The old man answered the phone.

“Is this Herschel?” I asked him.

I heard a loud TV playing in the background. A dog was barking.

“This is Herschel. Who’s this?”

I recited my name, rank, and credentials, each of which are so unimpressive they qualify as a punchline. But when I told the old man I was a writer working on a story for Jackie Robinson Day, which is today, it was enough to get him talking.

And talk he did.

“Jackie Robinson Day?” he began with a laugh. “Shoot, man. Didn’t know there was such a thing. Sure, I’ll tell you about Jackie Robinson.”

Herschel was just a kid when he first saw Jack Roosevelt Robinson play. He was living in Chicago. One afternoon, Herschel’s parents took him to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs square off against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a matchup that drew 47,000 people in attendance.

His whole family was excited to see the famed Number 42. And by “excited,” I mean Herschel’s father bought everyone new dressy outfits for the occasion.

I asked whether Herschel’s father was a big Jackie Robinson fan. The old man’s answer was an emphatic, “Shoot, man.”

Which apparently means “yes.”

“Everyone in my whole neighborhood was a Jackie fan,” the old timer went on. “Our preacher even announced the game on Sunday. Whole church showed up to the park just to cheer him on.”

Herschel’s family walked several miles to the ballpark to save the price of a streetcar fare. When they arrived, Herschel’s six-foot-five father was drenched in perspiration, sweating through his hatband, there were blisters on his feet, and he looked like he’d just discovered teeth.

“My dad felt the same way about baseball as Abe Lincoln felt about education.”

The throng waiting at Wrigley’s entrance was downright biblical. They stood in line for hours and paid a small fortune to get past the baffle gate. Herschel’s father told his sons he did not have money for peanuts or Cokes.

“We couldn’t even afford to smell the hotdogs.”

The family took their seats in the nosebleeds. They saw their hero take the field with the other players. His father screamed and waved his hat when he saw Jackie.

Jackie Robinson. Born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919, raised in Pasadena, California. Jackie was 28 when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball 75 years ago today. To us youngsters, he’s just a name. But to men from Herschel’s neighborhood, Robinson wasn’t merely a baseball player. He was baseball.

That afternoon, each time Robinson was at bat, Herschel’s entire family would cheer until their throats went raw. Even his mother cheered.

Whenever Jackie swung his stick, even if he hit a foul ball, Herschel’s father would scream until he reached a cheerfully boyish crescendo.

“Shoot, man. My dad was happier than he’d ever been.”

The game, however, wasn’t all that good, as games go. Namely, because a few fans sitting near Herschel’s family were behaving in an unsportsmanlike manner. Many of Jackie’s critics were shouting nasty phrases to the ball player. Other naysayers threw debris and litter onto the outfield. Even the ballplayers in the dugout were spewing racial abuse toward Jackie.

But Jackie’s diligent admirers were undaunted, they waited all afternoon to see Robinson’s magic. Inning after inning, they waited. The game lulled on, but Jackie still hadn’t connected with the ball. It was getting late, and our hero had been swinging at nothing but Illinois humidity all day.

For Jackie’s last at-bat, his fans erupted before he ever even stepped into the batter’s box. They were hoping for the impossible.

The first person in the crowd to give Jackie a standing ovation—Herschel swears—was his father. His father, the large man, with shoulders “wider than two cars parked together,” shot to his feet and cheered himself silly.

The next person to stand was a young man in the row behind them. The young man clapped so hard he almost broke his wrist. After that, more stood. Then, an entire nosebleed section rose. Followed by three quarters of the stadium. Soon, it seemed as though everyone in Cook County was applauding and cheering loud enough to shatter concrete.

Jackie hit a foul.

The ball was golfed into the stands. Some lucky kid caught it.

The crowd was unfazed.

Jackie swung again.

Another foul.

“HEEEE-RIKE!!” said the ump.

The windup. The pitch. Jackie swung. Strike three.

Game over.

Herschel doesn’t mince words. He says the game was a major disappointment. But he also says that you’ve never seen that many people cheer for a strikeout.

“On the way home, my dad was crying. I asked him, ‘Dad, are you crying cause we lost?’ He looked at me and said, ‘No, son. Just the opposite.’”

19 comments

  1. PurpleIris - April 16, 2022 9:41 am

    I have spent the last couple of hours reading about Jackie Robinson. I knew nothing about him until I read your story this morning. He was a living legend! Still is I think, for baseball and for breaking thru racial barriers. Thank you for the reminder of how far our country has come. We still have hard work to do, tho.

