Who Killed Jack Robinson?
Jim and I took an American Airlines Lockheed Electra from LaGuardia Airport to Boston. That was just before the wings started falling off them because of a synchronicity between the wing vibration and propeller torque. Charlie had checked that the Boston Beacons hadn’t yet gone south for spring training. I had thought about talking to the cops first, but that’s always delicate. In general cops don’t like private investigators, despite most of them being ex-cops. And you usually have to grease some police palms to get any information from them. And they might blab to the press in exchange for a fee. All good reasons.
The Beacon’s owner was a rich, white Boston Brahman named Beacon – surprise! I asked Branch Rickey, who knew everyone in baseball, to set up a meeting for me with him. Branch phoned him and he said he didn’t know anything about Jerry Rose (and didn’t want to know anything, I assumed), and I should talk with the team’s manager, Joshua Collinsworth. Branch had asked Beacon to tell Collinsworth to cooperate with us, which he promised to do.
As we were waiting for our flight at LaGuardia a group of about twenty Negroes came into the airport. The women were dressed all in white, long gowns touching the floor and nun-like headgear. The men had on identical black suits and ties. They stood in two separate groups while one of the men went up to the ticket counter with their tickets to check in. A fleet of skycaps followed them with their baggage. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at them. They didn’t look back, just straight ahead.
“Who the hell are they?” I said half to myself, half to Jim, not expecting an answer.
“Muslims.” Jim said.
I looked at him. “From Mecca?”
“No,” he said, frowning. “Probably from Harlem or Bed-Sty.”
“You’re kidding,” I said, but saw that he was not.
“The movement’s been around a while,” Jim explained, “but seems to be growing more now.”
“Looks weird. Are they supposed to be some kind of nuns?”
“Maybe, I don’t really know too much about them, except that the boss man is a guy name of Elijah Muhammad, some kind of prophet, and they call themselves the Nation of Islam. What’s different about them is that they don’t want integration with whites.”
“Well, there are a lot of whites who would agree with them.”
“That part yes, but the other parts I don’t think so,” Jim smiled.
“What other parts?”
“Elijah calls Negroes African-Americans, the chosen people, and he wants to set up a separate country for them…er…us.
“Well, some would agree with that, too,” I said, thinking of most of the white people I knew. “Where?”
“Yup, right here in the U.S.A.”
“Well, bad luck to them.“
“Actually, they do some good,” Jim said. “No booze of drugs allowed. They straightened out some people I know in that respect. Trouble is that they’re fanatics and can play rough.”
“Hmm. Think they’re going to Boston?”
“No, the skycap is putting Washington tags on their bags.”
I had the Beacon’s manager’s address and phone number and as soon as we arrived I called him from Logan airport. I didn’t want to call from New York so he couldn’t say to come tomorrow or next week. No, I’d say, we had come from New York now to see him—now. His wife answered the phone. She said he was expecting me but not so soon, that he was at the field for pre-spring training. It was a nice day, but cold, so I said isn’t a little cold for practice. She said yes, but that’s Joshua. She gave me directions to the field and we grabbed a taxi. When I gave the address to the driver, he said, “That’s in coonsville, I don’t go there.” I looked at his nameplate: McGlynn. Fucking Boston Irishman. Jim was already out of the car. I followed and waved to a cop standing a few yards away at the arrivals exit. He came over pushing his Irish beer-belly in front of him.
“Yes, Sir?” he said.
“Are these taxis obliged by law to take you wherever you want to go?”
“Sure, as long as it’s in the Greater Boston area,” he said. “But you know these guys. Where do you want to go?”
“Is this within the Greater Boston area?” I showed him the address – Booker T. Washington park – south entrance.
“Well, yes, it is.” He looked at Jim like he thought he was my butler.
“This driver just refused to take us there,” I said. I was really pissed.
“Well, he’s got to take you whether he likes it or not,” the cop said. “I’ll talk to him.” He started to lean into the taxi window, but I said, no, I wanted to make a complaint. The cop looked at me, surprised, then smiled and I knew we’d gotten a good one. “Look,” he said, “you’d have to go downtown to the Precinct for that and I’d have to go with you, which I can’t do till I’m relieved…” He glanced at his watch. “…in three hours. Then you gotta see a judge, all that crap. Know what I suggest?”
“I give him a ticket. It’ll cost him twenty bucks and go on his record. Some of these guys think they can do whatever they want and I’ll be glad to show them they can’t.”
I looked at Jim, who nodded. “OK, officer,” I said, “we accept your suggestion.” We waited until he made out the ticket, adding our names and addresses to it, and handed it to the cabbie. As an extra punishment the cop made him get out of the taxi line and lose his place. We got into the next taxi, the driver of which had witnessed the whole scene and all he said was, “Yes, sir!” when I gave him the park’s name. I think I won Jim’s loyalty for life there, but that’s not why I did it.
