Dinner with Jackie Robinson — Newfoundland ballplayer remembered baseball legend as a 'super guy'

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The movie "42" has people talking again about Jackie Robinson and the sad, sad things he endured to become the first black player in Major League Baseball.

Even though I haven't seen the film - maybe some night this week - it got me thinking about a Newfoundland man who witnessed racism directed at Robinson firsthand.

The late Sean O'Leary was just a kid from Corner Brook when he attended Brooklyn Dodgers training camp at Vero Beach, Florida, in 1949.

Robinson had broken baseball's colour barrier two seasons before and the second baseman was an integral part of Dodgers' legendary lineup at camp.

O'Leary shared his experience with me for a story in 1997. He remembered one instance when he and some players were simply walking up the road.

A powder-blue Cadillac offered a ride and began asking questions about the Dodgers.

The cigar-chomping driver started asking about that "God-damned Robinson" and said he'd run him down if he saw him.

"That is what Robinson was up against," O'Leary told me.

The father of St. John's Coun. Sheilagh O'Leary, he also recalled dividing lines ordering blacks to sit in the back of the bus and whites to park in front, and signs over businesses that read, "No blacks or Jews."

"What an attitude people had," O'Leary said.

But Robinson - who had spit, baseballs and the N-word hurled at him as he overcame racism - played through it all.

O'Leary, as a first baseman on a tryout, didn't get to actually share the infield with Robinson, but to learn whatever he could, he studied the second baseman and the other Dodgers carefully.

"He was an absolute pleasure to watch," O'Leary said of Robinson. "He could really move. He could really pour it on. He deserves all the recognition he's gotten."

His fondest memory of Robinson was a long conversation over supper.

At camp, players tossed their name tags in a box and were told where to sit at supper.

One evening, O'Leary was put alongside Robinson.

"He asked me where I was from and it went on from there," he recalled. "We had a grand chat. Robinson was well-spoken, very modest. He was a gentleman, a diplomat. He was a super guy. He made me feel comfortable where I didn't belong."

In the end, O'Leary didn't make the Dodgers. He played that season with a semi-pro team out of Dartmouth, N.S.

He spent some time in the Canadian Air Force before returning to Corner Brook, where he continued playing ball and founded the Humber Hawks, a team that's still around today.

O'Leary later relocated to St. John's. He died in 2001 at the age of 72.

"Robinson did much more outside of baseball, more than anyone," he told me. "He did the world a lot of good."

That's why Robinson's story is so important to tell - in movies, newspaper columns and anywhere else.

Racism is ugly and unnecessary, and Robinson withstood unnerving amounts of it.

Sean O'Leary was lucky enough to be at the Dodgers camp - the first Newfoundlander to get a major league tryout - but he unfortunately witnessed the kind of crap Robinson faced.

"I didn't know enough about (racism)," he said. "I'm 18, green as grass, among 300 ballplayers, and didn't know a soul. It took a while."

Email Steve Bartlett at sbartlett@thetelegram.com. On Twitter, he's @TelegramSteve.

 

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  • marilee pittman
    April 24, 2013 - 07:38

    Wonderful story!