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Jackie Robinson

An ill and unhappy Jackie Robinson turned on Nixon in 1968

That fall, the baseball hero finally came back to the World Series — to support Hubert Humphrey

In October 1968, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the man who had changed baseball and American sports forever, was 12 years into retirement and ready to return to the World Series.

In his years away from the game he had grown sickly and dispirited, riddled by diabetes and heartbroken over family trials. The man who once stood at the front of civil rights marches now was mocked by young people whose parents had viewed him as a savior.

He took a flight from Washington, D.C., to Detroit for Game 4, a matchup between that season’s two best pitchers, Denny McLain of the Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals ace Bob Gibson. But Robinson wasn’t going for the baseball.

Since he left Brooklyn, New York’s Ebbets Field at the end of the 1956 season, Robinson had been a tireless crusader for civil rights. He marched on Washington in 1963. He spoke, whenever asked, in support of the NAACP — and criticized the organization when he thought it ineffective. He traveled to burned-out churches in the South. He opposed the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960 because he thought the Massachusetts senator was weak on civil rights. He stood by Martin Luther King Jr., even when he disagreed with King’s stand against the war in Vietnam. Robinson had done everything that could be asked of an American hero. Now, he was tired.

But he had been called back into the political maelstrom to help Democratic presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey battle the man Robinson had campaigned for eight years before: Richard M. Nixon. This Nixon was not the one Robinson believed he once knew. Nixon’s 1968 campaign relied on fear and race-baiting cloaked as a desire for “law and order.” Repulsed, Robinson would summon whatever energy remained to oppose Nixon’s ascendancy to the White House.

Whether Robinson knew this was the end of his political life is unknown. What was apparent, though, was that he was unafraid to attack former allies. He left a job with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s Republican administration in New York to support Humphrey. And as his biographer, Arnold Rampersad, wrote, he had expected other like-minded Republicans to follow him. But none did.

Traveling on Humphrey’s campaign plane to Detroit, Robinson stunned the reporters aboard by claiming he had learned of a GOP plan to send out “militants” to the doorsteps of inner-city neighborhoods to suppress the black vote. He said he learned of the plan from a friend who had been in a meeting when the plot was hatched. There was little else in the way of details.

He didn’t stop there. Robinson told those assembled about a phone call with Rockefeller, his friend and former employer, who he felt had betrayed the ideals of the Republican Party after Nixon won the nomination. He had more harsh words for New York Mayor John Lindsay and Sen. Jacob Javits, who Robinson said had become “liberal Republicans who have run out on the Negro.”

“The election of Nixon would be death to the blacks,” Robinson said.

Republicans have long claimed Robinson as one of their own. But if 1968 tells us anything, it was that Robinson was his own man, ready to disavow the GOP as its more racist elements grew in influence. Yes, he supported Nixon against Kennedy, disillusioned by the young senator’s meetings with Dixiecrats to secure the nomination. Four years later, he was in San Francisco doing his best to stop Barry Goldwater. After the Arizona senator won the Republican nomination, he wrote to Humphrey that he would do whatever it took to help Lyndon Johnson win the presidency.

New York Mayor John Lindsay and Sen. Jacob Javits, Robinson said, had become “liberal Republicans who have run out on the Negro.”

Johnson wouldn’t need the help, at least not then. But Robinson could see troubling signs for his re-election as early as 1967. Though he was still working for Rockefeller, whose political courage he had long admired, he once again reached out to Humphrey. Throughout his political life, Robinson had believed that African-Americans shouldn’t allow either party to take them for granted. But the GOP had started to make that scenario impossible. If needed, he said, he would stand with Humphrey and the president as he had before.

“I have let it be known that unless the Republican Party nominates someone who can enhance the two-party system,” Robinson wrote to him, “I must again support the Johnson-Humphrey ticket.”

Of course, that ticket never came to pass. Insurgent Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy had a strong showing in the 1968 New Hampshire primary. Soon, Johnson was on television telling the American people that he would neither seek nor accept his party’s nomination for president. New York Sen. Robert F. Kennedy entered the fray.

Now Humphrey came to Robinson. Though he was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Humphrey was hamstrung by the administration’s failure in Vietnam. He believed he needed Robinson’s support, and Robinson responded that he was “honored.” There were, he said, “few men I have had the pleasure of meeting who I respect more.”

“However,” Robinson wrote, “Governor Rockefeller’s desires dictate my actions. I fully expect he will be the Republican nominee and I will do everything I can for him.” Should things change, he added, he would happily work for Humphrey.

There was history behind Robinson’s allegiance to Rockefeller. The Rockefeller family had long supported historically black colleges. Robinson saw the governor’s courage in standing against the Goldwater platform in 1964. Rockefeller had sent Robinson, with little success, to help ease tensions after the riots in Buffalo, New York, in 1967. And it was Rockefeller who had flown with Robinson and his wife, Rachel, to Atlanta to be with the King family as they mourned the man whose ideals Robinson had believed in.

In June 1968, after Rockefeller announced his intention to run for president that spring, Robinson held a reception for him with reporters at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. At the time, the baseball legend was struggling with family problems. His daughter, Sharon, had entered a short-lived marriage with a man who physically abused her. Jackie Jr. had gone off to Vietnam in 1965 as a troubled man and returned a drug addict. That March, police arrested him for possession of heroin and marijuana.

