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PHOTOS: Jim Becker, last surviving newsman at Jackie Robinson's Major League debut, remembers April 15, 1947

by John Rabe | Off-Ramp

After transferring to UCLA from Pasadena Junior College, Jackie Robinson showed his versatility by becoming the Bruins' only four-sport letterman--in football, basketball, track and field, and baseball. Photo dated: March 19, 1940. LA Public Library herald-Examiner Collection

"The day sent chills up my spine, and 66 years later it still does. I always said, his failure would have been our failure, but the victory was his." - Jim Becker, AP writer

Jim Becker , shown above on the cover of his book Saints, Sinners, & Shortstops, worked for the Associated Press for almost 50 years, starting less than a year before Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947.  Although he was a cub reporter, the AP assigned him to accompany a beat writer to New York for the event because Becker was from LA and was familiar with Robinson from his college days.

Becker says he arrived at Ebbets Field about an hour and a half before the game started, and went down onto the field to watch batting practice. "The players were coming out of the Brooklyn dressing room one or two at a time," he said. "I looked over and saw this very black man in those starched white uniforms they used to wear, and I looked him and I thought this magnificent athlete, this courageous man, is carrying the banner of decency and dignity and fair play ... he's carrying it for all of us."

The game had been previewed extensively, and Becker says the New York writers, led by Red Smith, the hero of all modern sportswriters, were determined not to let it turn into a circus. Becker said, "A lot of us had just come back from fighting Hitler and we kinda thought it wouldn't be a bad idea to fight those insane racial theories at home, and we were determined to make it just another day at the office and, oh, by the way, there was a black guy at first base for Brooklyn." 

The following paragraph contains language some readers may find offensive.

Sportswriters from other cities were another story. When the Reds came to town a couple weeks later, Cincinnati's Tom Swope, reportedly a virulent racist, 'looked around, and he said, “You’re a bunch of nigger-loving Jew Commie bastards,” and somebody knocked him down. And his glasses flew and he picked himself up and he picked up his glasses, and he walked back to his seat, and nobody said a thing.'

I told Becker I wanted to report his eyewitness testimony because we tend to think Jim Crow was ancient history, but Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier happened within living memory. "Yes, vividly living memory," he says. "The day sent chills up my spine, and 66 years later it still does. I always said his failure would have been our failure, but the victory was his."

Becker says the sportswriters who were there that day kept in touch through the years. When Lester Rodney died in 2009, he became the last.  Jim Becker, a widower, long retired, lives in Honolulu, and still keeps his and his colleagues' original news stories from April 15, 1947.

A word about the images:  Jackie Robinson was born in Georgia, but the family moved to Pasadena when he was 1. He went to John Muir High School, Pasadena Junior College (now PCC), and UCLA. These are a selection of photos from the LA Public Library's extensive and browseworthy online archive, with captions from the archive.  Imagine of Jim Becker and friends courtesy Jim Becker.

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