    Reply
    • H. J. Patterson - April 16, 2022 6:53 pm

      Yes Purple Iris, there’s a lot of work to do and that includes all races.

      Reply
  2. Larry E. Notestine - April 16, 2022 10:38 am

    A great article today, Sean. It is a reminder that those that do noble, courageous things — first — are apart from the rest of us. Jackie, Neil Armstrong, the Wright Brothers, and more. They are due respect from everyone, because everyone benefits from the breaking down of barriers they do. Thanks, Jackie Robinson, for what you did for all of us.

    Reply
  3. Tammy S. - April 16, 2022 11:38 am

    Love this!!⚾️❤️🤍💙
    ❤️🤎💛🖤🤍

    Reply
  4. Pilgrim, Jax FL - April 16, 2022 1:19 pm

    I was tearing up at the end.
    How much more do we need to be people of good character today.
    I can’t even say what I’m trying to express.
    Thank you Sean.

    Reply
  5. Melanie - April 16, 2022 1:53 pm

    The best writing telling the best story about the best fans and the best ball player. Grand slam, Sean.❤️

    Reply
  6. Mike Dube - April 16, 2022 2:15 pm

    Another great one, Thank you.

    Reply
  7. Jan - April 16, 2022 2:16 pm

    Awesome! Tears of joy and thankfulness for so many who have gone before us and paved the way …

    Reply
  8. Naomi Smith - April 16, 2022 2:48 pm

    Awesome story! Thanks. We all need to be reminded.

    Reply
  9. Shelton A. - April 16, 2022 3:03 pm

    Jackie was a hero for baseball but also for our country. Walls were pushed back and some broken down because of the great Jackie Robinson. RIP Jackie. Blessings and peace plus a Happy Easter to all.

    Reply
  10. Patricia Gibson - April 16, 2022 3:20 pm

    Hero of his day! Grew up in those days and begin to question segregation around the age of 13. Sometimes you just accept things and it takes a while to realize how wrong it is. Grateful for heroes like Jackie.

    Reply
  11. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - April 16, 2022 5:10 pm

    Reply
  12. pattymack43 - April 16, 2022 5:55 pm

    I’m 79 (yesterday!) and have never followed baseball history to any degree. Thank you for filling in a gap. It is great to hear about a great American hero. Not just about his best, but about the hard times and struggles to get to be great!! Blessings!

    Reply
  13. Linda Moon - April 16, 2022 6:32 pm

    I’m crying a little with the dad because of the win. I cried with joy back in the day of winning and breaking color barriers, too. Thank you, Herschel, for talking to the writer, and thank you, Writer, for passing the story onto us!

    Reply
  14. Pingback: Sean of the South: Jackie | The Trussville Tribune

  15. FD - April 16, 2022 6:51 pm

    Baseball was only one of Robinson’s athletic achievements, and a modest one at that. In researching Robinson one learns he really was a Bo Jackson/Jim Brown level athletic talent overall. Plainly put, he was good at every sport. And good often meaning ‘pro level’. At basketball, some report Robinson as the first player they saw that made ‘dunks’ a part of his game. Not to mention football. Or track. Had Hitler not started the war we would have learned about Robinson as an Olympic athlete. And one more than likely who would have medaled. What is striking is what Robinson gave up, just to become an ordinary ballplayer. We now know he was in fact extraordinary. But that’s with hindsight. I think MLK said it best about Robinson. And it’s something that reminds me of how Washington felt about Ben Franklin, after Franklin did the extraordinary of convincing the French to ally w America, send troops & send money. Quite the trifecta. And Washington knew that it was the single thing that made America possible. MLK felt and said something similar about Robinson; “ Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.” At the time Robinson chose to play baseball, he didn’t know anything about that. But he knew there had to be a first. And the first would be a sacrifice. And gave up all his own pursuits to do that for African Americans because he knew someone had to break through the wall. King was right. It wouldn’t have been possible without Jackie Robinson.

    Reply
  16. Gaye P Baker - April 16, 2022 9:42 pm

    That is a great, great story!!!

    Reply
  17. Karen - April 17, 2022 12:05 am

    What an an awesome day for this family.

    Reply
  18. Donna George-Moskovitz - April 18, 2022 12:22 am

    I am crying. Your few words touched on so many emotions and so much history. Another one out of the ball park, Sean. Love it.

    Reply

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