Man, Vin Scully's got nothing on this guy.
As Tyler Kepner writes in the Times, Bob Wolff has now been working as a sports broadcaster for 74 years. It's an official world's record! And the great thing is that Wolff has saved thousands of hours of his work, which include interviews with ... and it's really sort of mind-boggling, just reading these names ... Connie Mack, and Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker, and Babe Ruth, and you halfway expect Cap Anson and maybe Honest Abe Lincoln to show up in there somewhere. You can get an enticing taste here.
What really caught my eye, though, was this bit about a long-ago interview with a certain No. 42 ...
Robinson gives fielding tips — keep the glove low, brushing against the dirt — and, in a group interview after his groundbreaking rookie season, offers a rather benign comparison when asked about the abuse he took from Southern players.
"I went to U.C.L.A.," Robinson says. "U.S.C. is our archrival across town. Suppose I suddenly had to go over and root for U.S.C. during a crucial game between U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. I mean, I think that’s the same way that these fellows felt when they came up out of the South. They have certain things instilled with them in the South, and they had to come up, all of a sudden, and were pushed in with me. At first they didn’t know just how to take it, but as the season progressed, there was certainly no feeling at all between us and we got along swell."
It's hard to know how sincere Robinson really was, especially because it's not apparent whether he's talking just about his Southern teammates, or Southern players generally. One thing we know for sure: the verbal abuse did not end during or after his first season.
In 1947 and '48, Jackie was playing under a gag order from Branch Rickey. Before the '49 season, Rickey lifted it. Jackie began to speak his mind, and as he would later recount in I Never Had It Made:
Very soon after my talk with Mr. Rickey, I learned that as long as I appeared to ignore insult and injury, I was a martyred hero to a lot of people who seemed to have sympathy for the underdog. But the minute I began to answer, to argue, to protest -- the minute I began to sound off -- I became a swellhead, a wise guy, an "uppity" nigger. When a white player did it, he had spirit. When a black player did it, he was "ungrateful," an upstart, a sorehead. It was hard to believe the prejudice I saw emerging among people who had seemed friendly toward me before I began to speak my mind. I became, in their minds and in their columns, a "pop-off," a "troublemaker," a "rabble-rouser." It was apparent that I was a fine guy until "Success went to his head," until I began to "change".
It is true that I had stored up a lot of hostility. I had been going home nights to Rachel and young Jackie, tense and irritable, keyed up because I hadn't been able to speak out when I wanted to. In 1949 I wouldn't have to do this. I could fight back when I wanted. That sounds as thought I wanted to get even, and I'm sure that is partly true. I wouldn't have been human otherwise. But, more than revenge, I wanted to be Jackie Robinson, and for the first time I would be justified because by 1949 the principle had been established: the major victory won. There were enough blacks on other teams to ensure that American baseball could never again turn its back on minority competitors.
Jackie Robinson did have a real temper, and 42 never quite shows that, probably because showing that might have made the character just a touch less sympathetic.
Getting back to the original subject, Mr. Wolff has donated his collection of recordings to the Library of Congress, where it shall someday be available to all of us. For which we all should be wildly grateful.