July/August 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 5
I was a little young to remember all the details surrounding my brush with history, but my father wrote an account of it in a letter to The New York Times shortly after Jackie Robinson died, in October 1972. The clipping helps refresh my memory.
It was 1956. I had just turned seven and was recovering from mononucleosis. To celebrate, my father was taking me to my first baseball game, a Brooklyn-Cincinnati double-header at Ebbets Field. My mother wrote to Jackie Robinson explaining that we would be sitting in a right-field box and suggesting how much it would mean to me if he would stop by and say hello. My father told my mother that ballplayers couldn’t possibly respond to all such requests, and he said nothing about it to me. But he did take a camera to the game, just in case.
“We got to the park early,” my father wrote the Times . “Maybe 10 or 15 minutes before game time I saw Jackie Robinson pigeon-toeing his way out toward right field. He was playing left field quite often in those days, but there was no reason for him to come to right. No reason except one. I reached for the camera.”
“Is there a boy named Rob Slocum up there?” Jackie called out. According to my father, I “leaped” out of my seat and “made the few steps to the rail without touching the ground.” Jackie told my father that he’d forgotten to bring my mother’s letter with him; he’d had to call his wife at home to find out my name and where we would be sitting.
Jackie had a baseball in his hand with a few signatures on it, my father remembered. “He said he would go get the rest of his teammates to sign and then return to give the ball to Rob. That is just what he did.” My recollection is that the ball originally had no signatures, but I could be wrong. And the part about my leaping out of my seat may be an extrapolation from my father’s sensations. What an experience for him! A lifelong Dodger fan takes his son to his first ball game, and up strolls Jackie Robinson. It must have been the highlight of his life.
From then on, any news about Jackie got special attention in our family. Sometime in the early nineties or so, I read with mild disgust that a huge majority of high school seniors didn’t know the name of the first black major-league ballplayer. Always one to look on the bright side, my father said, “Why should they?” He considered it a sign that black players are accepted as no big deal, whereas I connected this with the failure of people to place the Civil War in the right century.
I saved the handwritten letter Jackie sent my mother in response to the thankyou note she’d written him. “I guess if we as ballplayers realized the reaction the average fan gets out of meeting a ballplayer,” he wrote, “we would react differently. I am sure that most feel as I that we are only ballplayers and don’t quite understand what it may mean to young boys and some adults as well. Your letter and your husband’s gave me a big kick to know your reaction. Actually it is such a little thing to do and to get such a nice letter makes me aware of how much more it should be done. Thanks for making me realize this fact. Sincerely, Jackie Robinson.”
And needless to say, I still have the ball.