Robinson, Feller Shared Complicated, Connected Bond

The number 42 should have come out of retirement on April 15 as part of Major League Baseball’s annual recognition of the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson. With baseball instead an afterthought in the new era of social distancing, we at Did The Tribe Win Last Night continue to dig through the archives weekly to provide some distraction amidst the chaos.

Today’s post comes courtesy of Vince Guerrieri in a story originally published on July 29, 2015.

Though they came from wildly different backgrounds – and never faced each other in a game that counted – Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson were inextricably linked by the brotherhood of baseball.

Before he broke the color line, Robinson played in barnstorming tours that included Rapid Robert. Both had very well-defined opinions – and weren’t shy about sharing them. And both went into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the same day in 1962 – July 23.

Feller was signed by the Indians before he graduated from high school. Robinson went to UCLA, where baseball might have been his worst sport. Certainly, Feller thought so. At an exhibition game in San Diego in 1946, Feller said Robinson, built like a football player, with broad shoulders, was too musclebound to be able to handle inside pitching (it’s kind of hard to believe now, but at one point, weight training was considered a detriment for athletes).

Robinson won Rookie of the Year in 1947, and two years later, led the league in batting and won the MVP. (Feller later said, “Well, I’m not a scout. So I blew it.”) In his 10-year career, the Dodgers won six pennants (and lost another on the last day of the season, and another in a three-game playoff). Two of the years the Dodgers didn’t win the pennant were 1948 and 1954, when the Indians did. Unfortunately, that run of success for the Indians (which included nine straight years of at least 88 wins), coincided with an even more successful Yankees dynasty.

On Dec. 28, 1956, Feller announced his retirement. He had an insurance agency, and would continue to serve as president of the Major League Baseball Players Association. It was big news in Cleveland, but a blip on the national scene. Two weeks earlier, in a seismic move, Robinson had been traded to the New York Giants, the Dodgers’ chief rival. But as the new year dawned, subscribers to Look magazine got the real story. Robinson had decided to retire as well. “I’m 38 years old, with a family to support,” Robinson wrote. “I’ve got to think of my future and our security. At my age, a man doesn’t have much future in baseball – and very little security.”

Ironically, as MLBPA president, Feller was railing against the insecurity all ballplayers faced at the time, the reserve clause – which Robinson said he didn’t find objectionable.

In January 1962, both were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first players inducted in their first year of eligibility since the rules were established.

“My most sincere congratulations,” Robinson wrote in a telegram. “I am honored to go into the Hall of Fame with you.”

But in 1969, as baseball was celebrating its centennial (starting from Cincinnati’s Red Stockings, the first professional team, in 1869), their relationship soured. Both were at a press event in Washington for the All-Star Game, and Robinson used the bully pulpit as a chance to talk about the lack of black managers in the major leagues, even though the game had been integrated for more than 20 years.

Feller said, “I don’t think baseball owes colored people anything. I don’t think colored people owe baseball anything either.” Robinson said Feller “has his head in the sand.”

The two men continued their war of words for the better part of a week. Feller suggested that Robinson was upset because he wasn’t given a job in baseball after his retirement, and said Robinson tried to hold up an exhibition game in California in 1946 – the same one where Feller gave his remarkably off-base scouting report – for more money. “Robinson has always been bush,” Feller said. “He’s always been a professional agitator more than anything else.”

It’s easy to dismiss Feller as racist, but probably not completely accurate. The Indians were the first team to integrate in the American League, and he had no problems playing with Larry Doby and Satchel Paige – in fact, he argued for Paige’s enshrinement in Cooperstown in the 1960s. Feller’s problem was myopia.

Feller said later on he saw Robinson at a golf outing, and they buried the hatchet, realizing their differences were petty. “When Jackie died, we were good friends,” he said.

Robinson died three years later, as diabetes had taken its toll on him. In his last public appearance, a week before he died, he threw out the first pitch at a World Series game – and continued to take Major League Baseball to task for not hiring a black manager.

The first came three years later – Frank Robinson, for Feller’s old team, the Indians.

Photo: Library of Congress

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