Originally published April 19, 2013
By Bob Elliott
Jackie Robinson did more with his courage than change the National League race.
The Brooklyn Dodgers infielder broke down barriers in the world we live in, made baseball a better game and inspired generations of youngsters.
One such player was Ed Charles, former New York Mets third baseman, portrayed as a 13-year-old in the movie ‘42.’
Charles had been interviewed for the movie, but had no idea what would unfold sitting in the theatre at the premier last week in Los Angeles, with Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Dave Winfield and the cast.
There was a youngster portraying himself walking in to see Robinson play, praying for him to do well, catching a ball by Robinson, and chasing the Dodgers train down the tracks.
“You couldn’t help get emotional watching the movie, I wish I could have shook the hands of Branch Rickey, Eddie Stanky, Pee Wee Reese or Ralph Branca and thanked all those guys who stood up for Jackie,” said Charles from Brooklyn, N.Y. on Jackie Robinson day where every major leaguer wore the No. 42.
Charles grew up in Daytona Beach, Fla., one of nine children, as a Dodger fan because of their nickname “Dem Bums,” since “we felt we were down and out too, due to the Jim Crow law,” which prevented blacks and whites from being together in public.
Dodger GM Rickey brought Robinson to Daytona with the triple-A Montreal Royals in the spring of 1946. Charles and his pals raced to the practice field to watch him each day.
“The first time it was as if I had seen a God,” Charles said. “All my friends rushed for an autograph, I stood back. Little did I know I would pursue a career in baseball.”
In the movie Charles is shown praying as Robinson bats for Montreal against the Dodgers.
“I prayed Jackie would get a hit every time up, prayed that his fielding would be flawless and that Jackie could show whites what we can do,” said Charles. “I prayed because I was concerned someone might set upon Jackie.”
The next spring Charles moved to St. Petersburg, cutting class to see the Dodgers’ final spring game at Al Lang Stadium. He and his pals walked four blocks to the train station for “one last look.”
“Jackie was on the train,” Charles said. “We stood on the platform waving like crazy kids. He represented hope for us.”
When the train pulled out of the station Charles ran after the train.
Who was with him?
“Man, that’s been a while, let me think … Scoop Perry our catcher and Goose Bailey,” said Charles, who said he did not lean over and listen to the track as his character does in the movie.
And Robinson didn’t flip him a ball as the movie showed.
But the rest, especially the admiration, was accurate.
* * *
Charles, who turns 80 later this month, didn’t meet Robinson until 1971 at a Small Business Administration office in Manhattan. Charles was there asking for a loan for the novelty business he was opening in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn.
The next appointment was Robinson, seeking for a loan for his construction business.
“I was like that kid on the train platform, nervous, running my mouth, blah, blah, blah, when I met Jackie” Charles remembered. “I was in hog heaven. I thanked him for making my career possible. He said I was the first player to ever thank him.”
A few weeks later Charles visited Robinson but they didn’t talk much ball, rather civil rights and Martin Luther King.
On Oct. 24, 1972 Robinson died of a heart attack at age 53 leaving Charles devastated.
Charles picked up his pen and wrote a poem as a tribute to his idol:
“Yes, he made his mark for all to see
As he struggled determinedly for dignity.
And the world is grateful for the legacy
That he left for all humanity.”
* * *
While Robinson broke into white baseball in Montreal, a place he called paradise, Charles was signed by the Boston Braves and shipped to class-B Quebec City Braves in 1952 as a 19-year-old.
Training camp was in Myrtle Beach S.C. and now his first trip out of Florida was taking him to another country.
All he had were short sleeved shirts and light clothes.
They boarded a Quebec-bound charter Greyhound spending the first night in Dover, Del. (“It was starting to become chilly.”)
The next night the team bunked in Albany, N.Y. as the temperatures dipped again, (“I’m really concerned.”)
They drove through Montreal past mounds of snow, (“Now I’m really nervous.”)
“I couldn’t believe how cold it was,” said Charles, who refused to go to the first workout. His roommates Doc Glenn and John Werner were both from Philadelphia, the cold wasn’t a big deal.
