By IAN WILSON
It’s not quite as iconic as the Brooklyn Dodgers hat that we associate with Jackie Robinson.
But for one night anyway, Robinson was kind enough to trade in his baseball cap for a white cowboy hat.
Just two months after winning his first and only World Series – which was also the first and only title the Brooklyn Dodgers captured – Robinson found himself in Calgary and, well, he was introduced to a folksy Alberta tradition.
Attending an awards banquet hosted by the Western Division of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, Robinson stood at a podium before a crowd of 200 people and received the white cowboy hat from Calgary MLA Art Smith.
At that point, the white-hatting of guests to the city was a relatively new greeting for celebrities and dignitaries – a symbol of Western hospitality started by Don MacKay after he became Calgary’s mayor in 1950 – but Robinson appeared to enjoy the ceremony, even if the hat itself seemed to sit atop his head rather than fit snugly.
The first African-American to play Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era, Robinson was enjoying his championship off-season and was preparing to enter his 10th and final year with the Dodgers when he arrived in Calgary on Dec. 7, 1955.
“Certainly I’d like to finish my playing career with the Dodgers,” the 1949 National League MVP told the Calgary Herald.
“They have been, and always will be, my team. But I’m in a fortunate spot. I don’t have to play anymore unless I want to. And I won’t play for any team in the American League unless the offer is extremely attractive. It wouldn’t be worth uprooting my family for just a year.”
Added Robinson: “Not that I want to quit playing. I still have another good year of baseball left and I know that I can help any club. It would be nice to complete 10 years in the majors, but it will have to be on my terms.”
FIRST CANADIAN SPEAKING ENGAGEMENT
In order to make his Alberta visit happen, Robinson had to cut short his appearance at a dinner party the previous night – an awards presentation honouring his Dodger teammate Don Newcombe and heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano.
The 37-year-old’s arrival in Cowtown was front-page news and, while the guest list may have done little to impress a New York crowd, it included many prominent Western Canadians, such as medical pioneer Dr. David Baltzan, of Saskatoon, who was presented with a human relations award from Max Bell, publisher of The Albertan newspaper.
Robinson played for the Montreal Royals in 1946, but his five-day trip to Calgary marked his first speaking engagement in Canada and the first time he visited Western Canada.
Rollie Miles, a Canadian Football Hall of Famer with the Edmonton Eskimos, provided the introduction to Robinson at the banquet, which was also attended by Calgary Stampeder great Ezzrett “Sugarfoot” Anderson.
Robinson and Anderson met in the 1940s and played football together in the Pacific Coast Football League. They remained friends over the years and Robinson stayed at Anderson’s house during his Alberta visit.
“The Negro race has come a long way in the last 10 years, but it hasn’t come alone. Organizations like the Council of Christians and Jews have made the way easier by 100-fold,” Robinson told those in attendance at the Al-San Club.
“We must judge people by what they can do as individuals. When this is accepted, we will have no problems. After all, we can’t lead the world, if we can’t lead ourselves.”
Calgary Herald journalist Johnny Hopkins praised Robinson’s speech, reporting “he does speak with a sincerity that hits home. He has an excellent voice, knows his subject and uses an off-beat delivery that never becomes tedious.”
MEET THE PRESS
The day after his speaking engagement in downtown Calgary, Robinson attended a two-hour press conference, where he spoke on a wide range of topics, from baseball to politics.
Gorde Hunter, sports editor of the Herald at the time, spoke with Robinson about the relationship he had with Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Dodgers who helped the infielder break baseball’s colour barrier.
Robinson, whose jersey number 42 has since been retired by MLB, told reporters that Rickey gave him a two-year gag order that prohibited him from fighting back against racial taunts and slurs. But after that, the former UCLA track, basketball, football and baseball star was free to speak his mind.
“I lived a lie for two years,” Robinson told the media.
“Mr. Rickey schooled me on how to meet all situations. He watched me close during those two years and then he came to me and said, ‘Jack, you’re on your own now. Do what you think is right.'”
For Robinson, that meant speaking out against the racial abuse he had endured.
“I had to speak my mind,” Robinson was quoted as saying in Hunter’s ‘One Man’s Opinion’ column in the Dec. 8, 1955 edition of the Herald.
“It doesn’t matter to me what people think of what I say. As long as I know within myself that I’m right, I’ll continue to speak my piece. If I’m wrong, I’ll readily admit it.”
Hunter was impressed by Robinson’s willingness to answer all questions directed his way and noted that “no comment” was not in his vocabulary.
Who was the better manager – Chuck Dressen or Walt Alston?
“Dressen was the best … Dressen was always a couple plays ahead of the other guy.”
Best player in baseball – Willie Mays or Duke Snider?
