Give That Man His Roses

This is a touchy story, one that will likely spark strong feelings no matter where you find yourself standing. Still … my old friend Buck O’Neil would want me to write about it. He would demand it, in fact. I often find myself thinking in various situations: What would Buck do? Or: What would Buck think?

In this story, I have absolutely no doubt.

You may have heard a bit this October about an old ballplayer named Eddie Robinson. He is 96 years old now. And he’s the last living member of the 1948 Cleveland Indians, the last Cleveland baseball team to win the World Series.

Robinson had a lengthy -- and sturdy -- big league career. He played more than 1,300 games for seven different teams, and he was named an All-Star four times. At his peak, he hit 29 homers and drove in 117 RBIs for the 1951 White Sox. Over his career, he walked (521 times) much more than he struck out (359 times).

But it is his place on the 1948 Indians -- when he started all six games and hit .300 in the World Series -- that makes small waves of news now. Cleveland is, of course, playing in the World Series. And, so far, the Tribe has not offered to bring him back to Cleveland to celebrate him and that last great team.

This hasn’t been a HUGE story or anything, but it has worked its way around the margins. My old friend in Kansas City Greg Echlin went to visit Robinson in Texas and wrote a story about the whole thing, taking Cleveland to task for snubbing Robinson. “Eddie Robinson prefers to take the high road,” Greg begins his story. He then notes that Cleveland did choose to honor Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga, who played in Cleveland’s last two World Series appearances, 1995 and 1997.

“Uh, excuse me,” he writes, “did the Indians win the World Series in either of those seasons?”

This seems pretty open and shut, right? Numerous others have written the same. Here’s a 96-year-old man who played on the last World Series winner in Cleveland, the one living connection to Lou Boudreau and Bob Feller and Bob Lemon and Joe Gordon and Satchel Paige and Dale Mitchell and Larry Doby and the rest. Why in the world wouldn’t Cleveland bring him to Cleveland and honor him, especially because as Greg notes Robinson still travels -- he attended Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium just this past summer.

Open and shut, right?

Well, yes, there are complications.

There is a famous story -- two famous ones, actually -- that have been told about Eddie Robinson when he was a member of the 1947 Cleveland team. The first was told by Boudreau and confirmed by various others. On July 5, 1947, Larry Doby showed up in Chicago to join Cleveland and become just the second African-American to play in the Majors in the 20th Century and, more to the point, the first in the American League. Boudreau, as manager, met with Doby and then took him around the clubhouse to meet the guys.

Two players, Boudreau said, refused to shake Larry Doby’s hand. They were both Texans.

One was Les Fleming. The other, alas, was Eddie Robinson.

Of course, you could say, Robinson was just a man of his time. True, he was one of only two to refuse, but his opinion was hardly uncommon in America in 1947. To quote Boudreau: “Later, Robinson told me that he lived in Baltimore during the off-season and his neighbors would not appreciate him being on the same team as a Negro, but that he himself had nothing against Doby.”

Of course, there is also the glove incident, again told by Boudreau and again confirmed by others. Boudreau was not there when it happened but he said that he heard the story from the team’s traveling secretary, Spud Goldstein. Boudreau wanted Doby to get some work at first base -- not many people remember this but Doby was a natural second baseman. The Tribe already had Joe Gordon at second. So Boudreau was looking for a good spot for Doby and asked him to take some grounders as a first baseman. Doby did not have a first baseman’s glove. He asked to borrow Robinson’s.

Robinson’s response has been told in different ways through the years. According to the most exhaustive book, “Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby,” the alleged response was: “No, I won’t lend my glove to no n----.” Boudreau would only write that Robinson refused to lend his glove to Doby though, bizarrely, he did agree to lend it to Spud Goldstein who then lent it to Doby.

Robinson, years later, would say it had nothing to do with race; he was just upset that Doby, a not-natural first baseman, was being set up to take his job. “I had no animosity toward Larry Doby,” he would say.

But to complete the circle, we should mention one more story from 1946, when Eddie Robinson was playing for Baltimore in the minor leagues. That, of course, was the same year that Jackie Robinson was playing minor league baseball for Montreal. And Jackie would claim that during a game, Eddie Robinson kicked him in the back on a play at second base. “If I did,” Eddie Robinson would tell Joseph Moore, the author of Pride Against Prejudice, “it was an accident.”

All of this was so long ago and in a different America -- should it matter? Well, that is the point of this piece, but I don’t think you can have a fair and honest discussion about what Cleveland should do without acknowledging this history. I mean, doesn’t it seem strange that Cleveland wouldn’t happily and enthusiastically honor the last living member of its last World Series winner? Doesn’t their reluctance suggest that maybe there’s more to it? No one from Cleveland has talked about this publicly, but it seems obvious that it plays on their minds.

Robinson has spoken about both Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in the many years since. In a conversation with the New York Daily News back in April, Robinson talked about facing Jackie Robinson and playing with Doby.

“We played against (Jackie). We saw some of the indignities. I didn’t think it was bad at all. Everybody gives him so much credit, and he deserves it. But I’d like to say that same year, in Cleveland, we took Larry Doby. And Larry Doby, nobody ever mentions his name. He was a very, very good player. As far as the players were concerned, there was some animosity, but not all that much as you might think.”

So what’s right? It’s so hard to tell, so hard to recreate what it was really like almost 70 years ago, so hard to know what inside people, so difficult to separate what’s real and what isn’t. Larry Doby died in 2003, and as far as I know he never made a public statement about Eddie Robinson, but he was involved in in baseball almost until his death and it would not be too surprising to hear that he made his feelings known to close friends.

But it all takes us back to the beginning: What’s right? Well, this is where Buck O’Neil comes in. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever what Buck O’Neil would say. Buck dealt with every indignity. He was denied a chance to play or manage in the Major Leagues because of the color of his skin. He knew Doby, played against him, managed against him, worked with him in various roles. He, better than any of us, understands.

And I say with 100% certainty that this is what he would say:

Bring Eddie Robinson to Cleveland. Honor him. Honor the 1948 Cleveland team. Honor history.

How do I know he would say this? Because, in different ways, he said that over and over and over again in his life. He believed that people change. He believed that love conquers hate. He believed that the times tend to blind people -- not just bad people but good ones too. In his life, he fought for the Hall of Fame induction of Enos Slaughter, who had numerous racial incidents in his career. In his life, he wanted people to hear the stories of players he knew who had been hateful as young men but had grown to be generous and tolerant -- those were, in many ways, his FAVORITE stories.

We don’t know what Eddie Robinson had in his heart all those years ago. And, truth is, we can’t know, not really. There will be some who will say he should not be honored. There will be some who will say he should. And there will be some who say it was wrong to even bring any of this up, it happened so long ago, what difference does it make? Well, it's history. Eddie Robinson is 96 years old, and like all of us he connects to the past in both good ways and bad. I emailed my dear friend -- and Buck’s dear friend -- Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro League’s Baseball Museum, to ask that question: “What would Buck do?”

“Aw, you know EXACTLY what Buck would do,” Bobby wrote back. “He’d say, ‘Give that man his roses. He was part of something special in Cleveland.”