By Glen Sparks
Jackie Robinson retired rather than play for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ arch-rival, the New York Giants.
That’s the myth, anyway. The reality is a little different.
Yes, the Dodgers traded Robinson, the first African-American player in modern baseball history, to the Giants on Dec. 12, 1956. (Exact dates differ.) Brooklyn General Manager Buzzie Bavasi engineered the deal. He got left-handed relief pitcher Dick Littlefield and $35,000 in return from the Giants.
Reporters pounced on the story. Few athletes enjoyed the popularity of Robinson. He played 10 seasons in Brooklyn following a distinguished career in the Negro leagues and at UCLA (baseball, football, basketball and tennis).
No. 42 hit .311 as a Dodger with a .409 on-base percentage. He won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and the league MVP in 1949. Robinson played on six pennant-winning teams and the world championship squad in 1955.
Bavasi’s trade news upset Robinson, according to the 1997 biography Jackie Robinson by Arnold Rampersad. He put up a good front, though, and told Horace Stoneham, president of the Giants, that he looked forward to joining the Giants in upper Manhattan.
Robinson remarked to one reporter, according to the Rampersad book, “I’m going to do everything I can to beat them (the Dodgers) next year.”
Robinson, in truth, already had decided to retire. He had played just in 117 games in ’56 due to injuries. He still hit a respectable .275 (.382 on-base percentage); his body, though, felt much older than his 37 years.
William H. Black, the president of Chock Full o’ Nuts, offered Robinson a job. Would you be interested in working for my company as director of personnel, Black asked. Robinson mulled it over, took a tour of Chock Full o’ Nuts in New York City, met with Black a few more times and decided, yes, he’d take the job. (Chock Full is still around. It’s actually a coffee company. Black originally founded a series of shelled nut shops. Later, he began offering coffee.)
Look magazine held the exclusive rights to the Robinson retirement story. Its next issue wouldn’t be coming out until Jan. 8, 1957. That left lots of lead time for double-talk. Not surprisingly, word of the trade leaked out. Robinson wrote a letter on Jan. 14 to Stoneham (who was to pay his new ballplayer $35,000):
“I am going to devote my full time to the business opportunities that have been presented. … I assure you that my retirement has nothing to do with my trade to your organization.”
Robinson stayed at Chock Full o’ Nuts for just more than seven years. He officially resigned from the company on Feb. 28, 1964, to work as a deputy national director for Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.