Jackie Robinson Day recalls link between Rickey, Rupp

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For most people, April 15 represents headaches -- tax forms due, the last-minute scramble to line up all that paperwork.

For a lot of baseball fans, it’s something different. April 15 means Jackie Robinson. It was on that date in 1947 that he made history.

And now it’s the date set aside on the Major League calendar, when every big leaguer across the land wears number 42, the only jersey number in the history of the game ever retired. No one will wear it again.

Such was the impact Robinson had on the sport, and on America, as the man who integrated our national pastime. You no doubt already understand the ripples his presence caused throughout society, forcing white America to come to terms with itself faster than it would have liked. And he was a spark of hope for African-Americans as well.

The Hollywood movie “42,” as well as dozens of documentaries, illustrated but of course could never fully capture the mental tortures Robinson endured, all alone. Millions of black Americans were pulling, rooting and praying for him, along with his wife Rachel. And he did have another ally – Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive who decided to promote him from Triple-A Montreal and break baseball’s unwritten rule.

I knew the story, of course, when Rickey’s name came up during an interview I conducted in 2005. And when it did, I almost fell out of my chair.

WKYT videographer Steve Moss and I were in a suburb of Houston, talking with a former UK assistant basketball coach. Neil Reed had worked for Adolph Rupp, first as a scout in the Cincinnati area, and then as an assistant coach.

Steve and I were working on a documentary that examined the reputation of Rupp, known for decades as a racist and segregationist, who allegedly fought the inclusion of black athletes on his team in particular, and college basketball in general.

Reed was one of the people who convinced us it wasn’t true.

At the time he first met Rupp, Reed, a white man, was coaching basketball at a primarily black high school in Cincinnati. Rupp began entertaining the notion of recruiting an African-American to Kentucky in 1959. Reed said Rupp asked him, “Who do you think is better – Jerry West, or Oscar Robertson?”

Hard to go wrong with either answer, but Reed answered, “Oscar Robertson. No question.” Reed told us Rupp smiled and told him he was going to begin recruiting blacks, and that he wanted Reed to come join his staff.

This was in spite of a “gentleman’s agreement” throughout the SEC that blacks not be included in sports. Not all campuses in the league had been desegregated yet, but Kentucky’s had been, in 1948. But because of state laws in Mississippi and Louisiana prohibiting African-Americans from competing against whites in sporting events (among other reasons), the conference was still lily-white.

Reed declined Rupp’s job offer until 1962, when he joined the staff. In 1964, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, there was more pressure to integrate the team.

Rupp refused the order of UK President Dr. John Oswald, who told him simply to sign a black player and be done with it. He told Reed he didn’t want a youngster who would just sit the bench and fulfill a requisite. He wanted a kid who could play, and help Rupp add to his beloved win column – which is why any coach recruits any player.

Reed told us that Rupp knew the first black player at Kentucky had to be special, that he would stand out more than any other African-American basketball player in the deep South. The Wildcats then, as now, were much despised. So, Reed said, they knew the first player would have to be the right guy.

“And that’s why we went to see Mr. Rickey,” Neil Reed said to us on that warm afternoon outside Houston.

Come again?

“Mr. Rickey…”

The signed-Jackie-Robinson Mr. Rickey?

Yes, Reed assured us. Rupp wanted to talk to the man who made integration happen in big league baseball. So the UK coach called his friend, Albert “Happy” Chandler, the baseball commissioner in 1947 who refused to cave to other owners and oversaw Robinson’s move to the Dodgers.

Chandler set up the meeting, and Reed told us about the advice Rickey imparted to Rupp. Your first black player, he said, had to fit specific requirements.

“I wrote down what he said,” Reed told us. “The first thing he said - that the youngster you take must be a Kentuckian; must be an excellent student; must be without question, as with Jackie - nobody is going to keep him on the bench; (is) gonna be something you need -- and boy, we needed centers.”

Rickey also told them the fifth requirement – that, because of the abuse this player ultimately would take, he had to be beyond reproach. Reed and Rupp knew they had their man, a high school senior who fit all five: Westley Unseld.

Rated the top recruit in America, Unseld led Louisville Seneca to back-to-back KHSAA championships. “There was no finer youngster,” Reed said. “There was no finer person, certainly not a player, which proved how good he was.”

We spoke with Unseld as well, in the private Baltimore school he and his wife own and operate. He told us he had some idea of what he would face as the first African-American player at Kentucky, and that he was not a “turn the other cheek” kind of guy. So he signed with Louisville and became an All-American, then an NBA All-Star and now is a member of the basketball Hall of Fame.

Tom Payne would become the first black player in the history of UK basketball. He fit most of the categories Rickey listed; Payne struggled in school but was named All-SEC his sophomore year, his only season as a Wildcat.

Married with a child, he was declared a “hardship” case by the NBA, the only way back then that athletes could qualify to play in the league prior to their senior season. After a couple of years in the league, Payne was imprisoned on sexual assault charges.

More black players would sign to play at Kentucky, far more frequently under Joe B. Hall, who believed Rupp had erred in not signing an African-American as UK’s first black player who might not be a superstar but could withstand the rigors that came with the role.

If he had to do it over again, knowing how history would treat his legacy (long after he was gone, of course), Rupp might have taken Dr. Oswald’s advice and done the same.

But he believed Kentucky’s first black basketball player had to be the Jackie Robinson of the Southeastern Conference. And he sought advice from Branch Rickey, the man who knew how it had to be done.

Rickey, indeed, found the right man – which is why April 15 is a special day in Major League Baseball.

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