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Fifty years later, ESPN breaks new ground on Robinson

February 27, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ ESPN has uncovered evidence of a major league-wide conspiracy among players to go on strike 50 years ago when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the game’s color barrier.

For the first time, men who played against the late Robinson have come forward, alleging the conspiracy, which apparently was thwarted by Dodgers president Branch Rickey, National League president Ford Frick and commissioner Happy Chandler.

``I think every team in the league voted,″ former Pirates outfielder Al Gionfrido told ESPN in the network’s first new edition of ``Outside The Lines″ of 1997, scheduled to be broadcast Friday night.

In a segment of the show, ESPN’s Keith Olbermann says the network spoke to 93 of the Dodgers’ 107 living 1947 opponents, and ``players from three franchises said they took votes on whether to play.″

Those teams were Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago, and ESPN also had evidence that St. Louis probably took such a vote as well. Of those that voted, ESPN could confirm only that the Cubs voted to strike on opening day April 15.

Hank Wyse, a Cubs starting pitcher in 1947, said team captain Phil Cavaretta held a team meeting.

``He had a telegram saying all the other clubs would go on strike if Jackie Robinson played. `How do you all feel about it?′ They voted to not play,″ Wyse said. ``The vote, it was 25 or 24 to one or something.″

Dewey Williams, the Cubs catcher, said he and his teammates all were waiting for a call from Dodgers outfielder Dixie Walker, confirming that Robinson had taken the field. Then the strike would go on.

``Everybody in the clubhouse was sitting around waiting for Dixie to call, which we thought for sure he was going to do,″ Williams said.

Walker never called, and the Cubs played.

ESPN said a walkout by the Cardinals was forestalled, probably when Stan Musial refused to go along with it, and in a later interview, Robinson himself credited Rickey, Frick and Chandler for averting disaster.

ESPN spent 18 months working on the hour-long special, which will be followed by a town hall style discussion program moderated by ABC News’ Ted Koppel.

The program also documents many of the racial problems encountered by other black players in those early days of baseball’s segregation, such as the American’s League’s first black player, Larry Doby, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and Bob Gibson.

``Jackie passed the torch on to every black player,″ Aaron said. ``Now, whether he accepted it was up to him.″

Doby recounted the excuses clubs made for not immediately calling up some of the black players who would later become Hall of Famers.

Willie Mays?

``He couldn’t hit a curveball.″

Ernie Banks?

``Not enough range at shortstop.″

And Hank Aaron?

``He had a hitch in his swing.″

Instead of talent, ESPN’s report indicates, clubs were looking for something else in their first black players.

An original Boston Red Sox scouting report on pitching prospect Earl Wilson, for example, called him a ``well-mannered `colored’ boy, not too black, pleasant to talk to, well educated, very good appearance.″

In 1959, Pumpsie Green and Wilson integrated the Red Sox, baseball’s last all-white team.

Robin Roberts, the first black woman sports announcer at ESPN, contributed to the special and saw it for the first time at a screening Thursday.

``There was a real sense of pride, watching it,″ she said. ``I also learned some things about him. I was a little upset, too, that I didn’t know some things I should have. For example, I knew about his impact on baseball, but this show really put into perspective his place in the civil rights movement.″

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