Newcombe calls for national holiday to honor Robinson

NEW YORK — Jackie Robinson demanded his teammates always give a little bit more, said Don Newcombe, who still is following the advice. The former Dodgers pitcher Wednesday called late Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis “a bigot,” favorably compared Robinson to civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks and indicated the 50th anniversary celebration Tuesday of Robinson’s big-league debut should be a step to something greater.

“If Jackie Robinson has done all the things they’re saying he’s done — and he’s done all that and more — why isn’t there any thought of having a national holiday for this American?” Newcombe said. “Unless kids know about history, we’re really curtailing their chance of them becoming what they want to become.

“I guarantee you this: If you give somebody in this country a day off, with pay, I guarantee they’re going to know who Jackie Robinson is,” he said.

Newcombe was emphatic during a conference call promoting the celebration that will bring President Bill Clinton to the Mets-Dodgers game at Shea Stadium Tuesday night. He said Clinton’s appearance could begin a push for an annual holiday honoring the man who broke baseball’s racial barrier on April 15, 1947.

He remembered what Robinson had to overcome, including the commissioner who presided over whites-only baseball from 1921 to 1944. “Some bigot named Kenesaw Mountain Landis said, `They’ll never play as long as I’m alive.’ Well, thank God he died,” Newcombe said.

Baseball historian David Pietrusza, author of an upcoming biography of Landis, said in an interview he never found a comment from the late commissioner that was “overtly or covertly racist.” He added that as a federal judge, Landis had been complimented by a Chicago-area black newspaper for fairness. But Pietrusza said history does show Landis’ inaction on integration.

That history is familiar to Mets third baseman Butch Huskey, who wears No. 42 in honor of Robinson. “I’m not Jackie Robinson. But hopefully, I can walk in his footsteps and I’m going to carry myself in a way I think Jackie Robinson would carry himself in certain situations,” he said during the conference call.

Huskey said he “never heard of Jackie Robinson” before he was a sophomore in high school in Lawton, Okla. “I was playing a lot of athletics, baseball was really my sport, and a teacher approached me with a couple things to read about him,” he said. Huskey read those two books and kept looking for more Robinson material. “That’s the reason I’m a little different from other players my age,” he said, noting that Mo Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox and Tom Goodwin of the Kansas City Royals also wear Robinson’s old number.

Clinton will speak after the fifth inning of Tuesday’s game. The Mets have donated 14,000 tickets to students, but they noted the game is not sold out.

Newcombe thinks the tribute will be a great honor. Such a ceremony was pretty much unthinkable when Newcombe, Robinson and Roy Campanella were teammates in the late 1940s. “They were always finding out if they could break us,” said Newcombe, who is now director of community relations for the Dodgers. “Jackie Robinson was the key to the whole idea. Thank God he made it work.”

Asked to compare Robinson with Parks, whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement, Newcombe said: “I don’t see there is any parallel whatever. What Jackie Robinson did had worldwide impact. His life was being threatened and he was called names because he had the audacity to want to play baseball.”

National League President Leonard Coleman interjected that both Robinson and Parks were important.

In terms of one person’s history, there was no contest. “Jackie Robinson means everything to Don Newcombe. Don Newcombe could not have the life he’s had and the life he has today without him,” Newcombe said. “Wherever he is, I thank him.”

Mark Herrmann –

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