In he spring of 2012, when the idea for True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson was a seedling, I covered an event at the Jackie Robinson Foundation. For much of the night, I talked with Joe Morgan at a small table away from the larger crowd. Morgan was the thrilling, parameter-shifting second baseman who was a standout player for the Cincinnati Reds—nicknamed “the Big Red Machine” for their dominant offense in the 1970s. His plaque has been up at the Baseball Hall of Fame since 1990. He died in 2020 at the age of 77.
At the time of that event, Morgan had been working and volunteering on behalf of the Jackie Robinson Foundation for decades. He explained that, like Robinson, he grew up in California. He was three years old when Robinson began his revolutionary Dodgers career, in Brooklyn in 1947. At age 19, in 1963, Morgan broke into professional ball by playing for the Durham Bulls, a Class A minor-league team. On an early road trip with the team, he was subjected to segregation and verbal abuse.
In recalling his experience, Morgan was quick to suggest that the racism he faced in baseball was not as ferocious or prolonged as what Robinson had faced two decades earlier. But it was still of a kind, and it was brutal enough, Morgan said, that it nearly made him quit the Durham Bulls and professional baseball altogether. “One reason I admired Robinson was that he took things others could not have taken,” Morgan told me. “I don’t think I could have put up with the abuse he took.”
Morgan met Robinson only once: on the field before Game Two of the 1972 World Series, in Cincinnati. Robinson was getting honored 25 years after he became the first Black player in the modern major leagues.
“One reason I admired Robinson was that he took things others could not have taken. I don’t think I could have put up with the abuse he took.”
He addressed the crowd from a microphone in the infield, and expressed thanks to the game, while also making a pointed plea for baseball to finally open the door for Black managers. Afterward, as Robinson walked toward the dugout, Morgan went over to him and extended his hand in greeting.
“I wanted to shake his hand, to feel his handshake,” Morgan told me. He looked down at his own upturned palm. “I wanted to thank him for what he had done for all of us, and also for what he had just said on the field. For his courage.”
That public appearance was Robinson’s last, and came nine days before he died. He was nearly blind, and he walked slowly, partly on account of poor circulation in his legs. His wife, Rachel, steadied him. “You would not have described him as imposing that day,” Morgan said. “But to me, he was. To me he was this larger-than-life figure who had helped shape how I thought of myself as a ballplayer and person. There was no quit in Jackie Robinson.”
Morgan’s observations were the sort I would hear again and again over the years, from those who knew Robinson both as a young ballplayer and as an aging ballplayer and during the long, insistent Evensong of his post-playing life. I also heard it from those, like Morgan, who had not known Robinson personally but who felt the impact of the man on their lives.
Kostya Kennedy is the author of several books. His latest, True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson, is out now from St. Martin’s