In honor of last year’s Major League Baseball All Star Game in St. Louis, Missouri, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, I thought I’d tell the tale of one of the most famous contracts of all time, Jackie Robinson’s signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers to break the baseball color barrier, and the Cardinal players’ planned strike that never happened, a phantom from another era.
Over the broad expanse of a crimson hood, the two hallowed outfielders smiled for photographers on Opening Day of the 2009 season. Smiles on their faces, they rode a red car through the bowels of Busch Stadium and out into the light of the field’s open air, waving to fans and chatting with each other as they basked in applause and each other’s reflected glory.
Who knew this day would be possible many decades ago? It may have been hard to envision for Stan Musial, the greatest Cardinal hitter of all time, who played for the mighty Cardinals of the early 1940s, a team made up of white players, in a league full of whites, without a single black or brown skinned player to sully the supremacist ideals of the time. But today, on this Opening Day, Musial, the white skinned Pennsylvanian, rides in the car next to Albert Pujols, a brown Dominican, and the greatest Cardinal hitter since Musial. Pujols is so great that he may actually be better than Musial, as Cardinals aficionados will no doubt debate endlessly in the years to come when Pujols amasses more hits and honors in our grand expected future imaginings. But, for now, forget about the unknown future, for this day, today, provides a future we already know, a future we can surprisingly see from the strained past of 1947.
What do we see? We see Musial and Pujols smiling at each other, mugging for the cameras, praising each other’s hitting prowess, Pujols querying Musial for tips on batting, Musial cracking jokes in response, as beloved as ever to the Cardinals patrons, forever their Stan “The Man.” Pujols maintains such respect for Musial that he rejects the nickname, “El Hombre” (Spanish for “the man”), which the St. Louis scribes bestowed on him, saying that there is only one man, Stan Musial, and the press should not refer to any other with that appellation.
Seeing this respect, this torch, handed down from the 1947 generation to the 2009 one, must be an inspiring sight to behold from 1947 eyes. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had signed Jackie Robinson, who in that year took over second base and, more importantly, became the first black player in Major League Baseball. Many writers have detailed the numerous death threats, curses, slights and horrific indignities faced by Robinson, and James Giglio offers an account of the Cardinal reaction in the biography, “Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man.”
Giglio called 1947 “A Troubling Year.” And the troubles were many. Dixie Walker, Robinson’s Dodger teammate, led the vitriol among his fellow southern players within the Dodger clubhouse. When the Dodger’s star shortstop, Kentuckian Pee Wee Reese, defied this confederation by befriending Robinson, Walker’s support whittled away. However, Walker knew players on other teams who felt the same. Chicago Cub starting pitchers were directed to knock Robinson down. Alabaman Ben Chapman, manager of the Phillies, encouraged his players to bean Robinson with pitches and spike him on the basepaths. It’s important to note that not all southerners were unfair to Robinson, though, who recalled that Cardinals second baseman and South Carolinian Marty Marion “was always nice to me.”
Many teams even considered voting as to whether or not they would be willing to play the Dodgers. Several key factors set the stage for the Cardinals’ strike talk. St. Louis boasted one of the largest contingents of southern players in the National League. St. Louis was the home of Sporting News, the self-styled bible of baseball, which had previously been against integration. The Cardinals and Dodgers were two of the preeminent teams of the ’40s, with a strong rivalry that generated great enmity. And the Dodger manager, Leo Durocher, previously played for the Cardinals, starring on their great 1930s “Gashouse Gang” teams. Even worse, the Dodger general manager, Branch Rickey, used to be the general manager of the Cardinals.
