By MARK SHIELDS
There’s a hit new movie this spring, “42,” the story of how in 1947 Jack Roosevelt Robinson made baseball history and American history by breaking the color barrier to become a Brooklyn Dodger and the first black man to play in the Major Leagues.
It is also the story of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers, who in his lonely commitment to desegregate baseball, chose Robinson, a star in four sports — football, basketball, track and baseball — at UCLA before entering the Army and being commissioned a second lieutenant. Rickey believed, rightly, that Jackie Robinson had the courageous self-discipline required to endure the hate, hostility and isolation that awaited him in the grandstands, locker rooms, restaurants and hotels of pre-civil-rights America.
But one American hero gets short shrift in this good new movie. His name: Albert B. “Happy” Chandler. A native of Corydon, Ky., veteran of World War I and a graduate of his home state university’s law school, he was a rising political star — a state senator at 32, lieutenant governor at 33, governor at 37 and U.S. senator at 41.
Happy Chandler left the U.S. Senate in 1945, when the owners of the then-16 Major League teams elected him to be commissioner of baseball. The game had been lily-white for eight decades, and when the owners later met for two hours in secret at New York’s Waldorf Astoria to deal with Branch Rickey’s unwelcome push to integrate the game, they voted 15-1 against Rickey and for continued racial segregation. Nobody much expected Chandler, a self-described “Confederate” who had governed a state where the races were by law separated, to rock the boat.
But that is exactly what the commissioner did. As he later explained his decision to overturn the owners’ vote and allow Jackie Robinson to play for Brooklyn, “I’d have to meet my Maker some day, and if He asked me why I didn’t let this boy play, and I said, ‘Because he was black,’ that might not be a satisfactory answer.” Chandler went on: “I just decided it (excluding African-Americans from the sport) wasn’t just. It wasn’t decent. It wasn’t fair, and I was going to end it.”
Of Jackie Robinson, Chandler said: “He had a chip on his shoulder, and I don’t blame him for that because he thought everybody was against him, and nearly everybody was.”
How good a politician was Happy Chandler? In American history, there have been nine different governors who, when presented with a vacant U.S. Senate seat to be filled, have gone through the scripted ritual of resigning as governor in order to have the “new” governor then appoint him (all nine were men) to the U.S. Senate. Not surprisingly, voters dislike this charade, and eight of the nine governors who arranged their own Senate appointments have been defeated in the next election. The only exception: Gov. Happy Chandler, who in 1939 effectively had himself appointed to the Senate and went on to win Kentucky Senate elections in 1940 and 1942.
So Chandler understood the risk he was taking by ignoring the owners and by welcoming Jackie Robinson to baseball. He was fired by the owners in 1950, but Don Newcombe, the great Dodgers pitcher, would speak eloquently of when Chandler had stood up for blacks, including Robinson, Roy Campanella and himself: “Happy Chandler cared when it wasn’t fashionable to give a damn about black baseball players.”
How about that, sports fans? A successful politician who was a genuine American hero.