that must have been a factor in the hostility to Jackie Robinson–the insecurity of many ballplayers, the fear that somebody better may come along and take away their jobs.
Another aspect of 42 that comes across strongly is baseball’s ritualistic role in American culture. The national anthem is sung all the way through on opening day. Red Barber, played by John C. McGinley, is in the radio booth, and there is no mistaking where Vin Scully’s style came from. In some ways, viewing the film beats going to a major league game when it comes to appreciating the details of the action on the diamond without distraction. “Oh, I love baseball,” said a woman in the theater, as if realizing it for the first time.
It’s hard to believe the Dodgers would spend only 10 more years in Brooklyn after that historic 1947 season. On a visit to New York last February, I visited the site of their old ballpark. Ebbets Field opened in April 1913 and went vacant after the 1957 season, when the Dodgers moved west. It was torn down in 1960 to make room for the Ebbets Field Apartments, a high-rise housing project. The loss of the Dodgers remains a bitter memory among Brooklynites, and the ballclub’s former presence has been virtually erased from the site. As near as I could figure, the location of home plate was an oil stain in the parking lot.
There is one sign of the glory of the Dodgers’ times. Across the street from the housing complex is PS 375 Jackie Robinson School, and on a wall facing the street is a bright mural depicting the pioneer ballplayer.
GAUCHO BALL: For the first time in seven years, UCSB won a baseball game at Cal State Fullerton, the nation’s No. 4–ranked team. Behind freshman pitcher Robby Nesovic, the Gauchos shut out the Titans 2-0 last Sunday. They will try to build on that victory this weekend (April 19-21) when they host the Long Beach State Dirtbags in a three-game Big West Conference series at Caesar Uyesaka Stadium.
PREP VOLLEYBALL: Sixteen high school boys’ volleyball teams will be competing in the Karch Kiraly Tournament of Champions at Santa Barbara High on Friday-Saturday, April 19-20. Defending champion Esperanza features last year’s outstanding player, 6’6” Jake Arnitz, still just a junior.
CATCH AND EAT: One of the big outdoor events of the year is the 18th annual Trout Derby at Cachuma Lake on Saturday-Sunday, April 20-21. It benefits the Neal Taylor Nature Center at the lake.