Thursday, 19 April 2012
Jackie Robinson postscript
As soon as I finished my Jackie Robinson tribute, I realized I'd omitted the most heroic performance of his career, in the last game of the 1951 regular season against the Phillies in Philadelphia. It's a game I must write about, because no one else does. The game is almost totally forgotten today, eclipsed by the ensuing three-game playoff against the Giants which ended with Bobby Thomson's famous (make that infamous) "shot heard 'round the world." There are no photos or film clips of Jackie's exploits that day in Philly. It wasn't on television; there's no kinescope; not even an audio clip of the radio broadcast. (Believe me, I've searched.)
The stakes couldn't have been higher. The Dodgers and Giants started the day tied for the league lead. The Dodgers had rallied from a 1-6 deficit and tied the score at 8 with three runs in the eighth. As the game went into extra innings, the Giants had already won their game in Boston, so for Brooklyn it was either win or go home.
I think it was the 11th inning. The Phils had the potential winning run in scoring position with two out. Eddie Waitkus hit a line drive destined to be a season-ending single to center -- until Robinson intervened with a miraculous diving catch. I remember Red Barber went to great lengths, using his wonderful descriptive gifts, to paint a picture of Robinson's catch. I can't recall Red's exact words, but the gist of it was that Jackie had (in the parlance of pro football) sacrificed his body to make that season-saving catch. He was flat-out horizontal, suspended in mid-air, when he closed his glove on the ball. More on the catch here.
The game went on and on, still tied at 8. We were listening while eating dinner. With the stomach-churning tension mounting by the inning, I doubt if I finished my plate that evening. Don Newcombe, normally a starting pitcher (and a warrior if there ever was one, but that's another post), had come in from the bullpen and pitched five and two-thirds innings of one-hit shutout ball. Then in the top of the 14th, Jackie hit the game-winning homerun off Robin Roberts, a monster shot to the left-field upper deck at Shibe Park. Years later Red Barber called Robinson's game that day the greatest clutch performance he ever saw.
So much has been written about Robinson's life over the last 65 years, we know a lot more about the quality of his character now than we did when he was playing. If I were unlucky enough to be a soldier in wartime, under fire and hunkered down in a foxhole where my life might depend on the teamwork and courage of the guy next to me, I'd want that guy to be somebody like Jackie Robinson.