It’s 1947. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is planning to make
Jackie Robinson the first African American to play major league baseball. Jackie is on his way
to Canada by train where he will join the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ minor league affiliate
in the International League. But Robinson is not on the train when it reaches Montreal. The
telegram reads, "Mr. Rickey, Jackie Robinson did not arrive at the station as scheduled. We have
alerted the authorities."
Branch Rickey is a tough businessman, seasoned and confident. But now his hands are
trembling, and his legs offer no support. He sits in the worn wooden office chair behind his desk
and reflects. Robinson is reliable. He’s not a gambler, a drinker or womanizer. He was
specifically chosen to break the baseball color barrier because of his temperate demeanor.
Jackie attended UCLA, where he won varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball and track.
Then he enlisted in the army where he served for two years and received an honorable
discharge. He was playing baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues before
the Dodgers signed him. Baseball wasn’t even his best sport. And now he’s missing. Something
has happened to him, and it's my fault. Rickey's chest tightens. He feels pressure in his left
arm. His forehead is laden with sweat. He takes a breath. The chest pain relents, and a
resourceful thought enters his mind. I'll call Pee Wee.
Dodgers' shortstop Harold "Pee Wee" Reese received his nickname as a childhood
marbles champion in Louisville, Kentucky. Besides playing major league baseball, the Dodger
shortstop works for a detective agency during the off season. "Pee Wee," Rickey says after his
secretary has notified him Reese is on line one, "Jackie Robinson has disappeared. He was
supposed to be in Montreal yesterday but didn’t show up. Do you think those racist bastards
have gotten hold of him?"
This is 1940’s America. There is the Ku Klux Klan, and then there is a group of white
major leaguers, led by the infamous Rogers Hornsby, who played for Rickey when he managed
the Saint Louis Cardinals from 1919 to 1925. This bigoted collection of players has made it
known that they don’t want "any niggers" in major league baseball. Reese is aware of this group
Pee Wee pauses for a minute, then thinks of someone who may be of help. He tells
Rickey, "You’ll probably say, 'You’ve lost your mind,' but how about calling Thurgood
Marshall, the NAACP lawyer. He spends a lot of time in New York and is a big Dodger fan.
Funny, isn’t it, a famous Negro attorney from Baltimore who follows the Brooklyn Dodgers, but
I’ve seen him in the stands at Ebbets Field."
"Go ahead and contact him, Pee Wee," Rickey answers. "We’ve already notified the
police, but maybe Mr. Marshall has his own ideas about how to handle this." Reese dials the
operator who ultimately connects him to Marshall at the NAACP regional office in New York.
Mr. Marshall is a big fan of the Dodger shortstop and is happy to hear from him. "I may be able
to help, Pee Wee," Thurgood Marshall tells him. "Let me make some calls."
The great barrister is concerned, but chuckles and says to himself, "I think I know who’s
behind this." He has his secretary place a call to FBI headquarters at the Department of Justice
building in Washington D.C. The call is routed through several impediments but eventually
arrives in the office of the FBI’s director and chief. "Mr. Hoover, this is Thurgood Marshall, an
Attorney for the NAACP."
Hoover is not pleased to hear from Marshall, whom he considers a troublemaker, but
knows he must take the call. "What can I do for you, Mr. Marshall?"
"Well, it seems that Jackie Robinson has disappeared. He was scheduled to join
Brooklyn’s minor league affiliate in Montreal yesterday, but it never arrived. I’m concerned
something has happened to him. I thought you might be able to help."
Now, J. Edgar Hoover is no fan of integration, in baseball or anywhere else. It turns out
he ordered his agents to intercept Robinson at the Canadian border, transfer him to a remote
location in upstate New York, and hold him there until he agrees to abandon his decision to join
the Dodgers. Hoover plans to offer Robinson a lifetime of luxury in Cuba if he accepts the
director's proposal. J. Edgar has arranged a deal with the Cuban president, who is even now
awaiting Robinson’s arrival in that baseball loving island nation.
Hoover realizes that Marshall suspects the F.B.I. is involved in Robinson’s
disappearance, and that he will not relent until Jackie is released and those behind the abduction
are punished. Hoping to appeal to Marshall’s patriotism, he confides, "Allow me to read you a
sinister poem which Robinson has written. As you know, Mr. Robinson is a highly educated
man, but we believe he is a threat to our country’s security. The poem’s title is "The Edge of
The hills at the edge of town
Rise like baking dough
Up into the grey sky.
