Honoring the breaking of color barrier

Honoring the breaking of color barrier

DEARBORN, Mich. -- A steal of home plate. Lonely road trips under racial tension. A simple book report.

Most people involved in baseball have some sort of story or memory of Jackie Robinson. Five people shared those stories in a forum on Saturday at the Henry Ford Museum as part of a tribute honoring the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Curtis Granderson joined former Tiger Gates Brown, broadcaster Ernie Harwell and Della Britton Baeza, the president of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, in a panel moderated by Lawrence Hogan, a college professor and author.

Granderson discussed his knowledge of Robinson, which has only continued to increase after completing a book report as a young elementary student.

"At first -- like every student -- [I was] like 'Aw, I gotta do a book report,'" Granderson said. "But as you get going into the book, it's something that you're actually interested in."

So Granderson has continued to learn about Robinson by talking with former players and broadcasters, reading books and participating in events like Saturday's.

It's a topic Granderson wants to continue to delve into, particularly how Robinson's impact has helped baseball turn into a global game.

"Playing the game now, you look out on the field, and you don't just see white [players]," Granderson said. "You see African-American ballplayers, Latino ballplayers, Japanese ballplayers, Hispanic ballplayers, Canadian ballplayers.

"Then you look in the stands and you see every generation and every demographic is represented. To see how it's evolved and how it will continue to evolve, I want to continue to learn."

It's a far cry from the types of games Harwell broadcasted at the beginning of his career. Although Harwell spent most of his career in Detroit, he was a broadcaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers for parts of two seasons in 1948-49, Robinson's second and third seasons.

It didn't take long for Robinson to make an impression on Harwell, who was hired by the Dodgers in the midst of the '48 season while the regular radio announcer, Red Barber, was recovering from an illness.

"The very first game I did, Jackie Robinson stole home in the very first inning," Harwell said. "To me, it was my introduction into the great charisma of Jackie Robinson. The way he played the game with the spirit that was needed."

Harwell and Robinson became friends during his time with the Dodgers. Harwell recalled playing Hearts with Robinson for 25 cents a hand during train rides to different cities.

The stolen base was Harwell's first memory of Robinson, but an exhibition series the next April between the Dodgers and Atlanta Crackers left more of an impression on the broadcaster.

"The Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan called the offices of the Atlanta team and said, 'I want to give you a warning. If Jackie Robinson plays that night, he will be shot and killed,'" Harwell said.

The three exhibition games drew overflow crowds, but there was never an incident. Robinson's persistence to play in the face of danger left the biggest mark on Harwell.

"He was able to confront, confound and mystify the hateful KKK," Harwell said. "Jackie was a great force in the civil rights movement, no question about that. He was a great hero and I was proud to know him."

While Robinson did help bring African-Americans into the game, Brown said not everything was perfect as he tried to break into the Majors in the early '60s. Namely, the biggest challenge was the limited social interaction between people of different skin color.

"It's lonely. There's times when it's lonely and my phone bill, with what little money I was making in the Minor Leagues, the phone bill took most of that because you want to talk to your mommy, you want to talk to your daddy, you want to talk to anybody, especially when you're not doing good," Brown said. "I sympathize with [Robinson]. With all he went through, that's probably the reason he died relatively young."

Robinson died in 1972 at just 53 years old. But players like Granderson are hoping that the things he stood for will continue to be remembered.

Granderson will at the very least have a personal reminder of Robinson that stemmed from when he wore the No. 42 in a game during Jackie Robinson Day earlier this season. A piece of memorabilia is in the process of being made for Granderson.

"I ended up having a play at home and the slide at home mirrored Jackie's," Granderson said. "I haven't seen the finished product yet, but I was excited to kind of go back in history a bit that day and have a memory I can keep for myself and my family."

Tim Kirby is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.