A professional team practicing in a public park is sure to attract bystanders and this one looked as though the World Series was about to begin. We pushed through a mob of kids who didn’t much like it, but Jim kept saying “scouts”, so they fell back in awe. When we got to the diamond we saw that they weren’t actually playing, it was too cold for that, just running and doing calisthenics, although a couple of guys were tossing a ball around in the outfield. Joshua Collinsworth was easy to spot because he was older, around fifty, and was in the middle of a group behind second base doing push-ups, egging them on to go faster.
“Mr. Collinsworth?” I said when we had walked across the diamond.
“That’s me,” he answered. “C’mon, Lou, you can do better than that. What can I do for you?”
“My name is Darrell Stark. This is my assistant, Jim McQueen.”
“Oh, from New York?” I didn’t have a chance to answer. It wasn’t really a question anyway. “You’ll have to wait a while. I’m busy right now. Atta boy, OK, relax now.” Lou sank to the ground like a stone in water. I was about to insist, but Jim took my arm and tilted his head the way we’d come. He was right of course, no point in antagonizing the guy we needed information from. Then, reading my own mind, I knew that I wouldn’t have insisted that Mr. Beacon see us immediately if we showed up unannounced at his office. We waited around home plate freezing our asses off for a good fifteen minutes before Mr. Collinsworth found time to talk to us. He didn’t look too happy about it though.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said, “but I wasn’t expecting you today.” We shook hands, then he offered his hand to Jim. “And you’re.. what?…McQueen? I thought we had enough Irishmen in Boston.” At least he had a sense of humor. Up close I could see the wrinkles in his face and decided he was nearer sixty, in very good shape. “Now what can I do for you, Mr. Stark?”
“Could we go some place to talk?”
He smiled. “Someplace warm, you mean?” He never seemed to wait for answers. “How about some push-ups? They should do the trick. Wait a second. He put his hands around his mouth and yelled to someone in the outfield: “Marv! Take over for a while, I gotta talk to these scouts.” Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at us. How did he know what we had said to the crowd, or had he just re-invented it? “Come on, there’s a bar a few blocks away. Let’s run, warm yez up.” And he started off at a brisk pace. Jim and I followed less briskly with our ties flying in our faces and our briefcases banging against our legs.
When Collinsworth reached the bar he was only a block ahead of us, so we at least saw him enter. We arrived puffing and joined him at a table. Although it was early, the bar had a few patrons drinking beer. “I’m having coffee, what about you boys?” he asked.
“I’ll have the same”, Jim said, “and a glass of water?”
“Right. Hey, big John,” he called to the bartender, “coffee for me and these big league scouts, and a pitcher of water. They just run three blocks and worked up a thirst.” The bar patrons all turned and looked at us. Maybe he really thought we were scouts.
“Did Mr. Beacon tell you what we want to talk about?” I asked him.
“Nope. Just your name and I should cooperate fully, which I intend to do to the best of my ability—and depending on what you want.”
“It’s about Jerry Rose.”
He had been teasing us till then, but now his mien changed. He leaned forward. “What about him?” he asked softly.
I gave him one of my cards and Jim did the same:
They were identical except mine read “Manager-Owner” under my name. A lot of people have asked what the Brooklyn Bridge has to do with it, and I always tell them the truth: nothing. I just happened to be looking out of my window on the day I was trying to think of a name for what was then a one-man operation, and there it was. But Joshua Collinsworth didn’t ask. He frowned, shrugged and handed them back.
“Keep them,” I said. He shrugged again and put them in his shirt pocket. Then, “What do you want to know?”
“All we know about his death is what we read in a newspaper clipping.” I opened my briefcase, took out the clipping and showed it to him. He didn’t bother to read it. “Yeah, I know that one.”
“Were there more?”
“No, not that I know of?”
“Do you know any more about his death than what is in the article? That’s what we’d like to know.”
“Have you asked the police,” he said.
“Not yet.” He raised his eyebrows, so I elucidated. “It’s not easy for a PI to get information from the police in a strange town.”
“Why don’t you work with a local PI then?” Joshua was no dummy.
“Because we want to keep this as confidential as possible.”
“That why you haven’t gone to the police?”
“So why are you asking?”
Who’s asking the questions here? I thought, but said, “My client wants to know.”
“And your client’s name is confidential, I suppose.”
“That’s right.” He was asking the right things, and I had a feeling that he knew something and would tell us if we could gain his confidence.
