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How the Kansas City Monarchs were the portal to Jackie Robinson's future 75 years ago

Jackie Robinson in 1950.

U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES

By VAHE GREGORIAN | The Kansas City Star | Published: May 7, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — Two days before the end of World War II in the European theater in 1945, a more subtle historical milestone unfolded at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium, then known as Ruppert Stadium.

On May 6, 1945, a fellow named Jackie Robinson made his professional baseball debut for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. In a 6-2 victory over the Chicago American Giants, Robinson played shortstop and went 1-for-4 with an RBI double, stole a base and scored a run.

Seventy-five years later, that moment remains an underappreciated and improbable launch point that ultimately became a portal to another dimension.

“That no one saw coming,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Many baseball fans and those who have followed the civil rights movement are well aware of the monumental significance of April 15, 1947, when Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the catalyst for the broader integration of baseball ... and the nation.

But that April 15 doesn’t happen without this particular May 6.

“You can’t really separate those two,” Kendrick said. “But for most baseball fans, this is new history.”

Like a lot of history, it’s one that features some fascinating twists of fate, including the paradoxical bittersweetness of what it set in inevitable motion.

“Little did (Monarchs owner) J.L. Wilkinson know that he was signing the man who would actually put him out of business,” Kendrick said.

Because even as Robinson’s walk onto the field later with the Dodgers advanced civil rights, it heralded the death of the Negro Leagues and a severe blow to black-owned businesses.

“What was good morally (and) what was good socially was devastating economically,” Kendrick said. “There is always a cost for progress.”

In this case, the face of progress may well have been different, or been a longer time coming, if not for World War II and the national pastime playing on.

As it affected the Monarchs, the notable likes of Buck O’Neil, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown and Ted Strong were off to war, leaving Wilkinson seeking players for the powerhouse he had owned from its inception in 1920 and that would eventually send 27 men to the major leagues.

“If that group of players was back with the Monarchs, there’s no way Jackie gets invited — there’s no way,” Kendrick said. “And how would history have been altered?”

Pausing and smiling, he added, “Then again, Jackie always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.”

Including at Fort Hood, Texas, where in 1944 Robinson had received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army after being court-martialed and found not guilty for refusing to move to the back of a military bus … but also where Monarchs pitcher Hilton Smith had seen Robinson play.

Between some combination of Smith recommending Robinson to Wilkinson and Robinson writing the Monarchs, as he says in his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” a contract was arranged ($400 a month) and Robinson was invited to spring training with the Monarchs.

Living at the Street Hotel at 18th and The Paseo near the NLBM today, Robinson is believed to have gained some of his fondness for jazz here and was known to enjoy the ribs at Ol’ Kentuck Bar-B-Q, forerunner to the Gates Bar-B-Q chain.

But as a former multi-sport athlete at UCLA, he wasn’t fond of playing in the Negro Leagues and resented the Jim Crow laws that segregated the black community here. And he had a disdain for the lifestyle, writing in his book of the “poorly financed” operation and “fatiguing travel” and racism on the road and wondering, “What had the black player to hope for? What was his future?”

As it happens, the wave of the future arrived in August 1945 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, where Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth approached Robinson on behalf of Branch Rickey. By the end of the month, Robinson and Rickey had their famous summit, and Robinson didn’t even finish the season with the Monarchs.

Outraged as Wilkinson might have been over losing Robinson, any inclination he had to fight with Rickey over compensation for the contract was tempered by the potential consequences of that:

How would it look for a white man to try to deny this groundbreaking opportunity?

“If it was even conceived that he stood in the way of a black man going to the major leagues, what every black person in America had really been waiting for, he’s damned if he did,” Kendrick said. “And, of course, as we know, damned if he didn’t.”

Wilkinson sold his interest in the team in 1948, and the Negro Leagues evaporated over the next few years with the gradual but steady onset of major-league integration.

Despite leaving the Monarchs, that fall Robinson played in California with the barnstorming version, aka the Kansas City Royals, thus named because Wilkinson wouldn’t let manager Chet Brewer co-opt the Monarchs name.

By then, it was understood that Robinson had been signed into the Dodgers system. And perhaps there was some frustration about that from peers such as Satchel Paige.

“Satchel was likely resentful,” Kendrick said. “Because Satchel was the Negro Leagues. And you’re taking a guy who’s a relative unknown.”

But while there were bigger stars and better players, Kendrick added, the prevailing realization was that this was about more than just how well you could play the game.

“To hear (former Monarch star ) Connie Johnson and those guys talking about Jackie at that time, they knew he was different,” Kendrick said. “And as Buck would say, ‘We were acclimated to segregation. But not Jackie.’ ”

Others, like soon-to-follow Larry Doby, surely could deftly have handled the role of being first.

But with scant margin for error, Robinson was indeed the right man at the right time and earned his immortality many times over.

He thrived on the field amid frequent abuse, a pioneer whose way was paved in part by his fleeting but indelible and pivotal time here.

“It doesn’t happen without Kansas City and the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said. “That should be part of his story.”

©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)
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