A flash back to Jackie’s ‘last dash’

My first baseball reporting assignment was Jackie Robinson’s funeral.

On October 27, 1972, a taxi dropped me off in front of the grand entrance to Riverside Church in Manhattan. It was a sunny day with a bit of a chill, World Series weather.

I waded into the crowd outside, celebrity mourners on a Friday morning in their best Sunday suits, middle-aged men looking like they were gathered for an old-timers’ banquet.

I spotted Pee Wee Reese being interviewed by Howard Cosell. Nearby, Roger Kahn was chatting with Don Newcombe.

Everyone knew Jackie had been wasting away for years, blinded and crippled by diabetes and other ailments.

But only nine days earlier, he had been in Cincinnati for the second game of the World Series between the Reds and the Oakland A’s.

Wearing a dark suit, his hair white, he had thrown out the ceremonial pitch – to Johnny Bench – from the commissioner’s box in the stands.

The Series ended, the A’s won, and two days later Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53.

I was a 25-year-old reporter for UPI. I’d grown up in the city, a Brooklyn fan, like my dad.

He’d taken me to games at Ebbets Field. Robinson and Reese, Campanella and Snider, Furillo and Hodges were my childhood heroes.

In the late ’60s, with the Dodgers long gone, I drifted to San Francisco in the summer after the Summer of Love, discovered passions other than sports.

But here I was in the autumn of 1972. Back with the Boys of Summer. Feeling like a kid again.

My press pass got me inside a VIP enclave, which was roped off and guarded by the NYPD. A church office had been converted into a reception room.

I wandered among the greats of the game. There’s Hank Aaron! I shouted inside my head. There’s Willie Mays! Ernie Banks! Campy in his wheelchair.

I wanted to go up to these guys and talk to them. But I really had nothing to say, nothing appropriate for this moment or any other. So I stood and gawked until it was time to file into the church.

I was working, though my duties were not defined. The main man on the story was UPI sports editor Milt Richman. I was to cover any news angles, though I was not sure what they might be.

About 3,000 people filled every pew inside the vast Gothic Revival church.

I sat next to Will Grimsley, AP’s lead sportswriter, a tall, thickset Tennessean who politely introduced himself, then sat scribbling notes on a large writing tablet. He picked up his pace when a young black preacher delivered the eulogy, his booming voice and theatrical style gripping the audience.

“In his last dash, Jackie stole home,” said Reverend Jesse Jackson, pausing, before picking up speed, as if he too was racing to the plate.

“Pain, misery and travail have lost. Jackie is saved. His enemies can leave him alone. His body will rest, but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual and as affixed to human progress as are the stars in the heavens, the shine in the sun and the glow of the moon.”

It was a hard act to follow. And nobody did. As Rachel Robinson and her family filed out behind the coffin, we all stood. Grimsley stretched and looked around the cavernous church.

He tapped me on the shoulder. “See that guy over there, that’s Bill Veeck,” Grimsley said, pointing to a man in baggy chinos and a ratty gray sweatshirt, standing alone in the back, sobbing into a handkerchief.

Veeck was known as an outlaw team owner, famous for such stunts as sending a midget up to bat to draw a walk. But he had also signed the American League’s first black player, Larry Doby, and gave Satchel Page a chance to pitch in the majors.

Grimsley wandered off to talk to Veeck, while I went to find Richman.

“I want you to go to the cemetery,” the sports editor instructed. “I’ve arranged space for you in one of the cars in the funeral procession. Call me when you can with notes and quotes.”

The route to the cemetery in Brooklyn was mapped out to travel through New York’s most heavily populated, badly scarred black neighborhoods. And these were tense and violent times in a city where the loudest and most militant voices did not count Jackie Robinson among their leaders.

But, as the hearse rolled slowly through Harlem, quiet, respectful crowds lined the sidewalks. Children in school uniforms stood at attention. Women sat on stoops, heads buried in their hands. Old men leaned against lampposts and wept.

It was a similar scene in Brooklyn, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

By the time we reached Cypress Hills Cemetery, it was near dusk. The weather had changed.

Dark clouds moved in as the pallbearers, Jackie’s former teammates – Reese, Newcombe, Jim Gilliam and Ralph Branca – Doby and Bill Russell, carried the casket to the gravesite.

I stood beside a tree, apart from the scene, added some notes to the ones I’d written during the drive, found a payphone near the cemetery gate and called Richman before catching a ride back to Manhattan.

***

This story and many others like it are in my unpublished memoir of a life in journalism titled: Burning Bridges.

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