“Willie is the best … no one can play with the kid. He does everything well.”
The toughest pitcher he ever faced?
Ewell Blackwell of the Cincinnati Reds, who made it seem like the pitch was coming in from third base.
The National League’s top umpire?
Al Barlick, said Robinson.
SPEAKING HIS MIND
When the topics turned political, Robinson didn’t shy away.
He was asked about Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin, an outspoken opponent of racially-integrated sports teams.
“Ignorant,” replied Robinson. “But I hope he keeps on harping the same way … the more noise he makes, the better I like it. People hear him making such statements and stop and wonder if he is the type of man they want speaking for them.”
Regarding singer and actor Paul Robeson, Robinson declared it was unfortunate that he aligned himself with Communists because he could have been a major force within the civil rights movement.
After the questions stopped and the media dispersed for the day, Hunter concluded that Robinson was “soft-spoken, well-educated” and a “brilliant conversationalist.”
HANGING OUT WITH SUGARFOOT
With his speaking engagement done and his media obligations fulfilled, Robinson had a few days to relax and hang out with his good friend Sugarfoot, who had recently retired from the Canadian Football League.
During the downtime, Sugarfoot showed off his successful Royalite gas station, a new source of income for the popular athlete, who also worked as a Calgary radio show host and appeared in 32 movies alongside such acting legends as Gregory Peck, Lee Marvin, Gene Hackman and Shirley Temple.
Robinson appeared at the gas station two days in a row, which caused a buzz and resulted in long lineups of motorists hoping to catch a glimpse of the baseball star.
Sugarfoot’s son, John Anderson, remembers the visit. At his father’s urging, he snapped some memorable pictures of the two sports icons.
“Dad was happy as hell to see him, and told me to grab a camera,” Anderson told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“I was playing Little League baseball at the time, so of course it was a big deal for me.”
But the 75-year-old, who grew up around the celebrities that inhabited his father’s world, said having famous people around was nothing new to him.
“At that time, my father was as important to me as anybody in the world. Everywhere we went, it was Sugarfoot this, Sugarfoot that. We couldn’t go and have a meal without autographs and the celebrity was my father,” said Anderson.
“The number of people my dad talked about and met … I mean, I learned to swim in Cecil B. DeMille’s swimming pool. It was normal, everyday stuff to me.”
HEADING FOR THE HILLS
After gassing up, Sugarfoot and Robinson took a road trip to Banff and Lake Louise, where the two swapped tales about their respective sporting careers.
The Stampeder receiver’s father, Ezzrett Sr., played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays, according to Daryl Slade’s biography “Sugarfoot” – which chronicles Anderson’s playing career and his friendship with Robinson.
The elder Anderson had his own notable nickname – ‘High Pockets’ – and he once caught for Satchel Paige in an exhibition game, during which he threw out a runner at second base while sitting in a rocking chair.
“My dad really wanted me to play baseball, but I didn’t want to play baseball. I wanted to play football,” Sugarfoot told Slade.
In 1946, Kenny Washington – who played baseball and football with Robinson at UCLA – broke the National Football League’s colour barrier when he signed with the Los Angeles Rams.
A year later, Robinson made history as the first African American player in the major leagues of baseball.
Sugarfoot could have stayed in the U.S. and continued to play football there, but he ultimately chose to come to Canada and signed with the Stamps in 1949.
Coming north of the border didn’t eliminate racism – Sugarfoot had to keep his helmet on when he was on the sidelines in Regina because pop bottles and bananas would occasionally be hurled his way from the stands.
But there was a notable difference in how the athletes were treated.
“It’s amazing what he went through. I remember sitting with Jackie in a park in Banff listening to him tell about how it was,” Sugarfoot told Herald reporter Gyle Konotopetz in 1997.
“His own teammates wouldn’t play catch with him. It made tears come into my eyes. I don’t think I could have gone through what he went through.”
Sugarfoot, who passed away in 2017 at the age of 97, said Robinson’s trip to Alberta opened his eyes to the differing attitudes towards race in Canada and the U.S.
“Jackie felt the freedom as soon as he arrived here. He said, ‘Sugarfoot, now I know why you’ve stayed up here.’ He said it was like night and day from what he was used to,” recalled Sugarfoot in that 1997 Herald story.
He was also amazed by Robinson’s determination to make it to the big leagues.
“Jackie wanted to conquer the world … he was the strongest-minded man I’ve known, but with Jackie the major leagues was not a dream. Nope. It was a mission,” Sugarfoot told Konotopetz.
“He took the whole load by himself. He told me there were a lot of times when he just wanted to throw his glove down and walk off the field …. Jackie showed me you’ve got to fight for what you get out of life.”
We all owe Robinson a tip of the cap for that.