Thursday, April 19, 2007


Jackie Robinson-Sixty Years On

On Sunday, April 15, 2007, Major League Baseball celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the Major Leagues.

Robinson began his day, sixty years ago, as a Brooklyn Dodger. He played first base, and went 0 for three. He did score a run, however, late in the game, which proved to be the winning run.

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, on that cold, grey day in April, became the first black man to play Major League Baseball.

After the game, a sparse crowd of reporters asked him about his performance. They were suggesting that he hadn’t played up to his potential because he was nervous. Robinson corrected them. He went hitless, he said, because “Johnny Sain was pitching”. Sain was the Red Sox ace.

Robinson finished the season batting almost .300, and scored 125 runs himself. He led the league with 29 stolen bases.

Every fan attending a major league game on Jackie Robinson Day received a special commemorative booklet about Robinson. There are letters from the White House, and from the Commissioner, (but none from 24 Sussex Drive! An oversight?), and several wonderful little stories about the man, his game, and his legacy. The foreword is written by his widow Rachel, who continues to work hard on several projects to help keep the flame of equality glowing.

In one article, Eric Enders writes that “Jackie also became a target for opposing pitchers---in his first 37 games he was hit by a pitch six times, a figure that had led the league a year earlier.”

Robinson grew up in California, and possessed tremendous natural ability. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles. Jim Becker, a retired sportswriter for the Associated Press described Jackie as “the greatest all-around athlete I ever saw.” Becker had watched Robinson at UCLA. In his final year in university, Robinson played on the school football team, led the nation in yards per carry, and played tenacious defence. He led the conference in basketball scoring, ran sprints, and broke the NCAA long jump record. It had been held by his brother Mack, who also won a silver medal in the 200 metres race at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, finishing second to Jesse Owens.

Robinson was a scratch golfer, and won at least two tennis tournaments. And yes, he was a pretty fair baseball player as well.

After finishing at UCLA, he departed for Honolulu to play for the Bears. At that time, no blacks were permitted to play in the Major Leagues. In late November of 1941, he left the team to join the Army. He departed from Hawaii on December 5th, 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

He served as a lieutenant in the American Army, and then played one season in the Negro League with the Kansas City Monarchs. He was an All Star in his only season in the league, in 1945.

Several scouts had their eyes on Robinson for several years. Those that worked for major league teams assumed that they were wasting their time because of his colour. One baseball person entered the fray with a question that began with the words “What if?”

His name was Branch Rickey. A couple of summers prior to Robinson’s major league debut, Dodgers President Rickey had sent scout Clyde Sukeforth to look at Jackie when he played for the Monarchs. Robinson always recognized Sukeforth’s contribution. In his biography, Jackie wrote: “Clyde Sukeforth with his quiet confidence helped as much as anyone else.”

Robinson began his minor league career on April 18, 1946, with the Dodgers’ Triple-A club, the Montreal Royals, in Jersey City, N.J. In his only season with the Royals, he was the most valuable player in the league.

He signed his major league contract on April 11, 1947 for the $ 5 000 minimum salary, and made history when he stepped to the plate four days later. The rest, as they are wont to say, is history. A good history, to be sure.

The final page of the tribute booklet we received at the Jays-Tigers game listed several trivia items related to baseball. Larry Doby was the first African American to play in the American League. Cito Gaston is the only black manager to win the World Series. He did it twice with the Blue Jays. Buck O’Neil became the first black coach in the Major Leagues in 1962. He also became the unofficial spokesman for Negro baseball in Ken Burns’ history of Baseball, spinning wonderful anecdotes of the early days of baseball.

There is no question that Robinson’s debut in the game sixty years ago was part of the catalyst that led the United States to become a better nation. More just, more fair, more equal.

Number 42. Forever a legend in the great game of baseball.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


Toronto Maple Leafs-Belleville Connection # 4

As you are pulling that blue and white jersey over your head to get ready for the game tonight, here is another tidbit to consider: Kyle Wellwood and Kris Newbury both played for the Belleville Bulls. Along with Raycroft, Stajan, and McCabe, that brings a strong local flavour to the current Leafs roster. And yes, there is another fellow around the dressing room who played for the Bulls. He also has some influence on the game in Toronto. I will keep you guessing, and pass along his name at the end of the article.

For the casual hockey observer, there might be a tendency to confuse Wellwood and Newbury.

Reason Number One: Both have first names that start with the letter K. Sorry, it really is a stupid reason, but I thought I’d throw it out there. Not many names start with “K”.

Reason Number Two: Size. They are almost the same size. Slightly small for today’s hockey standards, about five feet, ten inches. And both in the two hundred pound range. Much more valid reason than the “K” business.

Reason Number Three: Minor league experience. Both began their OHL careers with the Bulls. Wellwood spent two and one half seasons in Belleville, Newbury a season and a half. Both got dispatched to western Ontario cities. Both have played for Leafs farm teams on at least three separate occasions.

Reason Number Four: Success. Not everyone who laces up skates gets a chance to play in the NHL. Both have, following outstanding OHL and Minor league seasons.

Reason Number Five: Draft. Both were drafted in the first round by the Bulls. Both players were drafted in the 5th round by NHL teams. Freaky! Wellwood was drafted 134th by the leafs, Newbury 139th by the San Jose Sharks. In different years. Still weird.

Reason Number Six: Position. Both are listed as centres on the wonderful “Hockey”; however, Newbury is used more often on the wing. But don’t be surprised to find Wellwood out there, on occasion.

Newbury began his OHL career with the Bulls in 1998, Wellwood the following year. They played together in Belleville for half a season, during a very strong period in the franchise’s existence. Others in the mix at that time were Cheechoo, Papineau, Radivojevic, Mezei, Nathan Robinson, and Ryan Ready---all moved on to the NHL. They also had outstanding goaltending at the time from Cory Campbell.

Both players began their minor pro careers on the Rock, with the St. John’s Maple Leafs in 2003. Since that time, Wellwood has logged more ice time in the NHL. Newbury has played 15 games with the parent club this year, as the leafs have attempted to fill the gaps because of injuries.

With a handful of games remaining, the pundits will be spewing facts and figures and opinions unmercifully at us from all of the sports channels. Spare the words.

Drop the puck. Play the game.

How about them Dukes! And that other fellow who can be found in the rafters and in the bowels of the Air Canada Centre? Why it’s Doug Gilmour, who played for the Bulls in their “Tier II” days, the year before they entered the OHL. His official title of “Player Development Advisor” means that he will keep an eye on leafs at all levels of the organization, passing on advice to the powers that be. He retired from the Leafs as a player on September 8, 2003

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