YOGI Excerpt: Enter Jackie Robinson
In an extended passage cut from the final copy of YOGI, Yogi Berra and his navy squadron gear up for their next combat assignment in Europe during the summer of 1944, while the man with whom Yogi will soon be inextricably linked for the rest of their lives is facing court-martial charges in Camp Hood, Texas. And if 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson is convicted, it will change the course of both baseball and the country’s history.
It’s 1:45 p.m. on August 2, 1944, when Jackie Robinson walks into a courtroom at Camp Hood to face a general court-martial on two charges: disobeying an order and disrespecting a superior officer. Three other charges have already been dropped, but Robinson has spent the last 10 days under arrest in his quarters as both sides prepared for trial.
This all started on July 6 — exactly one month after D-Day — when Robinson boarded a military bus with a friend, a light-skinned black woman named Virginia Jones, and took a seat in the middle of the vehicle. The driver soon yelled for Robinson to move to the back of the bus, and Robinson refused. A shouting match ensued, and Robinson told the bus driver to “quit fucking with me.” Another louder argument broke out at the next stop when the dispatcher arrived. “Is this the nigger that’s been causing you trouble?” she asked the driver. Then she called the military police.
The police told Robinson to go with them to headquarters to get it all sorted out. Robinson met first with Capt. Peelor Wigginton, then with assistant provost marshal Capt. Gerald M. Bear. Robinson gave his story while a civilian stenographer took notes, and listened to the white men at the scene give what he thought were accounts filled with inaccuracies. The word “nigger,” part of the local vernacular, was used so liberally that Robinson told an enlisted man answering Captain Bear’s questions, “If you ever call me a nigger again I will break you in two.” Virginia Jones was never called to give her story.
Bear’s questioning broke down several times when the stenographer stopped typing to tell Robinson, “Don’t you know you have no right sitting up there in the white part of the bus.” By the time Bear’s interrogation ended, Robinson had been charged with insubordination, disturbing the peace, drunkenness, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer.
Though disappointing, none of this surprised Army officials. America in 1944 is still very much a racist and segregated country, especially in the South, which housed most of the nation’s military bases. “We are treated like wild animals . . . like we are inhuman. . . . The word Negro is never used here, all they call us are nigger do this, nigger that,” an anonymous black soldier at a Mississippi air base tells the African-American media in 1942. “Even the officers here are calling us nigger.”
Inside the military, black soldiers are assumed to be morally slack, mentally deficient, chronically undisciplined, and potentially cowards in battle. There were 800,000 African-Americans in the military by 1944, most performing service tasks — they were drivers, stock clerks, workers in the base stores — and there were precious few black officers. The War Department said repeatedly it was in no position to change American social norms while it was fighting a war.
Bus rides proved to be one of the military’s biggest problems; the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, reported a “mountain of complaints from Negro soldiers” about their experiences on buses in the South. The worst case happened in Durham, North Carolina, only weeks before Robinson’s troubles. A confrontation between a white bus driver and a black soldier who refused to move to the back of the bus ended with the driver shooting and killing the soldier. The driver was tried by a civilian jury and found not guilty. The Army, realizing it could not change civilian bus lines, decided to supply its own buses, but clearly that did not end the racial problems.
Robinson was drafted in April of 1942, and enlisted even though he was eligible for deferment due to floating bone chips in his ankle suffered while playing semipro football in 1940. He was also supporting his mother, who lived in near-poverty where he grew up in Pasadena, California. But Robinson signed up anyway, was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas and, with the help of boxing champion Joe Louis — who was also actively battling segregation in the Army — became one of the first black men to enter officer training.
The longer he served, the more he saw the inferior training received by black soldiers, along with racial name-calling and even serious physical mistreatment. He quickly developed a reputation for fighting injustice, something most white officers were not accustomed to from the more servile southern African-Americans who grew up with segregation. Robinson also refused to play football for the base team because he had not been allowed to play on its all-white baseball team. When his commanding officer reminded Jackie he could order him to play, Robinson said yes, but he couldn’t be ordered to play well. He never suited up.
In early 1944, the 25-year-old Robinson, now a platoon leader and morale officer, was transferred to Camp Hood, 40 miles southwest of Waco, Texas. The camp had a reputation of being particularly hard on black soldiers. Besides the segregation and prevailing racism on the base, few African-Americans dared to wander out into the surrounding towns for fear of the “lessons” they would be taught.
After one Army lawyer declined Robinson’s case, Capt. William A. Cline, a white Texan, leaps at the chance to defend Jackie. On the day of the trial, Cline skillfully brings out inconsistencies and contradictions in the prosecution’s story. Clines suggests that Bear’s scarcely concealed feeling about race caused him to overreact to Robinson, thinking Jackie was “uppity” instead of legitimately defending himself.
After four hours, the nine-member panel announces its decision: Robinson is cleared of both charges and will not face a dishonorable discharge. The vote is held in secret, so Robinson never knows if he received four votes for acquittal — the minimum needed — or all nine. Either way, the damage has been done. Robinson, who had been considering a career in the military, decides to leave the service.
On November 28, 1944 he is honorably discharged. Less than a year later, Branch Rickey signs him to play for the Montreal Royals, where he’ll face a scatter-armed, power-hitting catcher in the Yankees organization. A friendship that starts in the International League in 1946 will last for the rest of Jackie Robinson and Yogi Berra’s lives.
YOGI: A Life Behind the Mask, by Jon Pessah. Buy it here.