Will the Cardinals' decision settle one of baseball's long-standing mysteries?
by Bob Timmermann
The St. Louis Cardinals, like the L.A. Dodgers, have opted to have all members of its team wear 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson on April 15.
The Cardinals' decision will inevitably lead to discussions of an incident that may or may not have happened and is still a sore spot when brought up in St. Louis. That is, did the St. Louis Cardinals team threaten to boycott its first series in Brooklyn in 1947 (May 6-8)?
Many histories of Jackie Robinson state that the Cardinals threatened a strike or boycott, but were talked out of it after NL President Ford Frick threatened serious repercussions against the team for doing so. However, how serious were the Cardinals about such a boycott?
No one knows for sure. The most outspoken opponent of Robinson's place in the majors was Cardinals outfielder Enos Slaughter. Slaughter would never say exactly what the Cardinals were planning to do. And Enos Slaughter was not short with words.
Several prominent members of the 1947 Cardinals are still alive, including Stan Musial, Joe Garagiola, and Red Schoendienst. All of have tried to downplay or deny any boycott attempt.
However this was in Slaughter's obituary in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Dan O'Neill that ran on August 13, 2002:
Mr. Slaughter's grit and performance on the field were scarred by events that echoed the difficulties North Carolina and the nation faced in dealing with issues of equality and the advent of civil rights. In 1947, former Cardinals' executive Branch Rickey broke baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with Brooklyn. Unsubstantiated rumors suggested that Mr. Slaughter was one of the clubhouse principals who tried to get the Cardinals to strike in protest of Robinson's presence on the Dodgers' roster.
Stan Musial, a prominent member of that '47 team, said the strike story, which first ran in the New York Herald Times, was bogus. "We never had a meeting," Musial said. "We never talked about anything organized. We never had any thoughts of that direction whatsoever."
But in a later game against the Dodgers that season, Mr. Slaughter was accused of intentionally spiking Robinson, an accusation that haunted him and possibly crippled his hopes of gaining Hall of Fame selection for many years.
In his acclaimed television documentary "Baseball," Ken Burns promoted a dramatic description of the play: "Enos 'Country' Slaughter, out at first (base) by at least 10 feet, nonetheless jumped in the air and deliberately laid open Robinson's thigh with his spikes."
While it's accurate to say Mr. Slaughter aggressively made contact with Robinson, even purposely, it is less certain that racial issues were involved. In his biography published in 1972, Robinson wrote: "As I took the throw at first from the infielder, Slaughter deliberately went for my leg instead of the base and spiked me rather severely."
Fact is, Mr. Slaughter was renowned, if not disliked by opposing players, for his aggressive base running. Robinson wasn't the first player Mr. Slaughter spiked, or the last. Mr. Slaughter was upset by the Burns presentation and through the years defiantly bristled at being categorized a racist. "I stepped on him, and I'd step on him again in the same situation," Mr. Slaughter said in an interview in 1997. "It's part of the game."
Coincidentally, Mr. Slaughter was in left field for the New York Yankees in the sixth game of the 1956 World Series when Robinson singled home the only run of the game in a 1-0 Brooklyn victory. It was Robinson's final hit.
Sam Lacy, a black sports writer who traveled with the Dodgers in 1947, offered this perspective on the spiking incident in a Post- Dispatch interview in 1997. "You don't want to take (Slaughter) off that hook too easy, but I don't want to put him on that hook too easy," Lacy said. "You can't read a man's mind, see?"
I would be inclined to believe that the Cardinals likely had no serious plans to boycott any games in 1947 against the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the topic is still not something you bring up in St. Louis, just as you don't bring up the Jim Crow seating at Sportsman's Park. Regardless, St. Louis was always one of the least hospitable cities for Robinson to play in during his time in the majors and the Cardinals did not integrate their team until Tom Alston joined the team in 1954 after the Busch family bought the team.
There are numerous histories of baseball's integration where you can read about this topic. I have always liked Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel. I haven't had a chance to read the newest book on the topic, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season by Jonathan Eig, but Eig claims to have some answers.
However, the Cardinals players of today should not have bear the weight of the sins of its fans and players from 60 years ago. And I should add those fans 60 years ago included my parents.