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Sunday, April 07, 2013

In Anticipation of "42" and a Note on Wendell Smith

I can't wait for the upcoming movie on one of the most important people in 20th century American history, Jackie Robinson.  Robinson was an American original, an outstanding person and a pioneer.  It's only fitting that every Major League team has retired his number (save the Yankees, who will once Mariano Rivera hangs 'em up).  Mo Vaughn, who played for the Mets, Angels and Red Sox, wore 42 in honor of Robinson.

That said, if you go to IMDB, you'll see that an actor plays Wendell Smith.  The actor, whose name escapes me, is African-American, as was Smith.  Now, I know that you've heard of Branch Rickey, of Leo Durocher (whom Commissioner Happy Chandler inexplicably suspended before the '47 season -- Robinson's rookie year -- when the fiery Durocher could have helped protect Robinson in a way that his manager, Burt Shotton -- who wore a suit in the dugout and was a benign presence -- did not), of Pee Wee Reese and of others in the drama.

But my bet is that you have never heard of Wendell Smith.

And that's a shame.

Because Wendell Smith was an unsung hero in the Robinson drama from the time that Rickey signed Robinson to a minor-league contract for his AAA farm club Montreal in 1946.  Smith, you see, was a national sports reporter -- meaning baseball writer -- for the African-American paper The Pittsburgh Courier.  Smith covered the Negro Leagues, Smith tried to prompt and cajole organized baseball into hiring players of color not designated as "Latins," and Smith traveled with the Dodgers frequently, many times being Robinson's only companion on the road (even though the Dodgers also signed other African-American players, including Dan Bankhead, a pitcher who didn't make it, and John Wright, if my memory serves me, also a pitcher who didn't make it).

And it was Smith who covered Robinson constantly the way the New York papers did.

You probably have heard of the other sportswriter named Smith, Red Smith, the all-timer who wrote great pieces for the New York Times.  But you have to be of certain generations to remember him.  And he was great and memorable.

Few probably remember Wendell Smith.

And that's a shame.

Because he played a big part in the Jackie Robinson story too.

He was there.  He saw it.  He covered the story.  He also helped create the story.

Imagine how tough it was for him, too.

And he was such a fine writer that he, too, is in the Hall of Fame.

When I looked at the list of characters in the movie, I was heartened to see how high Wendell Smith is on the list of historical figures portrayed.

Jackie Robinson most certainly deserves the spotlight.  What an amazing man -- what an inspiration -- he was.

And Wendell Smith was too.

I can't wait to see the movie.  Go see it, take your kids, and teach them, show them what life was like and how courageous Jackie Robinson was.  It's an important part of American history, and one that we should not forget.


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