Much has been made of the Dodgers initial reaction to Robinson’s contract. Pitcher Kirby Higbe once told a radio host that his arm was so strong because as a boy he had “thrown rocks at negroes.” This was the response of many around baseball.
Higbe, who would refuse to play with Robinson, was traded to (you guessed it) Pittsburgh before the season began. He would pitch in seven games for the Pirates before signing with the New York Giants the following year.
When Robinson’s contract was purchased by the Dodgers, teams around baseball attempted to organize a full boycott in protest of integration.
The boycott, led by Dixie Walker of the Dodgers, had a varying degree of impact. Depending on which historian you talk to, the number of teams who voted on the idea varies. According to the Ken Burns documentary, it was the entire National League, including the Pirates.
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The vote was close. By a 13-12 decision they abstained from the boycott. Of all the teams that voted, only the Pirates decided against the strike.
Like most teams of the 40’s, Pittsburgh had a roster full of southern white talent, which leads to a complicated history with Robinson. Documentaries and films about Jackie tend to differ on their opinion of the Pirates’ reaction to him. “42” depicts Pittsburgh as a ball-club which welcomed racists, using pitcher Fritz Ostermueller as an example. According to the film, Ostermueller repeatedly yelled “you don’t belong here” at Robinson every time they faced off.
While historians often debate which cities were toughest for Robinson to travel to, “42” often depicts the Pirates as the villain in the film, which is certainly debatable. But if we have that debate, we’re missing the point.
Pittsburgh was a popular trading partner with Rickey, who would often dump his troublemakers onto the Pirates’ payroll. Along with Higbe, Brooklyn also traded Alabama-born-and-bread Dixie Walker to the Pirates in hopes of stabilizing a turbulent locker room and racial environment.
It’s ironic, then, that after the 1950 season Pittsburgh hired none other than Branch Rickey as their general manager.
Next: From Jackie To Roberto