“I guess I thought my family was secure,” the senior Robinson said, “that at least we wouldn’t have anything to worry about, so I went running around everywhere else.

“I guess I had more of an effect on other people’s kids,” he said, “than I had on my own.”

Despite the problems at home, Robinson felt compelled by events to get involved in the campaign. While Rockefeller limped through the primaries, Robinson watched uncomfortably as Robert Kennedy emerged as a liberal lion and champion of African-Americans. Eight years before, prior to his endorsement of Nixon, Robinson had campaigned hard for Humphrey in Wisconsin. The younger Kennedy falsely claimed Humphrey had paid Robinson to do so. Kennedy also claimed that Robinson had opposed union efforts in his role as an executive in the Chock Full o’Nuts restaurant chain.

“I guess I had more of an effect on other people’s kids than I had on my own.”

Things would never truly get better between the two. Rachel Robinson believes they might have become allies had they had a personal connection, one that her husband shared with other public figures. But that never came to pass. Robinson appreciated Robert Kennedy’s efforts as attorney general in protecting civil rights demonstrators and advancing the rights of African-Americans. But he called Kennedy out as a carpetbagger when he decided to run against Kenneth Keating for the U.S. Senate seat in New York. And he believed that Kennedy had done a great job perfuming his record on racial justice.

“Hubert Humphrey is no Bobby-come-lately to the cause,” Robinson wrote with his ghostwriter Alfred Duckett in the New Amsterdam News. Because of deadline constraints and the printing process, that column, unfortunately, came out three days after Kennedy was shot and killed.

One might have expected Robinson to apologize. But that wasn’t him. In the column that followed, Robinson said that despite the terrible timing, no one should have to be remorseful for expressing the truth, while, of course, Kennedy “deserved better — as any man does — than to be gunned down because someone disagreed with him or hated him or what he stood for.”

Days after Nixon’s nomination, Robinson at last came to Humphrey. He had resigned his post with Rockefeller and was throwing his public support to the “Happy Warrior.” It might have appeared to be a consolation prize for the candidate. But the truth was that Robinson had long admired Humphrey, going back to Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 Democratic convention that marked the start of a shift in the party that had long accommodated segregation. The two remained in contact throughout the 1960s. With the Republican Party following Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” that contact would grow much closer.

“Jackie suggests having his own independent group for the Vice President, as he did for Gov. Rockefeller,” one adviser wrote in an internal communication. “I think this would be wise. He would be more effective as an independent spokesman for Humphrey. In addition, we would not be held responsible for what he says.”

Robinson chose the Freedom National Bank in Harlem for his public endorsement of Humphrey on Aug. 14. The candidate was accompanied by Norman Sherman, a young aide who had worked on the development of the space program under Humphrey. Sherman remembered not only being with Robinson but also the presence of Joe Louis, another icon of a previous age.

The event didn’t go as planned. As Rampersad would document, while a great number of people cheered for Humphrey and Robinson outside the bank, there were some who expressed their anger at the two men. One man called out Robinson as an “Uncle Tom!” Sherman witnessed another man yelling at Louis.

Some might have expected Robinson to make his endorsement and exit the stage. After all, his personal life had only grown worse. His mother, Mallie, had died in May. He had suffered a heart attack. In the last days of August, Jackie Jr. would be arrested again. This time, authorities alleged he had pulled a gun on an officer while with a woman named Janet Wallace. She was charged with “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” Police charged Robinson’s eldest child with using “females for immoral purposes.”

And yet Robinson still met for lunch with Humphrey at the Chicago Democratic Convention, along with the Los Angeles Lakers’ Elgin Baylor. This was mere hours before Mayor Richard J. Daley would let his police pummel protesters outside the same hotel. Humphrey, as Theodore White would write, railed against Nixon’s divisive campaign to the two of them. Humphrey said this was “the most important day of my life” and that “I’m going to say what I think.”

“For some things you got to pay too high a price in life,” Humphrey said, “and I’m not going to pay the price of silence for what I believe in.”

That statement is precisely what drew Robinson to Humphrey, or to any politician he supported in his life after baseball. Robinson had shown great courage on the field. He was always willing to stand by those who did the same.

Indeed, campaigning in Detroit in late September, Robinson said he believed in Humphrey because “he said he would rather lose the election than sacrifice his principles.”

He would return to the city roughly a week later to a game he had done his best to separate himself from. Humphrey, as it turned out, wanted to talk little about the campaign. He was there to watch baseball. McLain and Gibson were matched up against one another for the second time in the series.

But the game itself was disappointing. In the midst of a rainstorm, McLain faltered early, as he had in Game 1. The Tigers responded by slowing the pace, hoping the rain would end things before the game was ruled official. The Cardinals, meanwhile, did everything they could, including seemingly intentional baserunning blunders, to end innings and make sure it would be called victory should the umpires decide further play was impossible.

It was awful for everyone — especially Robinson. By the seventh inning, he had had enough. His legs were throbbing, and he could not last the rest of the game. He would continue to voice his support for Humphrey in the time that was left before the first Tuesday in November. But for now, it was time to go.

“I’m not as hardy as you are,” Robinson told him. And with that he was ready to leave his seat. He was done.

Sridhar Pappu writes the "Male Animal" column for The New York Times and is the author of The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball's Golden Age released in October by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.