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March 24, 2013

Witness to history: April movie chronicles Jackie Robinson’s trials as be breaks Major League Baseball’s color barrier — something Vigo County native Harry Taylor witnessed first hand

The upcoming movie “42” aims to show America what Jackie Robinson endured.

Harry Taylor witnessed it firsthand.

Robinson wore jersey No. 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Taylor wore 41. Both were 28-year-old rookies, considerably older than most. Taylor got delayed by military service in World War II. Professional baseball’s unwritten but ironclad code of racial discrimination had kept Robinson and other African-Americans out of the majors since the 1880s.

The grip of prejudice on the nation changed in ’47, when Robinson broke the color barrier. The transformation wasn’t as simple as throwing, hitting and catching a baseball for Robinson as the lone black player in a previously whites-only league.

The film “42” can give viewers a dramatic taste of the unbelievable tension he faced. An Oscar-winner, Brian Helgeland, wrote the screenplay. A legendary actor, Harrison Ford, plays Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey, who boldly defied executives of all 15 other big-league teams by signing a black player. A rising star, Chadwick Boseman, portrays Robinson — the former Army soldier and UCLA student-athlete Rickey chose to break the barrier. (Taylor is not depicted as a named character in the film, a studio spokesman said last week.) More Academy Award nominees crafted the music and photography for the production by Legendary Pictures and Warner Brothers, due to open in theaters April 12.

Impressive as those filmmakers’ credentials are, their movie still will be merely that, a taste of Robinson’s burden.

Fans yelled racist taunts at him. Opposing pitchers made him the prime target of beanballs. Rival baserunners purposely cleated him. He received anonymous letters, threatening his life if he took the field in certain cities. Even a clique of his soon-to-be teammates, mostly Southerners, suggested during spring training — when Robinson’s arrival was still just a rumor — that they would rather be traded than play with a black.

“How the hell he stood it all, I don’t know,” Taylor said in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s big-league debut. “The things they said to him. The threats. He even got letters.”

Taylor gave that interview in his rural, New Goshen home at age 77, three years before he died. His memories were fresh, though. Taylor stared at the floor occasionally as he reflected on sharing his rookie season with Jackie Robinson. The subject was emotional for Taylor … even a half-century later … even for a tough-talkin’ old ballplayer.

They walked onto Brooklyn’s iconic neighborhood ballpark, Ebbets Field, for the first time together on April 15, 1947, Opening Day. They took two vastly different paths to that moment.

Two roads to Brooklyn

Taylor grew up in East Glenn, Ind., attended a high school — Fayette — that didn’t have a baseball program, broke into the minor leagues as a righthanded pitcher at 19, and stayed there until his war service. Gone for five seasons, Taylor nonetheless returned in solid form in 1946 with a top-tier minor-league club at St. Paul, Minn., and won 15 games. He got a sip of the big-league atmosphere when the Dodgers called him up at the tail end of the ’46 season. Taylor pitched in four games, but would not officially be considered a rookie until the next year. Already, though, the 6-foot-1, 175-pound hurler had earned a nickname, “Handsome Harry.”

Robinson was born Jan. 31, 1919, just four months before Taylor and 733 miles south, in Cairo, Ga. Robinson was one of five children in a family of sharecroppers. His father left in 1920, and his mother and other relatives moved them to Pasedena, Calif., where she found a variety of jobs to support them. His athletic ability surfaced in high school, and he later excelled in multiple sports at Pasadena Community College and then UCLA, before serving in the Army during World War II. A stint in the Negro Leagues followed, before the Dodgers’ top farm club, the Montreal Royals, signed Robinson in 1946. He won the International League’s most valuable player award, and Rickey was determined Robinson had the talent and courage to use those abilities in the bigs.

Just days before Rickey announced Robinson’s promotion to the majors, a few Dodgers — led by popular veteran Dixie Walker — discussed giving management a petition demanding to be traded if a black player joined their team. Rickey and his hard-edged manager, Leo Durocher, quickly shut down the uprising at the spring training camp in Havana, Cuba. The dissidents got stern lectures from both men, first from Durocher and then from Rickey. As Durocher put it in Red Barber’s book, “1947 — When All Hell Broke Loose in Baseball,” “Mr. Rickey got up the next morning, called the key players into his room individually, and laid down the law. I don’t think I ever saw him that mad.”

Their demands and threats failed to intimidate either Durocher or Rickey.

“There was some of them thinking about striking,” Taylor recalled, “but there wasn’t enough of them that could get together to do anything, so it was either play ball or go home for them.”

They played. They discovered Robinson — a second baseman who adapted to first base to play for Brooklyn — had exceptional baseball talent and savvy. They eventually rallied around him. Ironically, as they saw opposing players taunt and mistreat Robinson, the Dodgers developed a bond, fighting back. In an infamous August incident, Robinson was cleated by St. Louis’ Enos Slaughter, triggering an angry reaction from the other Dodgers.

“We had to knock a few of ’em down,” Taylor said of the season-long confrontations. “Of course, they loosened old Jackie up a couple of times. But that only made him play harder.”

Following the pact he made with Rickey, Robinson refrained from fighting back. Just one headline-grabbing incident could have closed the door Robinson had opened. So he held his tongue, absorbed the ugliness, and — as Taylor said — played even harder.