Big John, a little scrawny guy, came carrying a tray with our coffee and water. We shut up. Collinsworth thanked him and, after he was gone, said, “You’re going to have to tell me why you’re asking and for whom if you want anything from me.” He was dead serious and I saw that I had no choice.
“Can I have your word that this won’t go any farther than this table, Mr. Collinsworth?”
“That depends on what it is that don’t go no further, Mr. Stark…and Mr. McQueen.” He obviously liked to mix good with bad grammar, maybe to show that he was fluent in both. I looked at Jim, who nodded, although I had already decided.
“My client is Branch Rickey.” That opened his eyes. “Jerry’s initials are…were…J.R. Another Negro ballplayer, John Rollins of the Charleston Chariots also died recently under unusual circumstances. Initials also J.R. And a third one, Jackie Robinson, with the same initials, is about to be called up to the Major Leagues.” I stopped to let it sink in.
“So you think…what?” he asked.
“Just what you are thinking, Mr. Collinsworth – that Robinson could be next, or that it’s a message to Mr. Rickey that Jackie shouldn’t be in the Major Leagues.”
“If that were the case, why didn’t they just knock off Jackie? Why two others with the same initials?”
“I don’t know, “ I admitted. “The initials might be only a coincidence and there’s nothing to it. But there are a couple of possible scenarios. First, that outside baseball and the Negro community” …I used that expression again, and hoped it didn’t anger him as it had Charlie… “no one has heard of them. But Jackie Robinson is famous and his unexplained death would not go unnoticed. Or, second, that whoever is responsible…if someone is responsible… he’s a nut and is playing with us.”
“Third?” Hollingsworth asked.
“I already mentioned that it could be a message to Branch Rickey. I don’t know, maybe he or they don’t want Robinson dead.”
“How did Rickey know about those two?” He asked.
“Someone sent him newspaper clippings.”
“No, we checked that out.”
“Big John!” he called, “three beers.” And to us, “On me.”
None of us said anything until after the beers arrived. I wanted to give him time to think it over. Finally he took a large swallow, banged the glass down and said, slowly and quietly, “Yes, there is something suspicious about Jerry’s death.”
Jerry came to us from the Brown Bears in the middle of the season…”
“Brown Bears?” I interrupted.
“Chicago. Negro League. He asked that he be sold, and he had a good reason.
“To get out of Chicago?” Jim asked.
“You got it. This is the mafia, boys, so you gotta be real careful.”
“Go on,” I urged.
“The Bears won the pennant last year and almost won the Negro League World Series as well. You know why they didn’t win? Because they weren’t supposed to.”
“It was fixed?” I asked.
“It was that, but Jerry wasn’t playing their game. He hit over 400 in the Series.”
“But they lost anyway.”
“Yes, but no thanks to Jerry. “Listen Darrell—and please stop calling me Mr. Collinsworth—those guys don’t just offer a pay-off that you can accept or refuse. You must accept it or your ass is in a sling.”
“So Jerry didn’t accept and thought he could get away with it by moving to Boston?”
“Yeah, poor kid. He was a helluva ballplayer as well as being honest.”
“What else, Joshua?”
“That’s all. I don’t know that they killed him, but if it was a common mugging why didn’t they take his money?”
“A message?” Jim said.
Hollingsworth shrugged. “If it was it was a pretty effective one.”
“Is this the Italian mafia we’re talking about, or is there some kind of Negro mafia around?” I asked.
“Those guys got some spades working for ‘em, but there’s no Negro mafia that I know of. You Mac?” he asked Jim.
“No,” Jim said, “we’re not that organized. Except for the Black Muslims.”
Collinsworth laughed. “Yeah, what a bunch of creeps. But they’re not interested in baseball.”
“Can you think of a connection with John Rollins?” Jim asked him.
“Not unless those bastards are operating down there too. Rollins was a great pitcher. Both of them were Major League material once Robinson breaks the color line…if he does.”
“What about Jackie Robinson?”
“Don’t know him personally,” Hollingsworth said, “but I’ve seen him play. Great. There might be better ones around, but he’s an educated guy, you know. Branch Rickey knows what he’s doing.” He thought a moment. “What I just told you doesn’t say anything about the initials, does it?”
“No.” I finished my beer and said to Joshua Collinsworth, “Thanks, Joshua. What you’ve told us is very helpful. Can I ask now for your cooperation in keeping this quiet?”
“Hell, man, I’m more interested in that than you are,” he said. “You don’t say where you got the information and I don’t say you asked.”
“Agreed.” We shook hands on it. “Think Big John can get us a taxi?”
“That’s not as easy as beer, but he’ll manage.”
© 2002 Frank Thomas Smith
Author's note: The title could change again. If anyone has an idea for a better one, I'd be glad to hear it.