SALT LAKE CITY — When the anticipated baseball film “42” opens in theaters on Friday, Frank Layden will be among the first in line. That’s a guarantee. Waiting to see Jackie Robinson didn’t just start for him this week; it started 66 years ago.
Layden was in the ticket line then, too, at Ebbets Field. As a 15-year-old Brooklynite, he had come to see the Dodgers, as well as the first African-American player in Major League history.
Small wonder Layden still favors baseball over any other sport. The former Jazz coach saw Robinson’s historic game on April 15, 1947 — and many others like it. His youth was enriched by baseball legends, many of whom played in New York during that era: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider.
In one sense, that famous day wasn’t such a huge thing. Layden was often at the ballpark on Opening Day. He remembers knowing it was a momentous occasion, but mostly he wanted to see Robinson the athlete. Jack Johnson had become boxing’s heavyweight champion in 1908 and Joe Louis had been champ for 10 years, so sports integration had already begun.
“I think, in my mind, we were more interested in whether this guy could help win a World Series for us, more than him breaking any barriers — though that became a reality,” Layden said this week.
A World Series title nearly happened that year, too. It took seven games for the Yankees to win a Series that featured three 1-run and two 2-run games.
However the film might depict Robinson’s first game, Layden says he doesn’t remember racial calls from the crowd at Ebbets. Brooklyn, he says, “was a great place for him to come.” Layden played high school sports with ethnic minorities, so the fact Robinson was African-American wasn’t shocking.
“I never did hear any of the negative stuff. Brooklyn was already integrated,” Layden said.
That doesn’t mean there was no opposition. A petition to ban Robinson was passed around during spring training by some Dodger players, though not all signed it. Opposing teams insulted and demeaned him. But Dodgers president Branch Rickey, manager Leo Durocher and commissioner Happy Chandler endorsed the addition of Robinson, so it was a done deal.
In his first game, Robinson grounded out, then flew out and hit into a double play. He later bunted and reached base on an error. His first-day box score: 0-for-3, 1 run.
Curiously, there were about 6,000 empty seats in the 32,000-seat stadium.
From a statistical perspective, it wasn’t the stuff of movies.
But Robinson went on to produce countless great games, compiling a career .311 batting average with 137 homers, despite starting late (he was 28 when he entered the Major Leagues).
“The thing I remember best about his career was him stealing home, dancing off third base,” Layden said.
Robinson’s presence forced pitchers to go into the stretch with a man on third. It also forced Americans to recognize him as a great player, not a curiosity.
“Jackie Robinson certainly broke the barrier for baseball and for athletics, but let’s look at it: Maybe he became the conscience of the country,” Layden said. “Look at him now in relation to women’s rights and minority rights we came to recognize a lot of things because of what he did and how he accepted the challenge.”
If you ask Layden about specific details of that historic day, he only mentions a few. Still, he says, he was “at an impressionable age" and Robinson became his favorite athlete.
"Jackie Robinson was so powerful and aggressive," Layden said.
He remembers the feel Robinson brought to the game, too. But mostly he remembers the message. Robinson’s tombstone says, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
In that sense, notes Layden, Robinson greatly impacted those who were there. Not to mention millions who weren’t.
That alone is worth standing in line.
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