Column by Mark McFarland, Assistant Sports Editor
On April 15, 1947, sports in the United States changed forever. It was the first MLB game that an African-American played in and his name was Jackie Robinson. As Black History Month has come and almost gone, it is only fitting to take a look back at what the decision to let him play in the MLB meant to the nation.
The commissioner of the league at the time was Albert Benjamin “Happy” Chandler. He was a politician from Kentucky who loved the game. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, came to him wanting to try and desegregate the league. They decided to try and do it. Jackie Robinson was their player of choice to try and see if he could make it. Robinson played in Minor League Baseball (MiLB), desegregating it. When it came time for Robinson to be called up to the MLB in 1947, there was a 15-1 vote by the owners against Robinson playing the MLB, Happy Chandler said in his Hall of Fame speech. The only problem for the owners was they didn’t have the power to accept a contract move from MiLB to the MLB, Happy Chandler did. He accepted the contract and Robinson was in the Opening Day lineup for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A.B. “Ben” Chandler III came and spoke to a sports history class Monday Feb. 22 about the situation his grandfather was in. He shared what his grandfather had told him and shared some of the hardships his grandfather went through. Ben Chandler said his grandfather took a low profile after he made the decision and let Ricky take the credit. When Happy Chandler was ready to come back to the world, “he felt a little bit disappointed” he didn’t get much of the credit, Ben Chandler said.
“I think it was because he was such an innate politician,” Ben Chandler said. “He was always concerned about the political outlook on things, and he knew that bringing Robinson in would not be popular.”
In the movie “42,” the story of Robinson coming into the lead, Happy Chandler had a very minimal role in the movie. Ben Chandler said it was a little disappointing his grandfather didn’t have much time in the movie.
“They didn’t give him much of a role in it,” Ben Chandler said. “To the extent that they took his most famous quote, which was ‘Someday I’d have to meet my maker,’ and they put it in Branch Ricky’s mouth.”
Robinson is clearly a hero, with all of the things he endured just to be able to play baseball with the white man and prove that African-Americans are good enough would have been enough to make anyone else break. Ricky is a hero for making the plans to desegregate the league and being the owner who made it happen is special. The person everyone forgets about is Happy Chandler, the commissioner of the league. His office was in Cincinnati overlooking the “promise land,” his home state of Kentucky, Ben Chandler said.
“He had his office in the Carew Tower,” Ben Chandler said. “He had a desk that sat in such a way that it looked right out the window with a view over the promiseland, Kentucky.”
The MLB has been through so much since the bringing in of Robinson, but one can only wonder would Happy Chandler would have done during the steroid era and Pete Rose trying to get reinstated?
Ben Chandler said his grandfather was strict on gambling. He would even suspend someone if they did as much as just talk to a gambler. Ben Chandler said his grandfather wanted to keep the integrity of the game.
“He would have been tough on both of them I think,” Ben Chandler said. “He showed by his actions what he thought about gambling. He suspended Leo Durocher for just consorting with gamblers, he didn’t even have evidence that Durocher gambled himself. On the steroid issue, I believe he would have come down hard, as hard as he legally could.”
Happy Chandler never received the credit he deserved for his part in bringing Robinson into the league, but he certainly did his part. He got the nickname ‘Happy’ when he was walking on campus at Transylvania University, when a student shouted across the way “Hey Happy,” Ben Chandler said. He also said his grandfather was just glad he wasn’t called Stinky.
The decision of Happy Chandler came seven years before the Supreme Court case of Brown vs. The Board of Education, and Ben Chandler said he believes it was his grandfather’s doing that paved the way for not only that case, but other civil rights cases as well.