Who Killed Jack Robinson?
by Frank Thomas Smith
An Arab! I was puzzled, I readily admit that – and who wouldn’t be back then? I considered the possibility that my informant didn’t know an Arab from a Hindu, but a Hindu would have been just as strange. On the other hand, I had no reason to doubt him. An Arab in Charlotte, South Carolina, involved in the murder of a Negro baseball player who had the same initials as Jackie Robinson. Of course this would raise some eyebrows now, but for me then it was a total mystery.
This morning, I read the newspaper along with breakfast, as is my habit. On the front page of “Newsday” was the following story.
Jackie Robinson has been a hero to millions since he first stepped onto Brooklyn's Ebbet's Field in 1947. In Washington, they plan to make that status official.
Almost 60 years after Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier in major league baseball, embarking on a career that would mark him one of the greatest baseball players ever, Congress wants to posthumously award him its highest honor -- the Congressional Gold Medal.
"It's not just the stunning athlete we hope to honor," Robinson's daughter, Sharon Robinson, said Wednesday at a news conference in Washington. "It is also the man of sterling character, a man ... who proudly joined the civil rights movement. A man who was a devoted husband and a caring father."
Robinson, who battled diabetes and died of a heart attack in 1972, was born in Georgia in 1919, only a generation removed from his grandparents' slavery. Despite his background, he went on to letter in four sports at the University of California Los Angeles. After playing in the Negro Leagues for a season, he signed to play with the Dodgers' top farm team in 1945. In 1947 he began his storied career in the majors.
"Despite threats on his life, the weight of a people on his shoulders and racist taunts, he played in 151 of the 154 games" his first season, his daughter said.
Robinson, who was known for his phenomenal speed and aggressive play, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. He had a lifetime batting average of .311, won a World Series in 1955 and played in six All-Star games and six World Series during his 10-year career.
Jackie Robinson was "not only one of the greatest baseball players of all time, but one of the most admirable human beings I have ever met," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), himself a Hall of Fame pitcher who spent 17 seasons in the majors and retired after the 1971 season. He "overcame a great deal to accomplish what he did for both his game and the civil rights movement."
Wednesday, politicians seemed confident Congress would grant Robinson the medal. Chief sponsor of the Senate effort, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said, "This legislation will not be the most difficult to pass."
Now isn’t that nice? When Jackie first came up to the Majors many of the southern senators would have lynched him if they could. Well, maybe some northern ones too. And now they’re going to give him a medal, when he’s dead. Times change, certainly, and sometimes for the better, though usually not, at least in my experience. Now let’s go back a half-century again.
There was a pile of work waiting for me in the office, other cases that my guys were investigating. Mostly minor stuff like husband or wife following, a missing person that one of my detectives found but who wanted to stay lost. She was a woman who was trying to escape from her husband and my guy felt sorry for her. I reminded him that she was not our client, her husband was, which meant that he was paying us to find her and not the other way around. Jack Foley, who was supposed to be a tough ex-cop, insisted that it was unethical for us to turn the dame over to a husband who beat her, gave her the clap he caught from whores and took all the money she earned as a waitress.
“So what do you want me to do?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said, studying his knuckles, “as I see it there are two possibilities. Either we tell him we couldn’t find her…”
“In which case he doesn’t pay us and probably goes to another detective agency,” I said.
“…or we tell him we found her but we’re not tellin’ him where she is and if he bothers her again she’ll tell us and we’ll kick the shit out of him.”
I had to laugh. “I take it she’s an interesting woman.”
“Very – and a knockout.”
“Okay, Jack, we’ll do it your way, but please be more diplomatic. Who needs money anyway.” As you can see, I liked to keep my people happy.
I filled Jimmy McKee in on what I had learned in Charlotte, and asked him to go down there and find out some background on Jerry Rollins. It was clear to me that the members of the Negro community wouldn’t give a whitey like me the time of day. I told Jimmy to be careful and keep out of the way of the police and white people in general. And to tell the people he queries to keep his visit confidential. I gave him the money he would need and he was on his way before I could wish him good luck. A good man, Jimmy McKee. After giving Mr. Rickey an update – and getting some more money from him for expenses, which were mounting up – I intended to get down to other business for a few days. That, however, was not to be.
