Extra Chapter 3
It’s impossible to gauge the impact of Jackie Robinson on the conscience of America, but it would not be an exaggeration to say it was huge and dramatic. For years the white supremacists were saying that blacks were inferior, that they couldn’t work or learn or succeed like the white man. For children not yet tainted by the stench of racism, the success of Jackie Robinson was empirical proof that the racists were wrong. One need only gauge the huge impact Robinson’s success made all over the country.
When Robinson came to the Dodgers, Branch Rickey, the man who signed him, gave him explicit orders not to fight back when antagonized during his first two years on the field. Robinson’s success in the face of tremendous hostility endeared him not only to rabid fans in Brooklyn but to those fair-minded admirers of heroes all over the country, including the Deep South. It is fair to say that Jackie Robinson brought a legion of men and women into the civil rights movement even before there was a civil rights movement. Robinson may not have swayed the bigots, but he certainly brought to his side those who felt he and his race had been treated unfairly for so long but who had no way of making their feelings known. By rooting for Robinson, the foes of racism were able to express their point of view.
Gene Brock, who grew up in the 1950s in one of the poorest areas of the country, Wilkes County, North Carolina, as a boy could not understand the racist attitudes of his fellow townsmen. Working in his father’s grocery store, he heard the anti-black remarks and cringed. When Jackie Robinson, arguably Brooklyn’s most important contribution to American democracy, joined the Dodgers in 1947 and became an instant success, Brock saw the ballplayer’s success as proof that his earlier assessments of blacks were correct – they were good people who weren’t at all second-rate. Brock lionized Robinson and adopted the Dodgers as his own and never looked back. He considers himself a better man for it lo these many years later.
Gene Brock: “When my dad was fourteen he began working in a downtown North Wilkesboro store owned by a man named Mr. Smithey, who owned several grocery and department stores around northwestern North Carolina. By the time he was seventeen, he was given the job managing his grocery store out on Highway 18 heading north out of town. It was one open building with two gas pumps out front. It had a meat market on the side. My dad was a great butcher. We sold all kinds of groceries and all sorts of household needs.
“North Wilkesboro was a small town, around five thousand people. We didn’t have a lot of black people in our area, but most of the ones we had were farmers. Many of them stopped at the store where my dad was manager and bought gasoline and cattle feed and groceries.
“The black people I knew were super people, well mannered, spoke better English than I do, were just very nice people. They were black people who earned a living by hard work, and as a boy growing up around them in the store, I grew to admire them greatly.
“I also had a barber who was a black man, and he lived a half mile from our store, and every now and then dad would take me over to get my hair trimmed. I never knew anything about black people other than I liked them.
“I was born in 1937, so I was ten when the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. I just started paying attention to Jackie Robinson, what he was doing on the Dodgers, and I got to know practically every Dodger on the team. There was an FM radio station in Gastonia, just south of Charlotte, and they carried the Brooklyn Dodger network. From 1947 to 1957 I listened to over a hundred Dodger games a year over that station.
“During the summertime I would spend my time helping out around the store. In fact, when I turned twelve, I became one of the clerks, and my dad knew how much I liked baseball, and so he let me play the radio, which you could hear throughout the store. You’d walk in the front door, and you’d hear the Dodgers playing.
“It was funny, sometimes the customers would listen to the game as they were gathering the goods they wanted to buy, and the announcer might say, `Here comes Chuck Dressen out, and it looks like he’s going to replace the pitcher.’ And I would say, `Oh well,’ and I’d call out the name of the pitcher I was sure was coming in, and about that time the announcer would say his name, and the customers would say, `How do you do that?’ I’d say, `I know the Dodgers.’ Or in the late innings it looked like the pitcher was due and the announcer would say, `The Dodgers are bringing in,” and I’d say, `Shotgun Shuba,’ and abut that time the announcer would say, `Shotgun Shuba.’ People would say, `Who did you do that?’ I’d say, `Cause I know the Dodgers.’
“I would have the radio on every afternoon that they played in 1947, and occasionally a guy would walk in and say, `Oh, listen to that. That’s them damn Dodgers. They signed the nigger Robinson.’ I was ten years old, and it would make my blood boil. The more I’d hear of that kind of talk, the more I loved Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers. Jackie coming to the Dodgers really was what kindled my love affair with the Dodgers.
“Even before that year I loved baseball. I always liked history, and baseball has the greatest history of any sport. In what other sport can you find the statistics of all the players going back to before the turn of the century?
“When I was six I got scarlet fever, and I was bedridden for about six weeks. All I could do was read. I earned to read at home by reading comic books. Even after I became a school principal, I told my stuents’ parents, `There isn’t anything wrong reading comic books as long as they learn to read and they’re not pornographic.’
“I was a terrific reader. I checked out every book on baseball in the library. I read every book written by John R. Tunis. He wrote The Kid from Tomkinsville, which is a Dodger story. Back then I was reading Superman and Captain Marvel, and those cowboy comic books about Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. So I learned to read at an early age. When I was in elementary school, my teachers had to assign me books two to three years in advance of my grade to keep me interested.
“I got to be a real Dodger fan. I collected magazines. I cut pictures out of SPORT magazine and other baseball magazines. I gathered up a number of Dodger pictures and put them in scrapbook, and on the front was a big old script, Dodgers, that I pasted on the front of it.