More than one good rookie

Taylor played pretty hard, too. His exploits, understandably overshadowed by Robinson’s historic season, helped Brooklyn climb past defending World Series champion St. Louis to win the 1947 National League pennant. Taylor earned a spot in the starting rotation for Burt Shotton, who took over as Dodgers manager at the season’s outset after Durocher got suspended in a gambling scandal. Taylor posted a sharp 10-5 win-loss record, a reliable 3.11 earned-run average, 10 complete games and two shutouts, despite missing the final month of the season with a sore, over-used arm. He actually led the National League in two significant categories — fewest hits allowed (7.22 per 9 innings) and lowest opposing batting average (.225).

Robinson’s numbers, especially under intense circumstances, were stellar, too, including a .297 batting average, 175 hits, 125 runs scored, and league-leading totals in stolen bases (29) and sacrifices (28). He won baseball’s Rookie of the Year Award. But earlier in that season, Robinson’s Hoosier teammate, Taylor, got hefty praise from St. Louis great Stan Musial. When Musial was asked by a group of Boston sportswriters for his Rookie of the Year pick, “He said me,” Taylor recalled in 1997, proudly pointing to his chest.

Awards aside, together Robinson, Taylor and fellow regulars Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Stanky, Carl Furillo, Ralph Branca and others won 90 of 154 games, finishing 5 games ahead of second-place Cardinals. The Dodgers delivered one of their finest performances on July 29 at St. Louis. Taylor pitched all nine innings and yielded just three hits in a 4-0 shutout victory, lowering his season ERA to a sparkling 2.65. At the plate that day, he drove in three runs, tripled and scored a run.

Taylor’s own knack for hitting provided one of his most poignant memories of Robinson.

As the ’47 season, Taylor threw a pregame batting practice. In his turn, Robinson hit one hard line drive after another. Taylor decided to share some advice.

“I said, ‘Jackie, I was noticing today that every swing you took was level, just flat. If you drop that shoulder just a little bit, you’ll probably start hitting some home runs,’” Taylor said. “And it wasn’t but a couple days later, and he hit his first home run.”

Robinson indeed blasted that first homer out of the Polo Grounds in New York off Giants pitcher Dave Koslo on April 18.

“He came over to me in the dugout and said, ‘That was for you,’” Taylor recalled, his voice breaking.

Later that month, Robinson slipped into an 0-for-20 slump. The harassment by opponents and fans grew razor sharp. Robinson persevered and hustled, leaning on his speed and glove work.

“Eventually, he started hitting some line drives,” Taylor said. “He’d get on base and steal a base. Even if he blooped one in the infield, he’d run it out. He was a hell of an asset to the ball club after that.”

Love of game prevailed

Taylor had a few on-field struggles, too. In May, his manager, Shotton, developed the odd practice of starting Taylor in the first game of each regular-season series. Instead of four or five days rest, Taylor sometimes took the mound just two days after his previous start. As a rookie, Taylor wouldn’t complain. “Those days, you didn’t say no,” he explained. “If they said, ‘Pitch,’ you pitched.”

And he did. Until Aug. 18. That was his last regular-season start, a 12-3 rout of St. Louis. “Handsome Harry” got the win. His aching right arm paid the price.

He made no appearance until a couple of late-September relief stints. Then, after Brooklyn wrapped up the pennant, Shotton surprisingly called on Taylor to start Game 4 of the World Series. The Yankees led 2 games to 1, boasting a lineup with Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto. With his arm still not fully recovered, Taylor lasted just four batters into the first inning, issuing a bases-loaded walk to DiMaggio. Shotton pulled his rookie, and the Dodgers rallied to win a classic on Cookie Lavagetto’s double, spoiling a no-hitter by New York’s Bill Bevans.

The game was big news back in Terre Haute. “My sixth-grade teacher allowed me to bring my little radio to school, so I got to listen to the game,” recalled Taylor’s niece, Charlotte Shike. Her collection of mementos of her uncle’s career includes a letter from the Dodgers, showing each player’s share of 1947 World Series runner-up money — $4,081.81 apiece — and ticket stubs. (Admission was $6 for lower-level seats.)

Taylor battled arm trouble the rest of his career. He remained a Dodger the next season, going 2-7, and spent 1949 in the minors. He returned to the majors with the Boston Red Sox in 1950 and played three seasons before finishing his playing days in the minors. Taylor came back to Vigo County, living in Shirkieville and working at the Bemis and Visqueen factories.

Robinson retired from baseball in 1956, served with civil rights organizations and battled diabetes until his death in 1972. His life lasted just 53 years. In one of those, 1947, Robinson and Taylor summoned their best efforts. The circumstances required as much. Racial injustices got exposed with each step by Robinson and the Dodgers. “He couldn’t stay at the team hotel in St. Louis,” Taylor said. The Dodgers sought out black families who volunteered to put the up for the night.

Above all the painful moments, the game itself connected Robinson, Taylor and the others. It was baseball, and they loved playing.

Taylor recalled Opening Day 1947 in that context.

“It was just another ball game,” he said, “but one of the guys wasn’t treated like the rest of us. He took a hell of a beating. You couldn’t tell it by Jackie’s actions, though. He never brought it up. He never mentioned it.”

Rickey and the Dodgers organization, as the new movie will undoubtedly reveal, showed wisdom by selecting Robinson — among all the richly talented Negro Leaguers — to break the barrier.

“They knew he was the one who could hold his temper and handle the crowds,” Taylor said quietly, “and they picked the right man.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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