It was my custom after each phase of an investigation to dictate details and observations to Charlie for the files. This was more often than not also a discussion and analysis of the case. Charlie was most helpful at this, although her presence was itself a distraction. I sometimes succumbed to her charms and couldn’t resist leaning over her as I circled the office dictating and kissing her forehead or caressing a breast. Luckily, mini-skirts and the sexual harassment concept had not yet been invented. She pretended annoyance, but the little smile at the corner of her mouth said something quite different.
When I came to the part where the Arab surfaced in Charlotte, she stopped writing and wrinkled her brow as I droned one.
“What?” I said when I noticed it.
“I was just thinking.”
“Ah, you’ve decided to marry me.”
“No, I mean the Arab.”
“Oh, him.” But I was interested. “What about him?”
“Did you ever hear of the Black Muslims?”
“Yes, Jimmy and I saw a troop of them at the airport when we flew to Boston. Weirdos, if you ask me.”
“Arabs are Muslims, too, aren’t they?”
I stopped pacing. “Sure. Do you think there’s a connection?”
She thought a while before answering. “I don’t know. But the Black Muslims have certainly attracted a lot of interest in the Negro community.”
“Hmm.” I waited for her to go on.
“And they’re not all wierdos, despite your uninformed opinion.”
“Right, I’m uninformed,” I admitted. “Do you know any of them?”
“My uncle Sol is one, I think. At least he reads their literature.”
“Uncle Sol? You never mentioned him before.”
“You never asked, darling. Anyway, he’s really my great-uncle.”
Hollis was a mostly white, blue-collar section of Queens. Jack Foley used to live there. I remembered what he told me about it because he was in the process of moving away when I hired him. “All them colored moving in.” he’d said. “So I’m gettin’ out while the gettin’s good. I reminded him that two of our staff were “colored” - Charlie, my personal secretary and assistant and, as everyone in the office knew and Foley soon would know, lover, and Jimmy McKee. I asked him if he had a problem with that.
“Hey,” he said, “I got no problem with them at all. But do you know what happens to property values when they start moving in? In fact, a colored guy came to see me, one of the new neighbors, and he said the whites were already starting to move and he didn’t like that, he and some others wanted it to be a mixed neighborhood, and he hoped we’d stay.” Jack looked down at his hands, thinking what he’d say next. He wanted the job.
“Anyways, I told him the truth, that my house had already lost twenty percent of its value and I needed to sell before it went down to fifty percent.” He shrugged. “I got nothing against them, but when it comes down to dollars and cents…well…”
Jack Foley probably told it differently to his friends, but I knew he was right about property values and that was a long time ago, when a guy like him could be considered practically enlightened, so I left it at that.
Charlie and I took the subway out to Jamaica, then a taxi to Hollis. Solomon Lincoln, a.k.a. Uncle Sol, was sitting in the sun on a lawn-chair outside a so-called garden apartment when we drove up. He was watching two children, about six and three, playing on the sidewalk in front of him. He was expecting us and stood up when we drove up.
“Heya, Charlene, how very wonderful to see you,” he said and wrapped her in a hug. When he shook hands with me it was like grabbling a claw. He showed me his right hand, which had only an index finger and thumb. “Surprised you, didn’t it?” he said. “Got this an a accident long time ago, but I don’t need them other three fingers no more. You play chess?”
“I know the rules,” I said, “but I don’t play very well.”
“Man, I play abomanlly, so let’s have us a game.” He sat back down and called into the house, “Rose, could you please bring out my chess set and ‘nother chair?”
I looked at Charlie, who shrugged and went into the apartment.
“Ain’t had a game with someone I can beat in a dog’s age,” Uncle Sol commented as we waited for the chess set to appear. A moment later Rose, Uncle Sol’s niece and the mother of the two children, came out carrying the chess box, followed by Charlie with two folding chairs. Rose turned out to be Charlie’s aunt (no pun intended) as well.
Rose shook hands with all her fingers and a big smile and asked if we’d like some tea. Charlie said that would be a good idea and that she’d make it. Uncle Sol was too busy setting up the pieces to notice the question.