Charles remembers veteran player Mike Fandozzi and the owner (René Lemyre) showing at his house.
“I told them ‘send me back to Florida, I can’t play in this weather,’” Charles said.
The owner bought him clothes.
Fandozzi told him he’d show him how to dress, saying “it’s not as bad as you think.”
Arriving at the park, he saw a big old heater in the middle of the clubhouse and almost hugged it.
Then he got dressed.
Thermal underwear. A wool sweatshirt. A turtle neck.
“We went outside, started running around, it wasn’t that bad,” said Charles. “I was lucky, they could have sent me home.”
Without interaction with whites and the team had arranged for him to stay with a white family, which Charles described as “an eye opener.”
The rookie hit .317 with 23 doubles, 11 triples and three homers. He was on his way.
Besides Robinson, Quebec was an early destination for minority signs: Puerto Rico’s Vic Power played in Drummondville in 1948-49, Bob Trice was at Farnham in 1951 and St. Hyacinthe the next year, Carlos Bernier was at St-Jean in 1950 and Silvio Garcia in Sherbrooke 1949-51.
Spending nine seasons in the minors Charles was with the Louisville Colonels who beat Sparky Anderson’s Toronto Maple Leafs for the best-of-seven Junior World Series in six games.
* * *
Charles played eight years in the majors with the Kansas City Athletics, making his debut at 29 and the Mets, platooning at third for the 1969 World Series champs.
Singling and scoring the lead run in the top of the ninth of Game 2 of the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, Charles made sure reliever Ron Taylor’s post-season success continued.
With two out and men on first and second, Taylor came on to face Brooks Robinson. The O’s Hall of Fame third baseman pulled Taylor’s 1-2 pitch down the line.
Charles made a fine play and was going to run to the base, but Merv Rettenmund was on the move off second. So, fired across the diamond where Donn Clendenon scooped the ball to even the Series.
The Miracle Mets won the next three games and Charles retired. He did scout for the club signing reliever Neil Allen in 1976.
* * *
On April 29, Charles turns 80.
He’s returning to 100% health, after recently having cramps in his abdomen.
He to see his doctor.
“Mr. Charles you’re going to have to go into the hospital,” the doctor told Charles.
“No, no, I’m not going to any hospital,” replied Charles.
“You are either going to the hospital or I can’t promise you that you won’t be alive tomorrow,” said the doctor, who told Charles he had internal bleeding.
Charles bounced back and made the flight to L.A.
There he met Dusan Brown, 12, who played himself in the move on the red carpet and spent time together.
The big-leaguer promised Brown an autographed ball, but said he’d send him two: an autographed ball for the youngster and an unsigned one for Brown to autograph and mail Charles.
“He was better looking than I was at that age,” said Charles with a laugh.
* * *
Watching Robinson visit Rickey’s office for the first time, Eddie Stanky crossing the diamond to chew out Phillies manager Ben Chapman,Red Barber at the mike saying “Oh doctor,” like the legendary Boston Bruins defencemen Des Smith used to say at Rideau-Carleton Raceway, Robinson smashing a bat in the tunnel after being chirped by Chapman, Rickey arriving to console Robinson, Bobby Bragan, who I knew, asking not to be traded, Reese putting his arm around Robinson as Crosley Field, the hate shown by southern players towards Robinson, the three folders of death threats and Leo Durocher having a team meeting in the hotel kitchen to halt the Dodgers petition not to play with Robinson.
Those scenes I’ll remember until I see 42 again.
The one I’ll remember most is a 13-year-old sitting praying for Robinson to get a hit on a dusty Daytona diamond.
I thought back to when I was younger than Charles: praying for Eddie Mathews or Hank Aaron to get a hit against the New York Yankees in the 1958 World Series.
I was selfishly hoping for my team to win.
Charles was praying for Robinson to change the world, make it a better place.
“Jackie was quite a man, all that he endured, he brought a country together,” said Charles. “He did a lot for his fellow citizens.
“I was so happy I had the right person for a role model.”