The Philadelphia Phillies have a racial black mark dotting their long, storied history.
Today, the Philadelphia city council voted to pass a resolution which had been introduced by Councilwoman Helen Gym. The resolution was basically a formal apology from the City of Philadelphia to Jackie Robinson for words and actions which baseball’s racial trailblazer experienced while playing here against the Phillies.
The resolution reads as follows:
“Be it resolved by the Council of the City of Philadelphia, that City Council hereby recognize, honor and celebrate April 15, 2016 as a day honoring the lifetime achievements and lasting influence of Jackie Robinson, and apologizing for the racism he faced as a player while visiting Philadelphia.”
The date of April 15th is significant in that it intentionally coincides with what Major League Baseball has traditionally celebrated as “Jackie Robinson Day” across the game. All players wear his uniform number, a number that is retired across the game, on that day.
Beginning in Robinson’s rookie season of 1947, the first black player in MLB in over 60 years was subject to taunts, derogatory comments, and outright racist harassment by some fans and opposition players across the National League.
Nowhere was that harassment more offensive than here in the City of Brotherly Love, where Phillies’ manager Ben Chapman infamously attacked Robinson with racist verbal barbs that would make a sailor blush.
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Allen Barra of The Atlantic interviewed Chapman for a piece just three years ago, asking “Is it true that you said those things to Jackie Robinson? You know, the names, the words, that everyone said you used?”
Those things included calling DiMaggio names such as “Dago” and “Wop” on the field, and the Jewish Greenberg “Kike” as well.
“It was all part of the game back then,” said Chapman. “You said anything you had to say to get an edge. Believe me, being a southerner, I took a lot of abuse myself when I first played in New York. If you couldn’t take it, it was a case of if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
The Phillies and their fans, however, became well-known for their vocal racial attacks on Robinson in his early years. As Philly.com’s Tricia Nadolny tells it, Chapman really laid into Robinson. “When the Phillies traveled to Brooklyn that 1947 season, Phils manager Ben Chapman led the bench in crude taunting of Robinson such as, “Go back to the cotton fields,” and “They’re waiting for you in the jungles, black boy.””
It was part of a questionable racial history for the team. It wasn’t until 1957, a decade after Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier, that the Phils added their first black player, shortstop John Kennedy.
Kennedy came into a game for the first time on April 22nd, 1957 as a pinch-runner in the top of the 8th inning against, ironically, the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was exactly 10 years to the day after Chapman had first verbally berated Robinson, who had retired after the 1956 season.
Philadelphia would go on to experience some questionable racial attacks by fans on 1960’s superstar Richie Allen during that decade as well. Today’s apology by the Philly city council may be specifically geared towards Robinson, but is certainly an attempt to begin overcoming those old unacceptable actions and attitudes as well.
“Philadelphia was one of the most disappointing places where he experienced racism,” said Gym per Nadolny. “And I felt like it was important for City Council to acknowledge that, to acknowledge a great man. And that sometimes can start with an apology.”
One way that the Phillies as a ball club have permanently chosen to acknowledge Robinson is to hang his number in Dodger blue upon an outfield wall, prominently displayed at Citizens Bank Park alongside greats of the franchise’ past, right next to the numbers of pitchers Steve Carlton and Robin Roberts.