Luckily, Uncle Sol, though not exactly abominable, was not an expert at chess, but somewhat better than me. The game took two hours, during which he talked nonstop while I was pondering my moves, and was silent only when it was his turn. He described his childhood in the south, then involvement with booze and bad guys in Chicago. A long stint in the Merchant Marine, where he got clean and honest at the advice of his mentor, a white sea captain reminiscent of Ahab. He could still see people walking around with their heads under their arms, he claimed, a talent he learned from a witch in Georgia. They were suicides, he explained, looking for themselves, or murder victims haunting their killers. I was waiting for the opportunity to ask about the Black Muslims when he suddenly said, just after capturing one of my knights, “Hey, Jackie Robinson gonna move here.”
“Jackie Robinson?” I stammered.
“Yeah, he’s thinking of buying a house just a couple a blocks from here…that’s what they say, anyway.”
“I guess that will depend on whether he’s called up to the Dodgers,” I said.
I looked down at my depleted defenses and sighed inwardly. I needed the game to go on a while longer, so didn’t concede. I saw what seemed a good move, but held up because I knew it would make him think and stop talking.
“I mean if he’s not called up, he won’t be moving.”
“Oh, any fool can see he’s gonna be called up, unless…”
“Unless what.” I was staring at him instead of the board. He noticed my interest.
“There’s some that don’t want him called up,” he said.
“Oh sure.” He shook his lonely finger at me. “But there’s others, too.”
“Northerners, you mean?” Just to keep him going.
He chuckled. “You might say so. But I mean colored folks. Your move.”
I made my move, which surprised him. He smiled and considered it.
“Why would colored folks not want him in the big leagues?” I asked. “Doesn’t make sense to me.”
He moved his bishop diagonally, effectively trapping my queen, then said, “Ever hear of the Black Muslims?”
I started. “I’ve heard the name, but don’t know much about them.”
“Well, we got this Prophet Elijah, and he say that Jackie oughta stay with the Negro League and beat the Majors in a Black-White World Series.” He glanced down at the board and I expected him to say it was my move, but after a pause he went on: “I don’t think that’s gonna happen though.”
“It doesn’t seem very likely,” I agreed.
“Not that they couldn’t beat ‘em,” Uncle Sol hastened to add. “Ever hear of Satchel Page?“
“Yes, the pitcher.”
“Ever seen him play?”
“Well, he could pitch every day in a World Series and beat the Yankees and the Dodgers combined.” He shook his head. “But the white world ain’t gonna let it happen.”
I was trying to find a way out for my queen and keep the conversation going, but it wasn’t necessary. Uncle Sol was on a roll. “Elijah says we should have our own country, that the United States should cede a state or two, you know, like Florida or South Carolina.” He chuckled again.
“Do you think that’s realistic?” I asked.
“Nah, but it ain’t a bad idea. Do you know what I like about the Muslims, Darrell?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “A lot of young people have given up drinkin’ and whorin’ and fightin’ and killin’ each other because of Elijah and his message. It gives them pride. Then there’s another fella, Malcolm X he calls himself, that wants to just take those states, fighting if necessary and it sure would be necessary. I don’t buy that. We’d lose sure and a lotta brothers and sisters would get killed.”
“You have a point there.”
“And Jackie Robinson ain’t one of them. He wants to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and ain’t no Elijah or Malcolm X gonna talk him outa it. Don’t tell Gladys Rounder I said so though”
“She a friend of Charlene’s, some kinda witch.”
“Oh, yes. I met her.”
“Well, not exactly a witch, some kinda seeress though. Some say she’s Elijah’s wife. I don’t know about that, but she’s really insistent that Jackie don’t play for the Dodgers.”
“She is? But I thought…”
“Even calls him Jack – says Jackie makes him sound like a little black Sambo. Don’t tell Charlene I called her a witch, Okay?”
I had to think about this so I stared down at my encircled queen. I couldn’t see any way out for the queen, nor could I think straight about what Uncle Sol had just told me. I tipped over my king and said, “You win, Sol. Good game.”
In the taxi on the way back to the subway I told Charlie what Uncle Sol had revealed about Gladys Rounder. “She’s got more to do with all this than we thought, Charlie, and she’s got us running around in circles.”
Charlie didn’t say anything, but I could tell that she was thinking hard.
Continued in the next issue of SCR. For previous installments, see Back Issues