The Court martial of Jackie Robinson.

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Jack Roosevelt Robinson (January 31, 1919 – October 24, 1972) was an American professional baseball second baseman who became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era.Robinson broke the baseball color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947. The Dodgers, by signing Robinson, heralded the end of racial segregation in professional baseball that had relegated black players to the Negro leagues since the 1880s. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

In 1942, Robinson was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas.

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Having the requisite qualifications, Robinson and several other black soldiers applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School (OCS) then located at Fort Riley. Although the Army’s initial July 1941 guidelines for OCS had been drafted as race neutral, few black applicants were admitted into OCS until after subsequent directives by Army leadership. As a result, the applications of Robinson and his colleagues were delayed for several months. After protests by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (then stationed at Fort Riley) and the help of Truman Gibson (then an assistant civilian aide to the Secretary of War), the men were accepted into OCS.The experience led to a personal friendship between Robinson and Louis. Upon finishing OCS, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943. 

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Lt. Robinson was an officer with the 761st Tank Battalion.  That unit of African-American soldiers – later dubbed “The Black Panthers” (and “Patton’s Panthers”) – became famous when they fought for 183 straight days in Europe (including at the Battle of the Bulge).  Their motto was “Come Out Fighting.”

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If an eventful bus ride had not sidetracked Jack Robinson, during the summer of 1944, the 2nd Lieutenant could have been with his men when they shipped-out to Europe.  Instead, he faced charges of insubordination, resulting in a court-martial.

An event on July 6, 1944 derailed Robinson’s military career.While awaiting results of hospital tests on the ankle he had injured in junior college, Robinson boarded an Army bus with a fellow officer’s wife; although the Army had commissioned its own unsegregated bus line, the bus driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus.Robinson refused.

The driver backed down, but after reaching the end of the line, summoned the military police, who took Robinson into custody.When Robinson later confronted the investigating duty officer about racist questioning by the officer and his assistant, the officer recommended Robinson be court-martialed. After Robinson’s commander in the 761st, Paul L. Bates, refused to authorize the legal action, Robinson was summarily transferred to the 758th Battalion—where the commander quickly consented to charge Robinson with multiple offenses, including, among other charges, public drunkenness, even though Robinson did not drink.

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By the time of the court-martial in August 1944, the charges against Robinson had been reduced to two counts of insubordination during questioning. Robinson was acquitted by an all-white panel of nine officers.

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The experiences Robinson was subjected to during the court proceedings would be remembered when he later joined MLB and was subjected to racist attacks.Although his former unit, the 761st Tank Battalion, became the first black tank unit to see combat in World War II, Robinson’s court-martial proceedings prohibited him from being deployed overseas; thus, he never saw combat action.

After his acquittal, he was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he served as a coach for army athletics until receiving an honorable discharge in November 1944.While there, Robinson met a former player for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, who encouraged Robinson to write the Monarchs and ask for a tryout. Robinson took the former player’s advice and wrote to Monarchs’ co-owner Thomas Baird.

 

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Baseball and the WWII Battlefield

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In January 1942, Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944), the national commissioner of baseball, wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in which he asked if professional baseball should shut down for the duration of the war.

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In what came to be known as the “green light” letter, Roosevelt responded that professional baseball should continue operations, as it was good for the country’s collective morale and would serve as a needed diversion.

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During the war, 95 percent of all professional baseball players who donned major league uniforms during the 1941 season were directly involved in the conflict. Future Hall of Famers Bob Feller (1918-), Hank Greenberg (1911-86), Joe DiMaggio (1914-99)

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and Ted Williams (1918-2002) exchanged their baseball jerseys for military fatigues. Feller, in fact, enlisted in the U.S. Navy one day after Pearl Harbor. Because baseball was depleted of so many able bodies, athletes who otherwise likely never would have made the big leagues won spots on rosters. One of the more notable was Pete Gray (1915-2002), a one-armed outfielder who appeared in 77 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1945.

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By June 1942 more than 41,205 American military personnel were stationed in Northern Ireland, and with the Americans came American culture, from bubble gum and candy to big bands and, of course, baseball. The build-up was an impressive display of American efficiency, but one obstacle, unforeseen by military high command, was causing a dilemma.

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In a country where similarities with home seemed to end with the language, troops became desperately homesick. Daily training left them restless, agitated and suffering low morale. Something was needed to prevent the worsening of an already difficult situation.
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It was evident that a competitive sports program could help improve matters, and team games of basketball and soccer, combined with track and boxing, went a long way to make amends. But America ‘s national pastime – baseball – had by far the greatest impact on morale.

The first recorded baseball game took place near Belfast on Saturday, April 25, 1942. Despite overcast, blustery conditions, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division, attracted an inquisitive crowd of more than 1,000 locals who were treated to a play-by-play account over a public address system, a concert by the regiment band, and an impromptu jitterbug demonstration on the sidelines.

 

 
Major General Russell P Hartle, acting commander of the US Army Northern Ireland Force (USANIF), was invited to throw out the first pitch, and with all the fanfare of a major league opening day, baseball had arrived in Northern Ireland .

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Pitching for the winning 3rd Battalion in the 14-4 game was Corporal Robert Lange of Wilton Junction, Iowa.

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a 21-year-old right-hander who was a member of the Cleveland Indians’ farm system and had an 8-4 won-loss record with the Flint Arrows of the Michigan State League in 1940. In the sixth inning, Corporal Leo J Robinson, a 24-year-old outfielder from Harper’s Ferry, Iowa , hit a solo home run for the winning team. It was the first home run hit in Europe by an American serviceman in World War II. “[Robinson] was well known as a semi-professional player prior to World War II,” explains his son, Stephen L Robinson. “He was an outstanding hitter and pitcher in high school and was offered a professional contract from the Crookston, Minnesota , baseball team of the Northern League in 1936, but he turned it down because the family was suffering greatly as a result of the Depression and he could make more money working in the Civilian Conservation Corps.”

Neither team had uniforms, equipment was scarce, and a soccer field, without a backstop or pitcher’s mound, served as a diamond for the afternoon.

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But baseball had arrived, and the troops welcomed it with open arms. With the Army Air Force based at the Combat Crew Replacement Unit at Greencastle in County Down and the Langford Lodge Base Air Depot in Antrim, the Navy at the United States Naval Operations Base (USNOB) in Londonderry, and the Army scattered throughout the island, battalion-level baseball soon flourished on the Emerald Isle.

In July 1942, 34th Infantry and 1st Armored division all-stars teams were selected to participate in Northern Ireland ‘s first officially recognized baseball game of World War II. The last “official” game had taken place 25 years earlier, on October 31, 1917 , when Canadian and American troops put on an exhibition game for the local people. Staged at Windsor Park , a soccer stadium in Belfast , and a part of the Anglo-American Independence Day celebrations, the local government and American military pulled out all the stops to put on a July 4 spectacle.

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Representing the 34th Infantry Division were the Midwest Giants while the 1st Armored Division were represented by the Kentucky Wildcats. It would appear that the Kentucky Wildcats nickname was chosen because the original player line-up featured troops who were predominantly from that state. Indeed, a pre-game press cutting listed the southern-state players. However, for reasons unknown, but probably because the originally selected players were with a military unit that was otherwise indisposed, the Kentucky Wildcats were represented by players mainly from New York and the east coast.