They break the dull horizon
Of the crimson sky
That safeguards the frontier
Of the scarlet country
Where allies endure.
"This is a communist poem, sir. As you may plainly observe, ‘crimson’ and ‘scarlet’ are
surrogates for ‘red', and 'allies' are practically a synonym of 'comrades'. What we are dealing with
here is nothing less than a scheme for communist infiltration of our national pastime."
"Mr. Hoover, I have also received an education, and I recognize your speechwriter’s
handiwork in this poem. He is a lover of simile, and 'rise like baking dough,' has surely been
written by your assistant. And he has yet to write a speech without the patriotic word,
"safeguard," or the friendly term, 'allies’. No, this poetry is a brazen attempt by the F.B.I. to
characterize Mr. Robinson as a communist to prevent him from playing major league baseball."
Hoover is astounded by Marshall’s perspicacity and realizes that further attempts to
obscure the truth will be unproductive. He exhales and dismally cradles his forehead in a sweaty
palm. "Your conjectures are correct. My agents have detained him at the Canadian border, and I
assure you that he is safe and unharmed. What are you planning to do with this information,
"When I have corroboration that Jackie is no longer in danger, I will release this
information to the United States Attorney’s office in New York and allow them to proceed as
they are inclined."
"Very well, I will arrange his release." The director slams the phone into its cradle after
hearing a dial tone.
Hoover’s promise is implemented; Jackie is liberated by the F.B.I. and escorted to
Montreal unharmed. Marshall follows through with his intent to notify the U.S. Attorney’s
office. Evidence is presented to the grand jury, and J. Edgar Hoover is indicted for kidnapping.
A trial is planned for the fall.
But the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman, of Independence, Missouri, is a
loyal and lifelong fan of the Saint Louis Cardinals. He receives a call from Rogers Hornsby, the
inveterate racist and the greatest player in Cardinals history, concerning Hoover’s indictment.
"Mr. President," Hornsby states, "I’m calling on behalf of white America. As you are
aware, J. Edgar Hoover has been indicted in New York for kidnapping Jackie Robinson. Mr.
Hoover was merely trying to avert civil unrest by preventing Robinson’s entry into major league
baseball. I’m asking you to dismiss the indictment against this devoted patriot and allow Mr.
Hoover to continue as director of the F.B.I."
Truman, beleaguered, but astute, answers with a spent sigh, "Yes, I’m fully aware of
your position and of Mr. Hoover’s behavior. And while I condemn your bigotry, it would be
unseemly to allow this otherwise patriotic American to be humiliated before the entire world.
Therefore, I will reluctantly grant your request to pardon Mr. Hoover."
Hoover’s indictment is vacated, and he resumes his duties at the F.B.I., where he will
serve as chief until 1972. Jackie Robinson debuts at second base for the Dodgers on April 15,
1947, and subsequently is elected rookie of the year. Fans at ballparks throughout the National
League abuse Robinson with vicious taunts and malevolent racial epithets. Assorted white
baseball players try to injure Jackie by sliding into second base with their spikes raised. This
practice is abandoned after Pee Wee Reese conspicuously places his arm around Robinson’s
shoulder on the field prior to a Dodgers home game.
Thurgood Marshall, following a remarkable career as counsel to the NAACP where, in
1954, he prevails in the renowned Brown vs. The Board of Education dispute, which prohibits
racial segregation in public schools, is appointed justice of the Supreme Court in 1967. As the
first African American to achieve this position, he serves on the court for twenty-four years,
until he retired in 1991. He is replaced by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Branch Rickey remains with the Dodger organization until 1950, returns to the
Cardinals in 1962, and retired from major league baseball in 1964, following Saint Louis’
victory in that year’s World Series. He is elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1967, where he
is remembered for breaching baseball’s infamous color barrier twenty years earlier. Jackie
Robinson enjoys a Hall of Fame career dishonored by recurrent racial abuse from fans and
fellow players. Several years after retirement, he dies of a heart attack at the age of 52. Jackie’s
uniform number 42 is permanently retired on April 15, 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of his first
major league baseball game.
On April 15, 2022, seventy-five years after Jackie’s first major league game, every
player and coach in professional baseball wears the number 42.