Back in 1917, the Cardinals were a second class team in their own town, trailing the St. Louis Browns in revenue and popularity. Branch Rickey took over as General Manager that year and built the Cardinals into the greatest team in the National League with his innovative minor league farm system. But in 1942, after a falling out with Cardinal President Sam Breadon over his contract renewal (apparently the two had a cool relationship over the years, though with mutual respect), Rickey jumped to Brooklyn, leaving St. Louis behind (Rickey apparently was particularly upset that his contract had not been renewed even though his Cardinals had beat the Yankees and won the World Series that season). The chasm between the Dodgers and Cardinals was deep and wide. Jackie Robinson was not just Dodger black, he was also Dodger blue, in the face of Cardinal anger, a Cardinal red ember.
On May 9, New York Herald Tribune writer Stanley Woodward let the baseball world know about a threatened Cardinals player strike against the Dodgers. According to Woodward, Sam Breadon was having none of it. He flew to Manhattan for an audience with National League President Ford Frick. When the meeting ended, Frick told Breadon that the would-be strikers should remember this:
“If you [strike], you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you. You will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. All will be suspended and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right to play as another…. You will find if you go through with your intention that you have been guilty of complete madness.”
Woodward’s story may have encouraged other team owners to pressure their players to not strike as well.
The Cardinals and the legendary St. Louis sportswriter were aghast at these accusations, arguing that while there was grumbling among a few Cardinals players, nothing had approached the level of angst described by Woodward.
What was Musial’s take on the affair? He apparently confided to another Tribune writer, Roger Kahn, that the Robinson talk amongst the Cardinals was “rough and racial,” but nothing worse occurred. Musial also denied the existence of any strike vote. Decades later, at a mid-90s St. Louis event promoting one of Kahn’s books, Musial bizarrely found himself seated between Kahn and Broeg, who argued vehemently over the degree of anti-Robinson Cardinal fervor. Musial tried to stay above it all, but in 1997, at an event honoring the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the baseball color barrier, Musial argued that the Cardinals never even discussed a strike. Giglio was not so sure, and openly wonders if Musial made that statement so as not to embarrass many of his southern teammates who ended up on the wrong side of history. Regardless, Musial did tell Kahn that “he had no trouble with integration,” and took the time to honor Robinson.
Despite Musial’s respect for Robinson, Musial paid the price for Robinson’s detractors. If a Cardinal pitcher deliberately threw at Robinson, then Durocher ordered the Dodger pitcher to retaliate by throwing at Musial. When Musial complained, Durocher apparently said, “You’re the best man I know on the Cardinals. For every time [Robinson] gets one, it looks to me like you’re gonna get two.” Durocher felt that this kind of retaliation stopped the Cardinals cold from hurting Robinson. Cardinal manager Eddie Dyer at the time may have helped to eventually convince his players to treat Robinson fairly, as Robinson remembered his first visit to the Cardinals’ stadium, Sportsman’s Park, where Dyer stopped Robinson in full view of the Cardinals and said, “he was glad to see me and that he wished me luck.”
Robinson said that “Musial always treated me with courtesy.” In one game, enraged after being spiked by the Cardinal outfielder Enos Slaughter, Musial heard Robinson say how badly he wanted revenge. Musial allegedly told him, “I don’t blame you. You have every right to do so.”
Thinking about our rights is perhaps the most fitting way to end this story. The underpinning of our entire economy and way of life is embodied by the concept of a contract, a deal struck between two parties, one desiring nothing more than the meritorious services of the other, and that other desiring nothing more than a chance to ply a trade, whether to work in a coal mine, wait tables, run a major corporation, or even play baseball. When you strike a deal with someone, you generally expect it to be met, your expectations realized, and your rights fulfilled. Robinson’s breakthrough season represents the true attainment of this contract right, as he fulfilled his dream to play Major League Baseball, no matter who tried to preclude his Dodger dealings.
In this vein, 1947 dissolves into 2009, leaving us with just Musial and Pujols, sitting in a car, gliding through a stadium, embraced by the Cardinal faithful, happy but perhaps unaware of the racial tensions that would make such a noble gathering inconceivable many years ago.
(This article relies on James Giglio’s excellent coverage in “Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man”)