“So everyone knew I loved the Dodgers, and one day in October of 1953, an older gentleman by the name of Carl Kantor said he was going to Winston-Salem to see a baseball game and would I like to go? Two barnstorming teams were appearing about two weeks after the World Series. They would play to catch a little extra money. Among the players would be four Dodgers, Don Newcombe, Gil Hodges, Cal Abrams, and Roy Campanella.
“I said, `Sure I want to go.’
“When the time came he said, `I have a couple of other guys going with me, and I just have a pickup. You’re going to have to ride in the back.’
“I said, `That’s fine with me.’
I wore a jacket and tie to the ballgame because for some reason my mom was really concerned about my appearance. For some reason in those days if you were going out of town, you wanted to look good, so my mom made sure I got dressed up and wore my bow tie that night.
“I was in the back of the pick up, and we drove the sixty miles to Winston-Salem, and it wasn’t too cool so I was fine back there, and I went on in to the stadium.
“I was standing beside a small, waist-high gate looking at the players when this short, nice lady came up to me. She wasn’t quite five feet
“I had brought my little Brownie camera, and I stood near the dressing room where the major leaguers were.
She said, `What’s your favorite team?’
“I said, `Oh, the Dodgers.’
“She said, `Would you like to meet the ones who are here?’
“I said, `Yes, ma’am.’
“`Come with me.’ She opened the gate, and we went marching onto the field. Come to find out she was a sportswriter for the Winston-Salem Journal. She went over and gathered the four Dodgers who were there, Don Newcombe, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and Cal Abrams, and she introduces me to them, tells them I came sixty miles to see them play and that they are my heroes. She put me right in the middle of them, and the paper’s photographer snapped our picture, and she wrote a long article about me going to see my heroes that appeared in the paper the next day. She also included the picture.
“From then on I was a baseball worshipper. I had met my heroes, found out they were everyday people like myself, that I could talk to them, and still I admired them so much.
Two years later another barnstorming tour came to Winston-Salem in October, and this time the notice said that Jackie Robinson was going to be there. I went down with a couple of friends. By then I was sixteen, and this time I wore a blazer with gray pants and a regular red tie. I went over and stood by where the players were dressing, and I had a little Brownie camera with me, and I handed it to a guy standing on the other side of the entrance, and I said, `Sir, if any Dodgers come out, and if I can get any of the Brooklyn Dodgers to stop, would you please take a picture of them and me together?’ He said, `Sure.’ I had no more said that when out pops two Dodgers, Gil Hodges and Jackie Robinson.
“I said immediately, `Mr. Hodges, Mr. Robinson, would you mind if I got a picture made with you?’
“They said, `Certainly, be glad to.’
“So I stood in the middle between those two, and got my picture snapped with my old Brownie camera, and it turned out pretty good. I have the picture, but I have hidden it from myself. It’s in a scrapbook somewhere. Maybe some day I will find it. I took another picture, of him and a member of the Baltimore Orioles, and that one I have.
“That was the one time I got to meet Jackie, and he was such a gentleman to me. Of course, that fanned the flames, and I became even more devoted to him and to the Dodgers. I was a Dodger fanatic.
“My birthday is March 24, and in 1954 I went to Fort Myers, Florida to see the Dodgers right around that time, so I might have been seventeen and I might have been eighteen. It was my senior year in high school. My mother, brother, sister and I were visiting my aunt in Tampa, and I knew the Dodgers were down in Ft. Myers, so my mom drove us down there to see the Dodgers play the Pirates.
“Rube Walker was the second-string catcher for the Dodgers behind Campanella, and Rube was from Lenoir, North Carolina, about thirty-five miles west of North Wilkesboro. I went over to the edge of the stands and saw Rube and yelled his name, and he came over, and I introduced myself and told him I was from North Wilkesboro and that I had always wanted to meet Duke Snider. He said, `We can do that.’ He had me come down one the field, and he called Duke over. I got my picture takes with Duke, the first of the many times I had the pleasure to meet him.
“When the Dodgers moved to Brooklyn to L.A. in ’58, back then the newspapers didn’t carry the late games from the coast until the second day. I’d open the paper, and I wouldn’t know whether the Dodgers won or lost. I kept saying to myself, They are out in California. I guess I better change teams.
“I tried real hard to become a Cardinal fan or a Pirates fan, because I could pick up both of those radio stations that had their games on. And I’d listen to them, but I couldn’t make myself interested. I’d still be looking for the two-day old Dodger box score, until finally I said, The heck with it. I’m a Dodger fan, and I’m never going to get over it.
“I’ve always given Jackie credit for my becoming a Dodger fan, and I have to say he made me a better person as well. As a kid I couldn’t understand how a person could dislike someone else because of the color of his skin. I still do not understand why there are racial problems, but I will agree there certainly are. It didn’t make any sense to me, but it was part of the South, something kids picked up from the grandfathers and fathers, and I’m so pleased Jackie happened to me, because coming from the South I might have ended up a racist too. But Jackie just inspired me: all the things he stood for and fought against in his battle to have the right to play in the major leagues and do anything every citizen should be able to do.
“I had a chance to tell that to Rachel Robinson before the All Star game in Cleveland in 1997. I walked up to her and told her the story, and she was so nice and gracious. She smiled so big and thanked me for telling her the story, said it made her feel so good. I was so pleased. Jackie was such a hero of mine.”