Jackie Robinson, the black knight who rescued baseball from the claws of segregation, accomplished his mission neither immediately nor solitarily. His was a burden of entrenched bigotry, racial taunts, and blind ignorance. When Branch Rickey selected Robinson, his decision turned a corner of racism in baseball previously thought impossible to navigate. Robinson chose to do his talking with his bat, his glove, and his legs. A man of unyielding dedication, he endured the bad so that others could benefit from the good.
After Robinson’s début year of 1947, major league teams siphoned players from the Negro Leagues, leading to their dismantling by the end of the 1950s. The Boston Red Sox integrated last when Elijah “Pumpsie” Green took the field in 1959. Latino players also became bedrock members of major league teams. No longer under the umbrella of exclusion, minority players broadened the prospects for scouts and owners looking to amplify lineups with the best available players.
When Robinson retired after the 1956 season, one of his several post-baseball paths involved civil rights. Robinson voiced his opinions in newspaper columns for the New York Post and the New York Amsterdam News. Michael G. Long compiled an anthology of these pieces in the 2013 book Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball. Long’s annotations give context to Robinson’s missives.
In his August 22, 1960 Post column for titled “Just How Important Is Civil Rights,” Robinson wrote, “It seems to me it is very easy to tell others to stop rocking the boat and concentrate on the passing scenery when you are comfortably riding inside and the ‘others’ are struggling to get on board. It should take no special spectacles to be able to see that people who are barred—often by law—from full and equal participation in our national life are naturally going to be more concerned about removing those bars than they are in joining the debate over eliminating the national debt or what shall we do about Castro.”
Robinson, a civil rights pioneer, chose to continue his battle for equality by leaning on his writing, speaking, and celebrity status. On August 4, 1964, Robinson appeared on The Les Crane Show with Shelley Winters and William F. Buckley for a discussion about Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. Robinson was a Rockefeller Republican, i.e., a moderate conservative.
In his autobiography I Never Had It Made, Robinson explained his encounter with Buckley, a harbinger of the right wing, and his reliance on a sports strategy: “When you know that you are going to face a tough, tricky opponent, you don’t let him get the first lick. Jump him before he can do anything and stay on him, keeping him on the defensive. Never let up and you rattle him effectively. When the show opened up—before Buckley could get into his devastating act of using snide remarks, big words, and the superior manner—I lit right into him with the charge that many influential Goldwaterites were racists. Shelley Winters piled in behind me, and Buckley scarcely got a chance to collect his considerable wit.”
The Les Crane Show was a late night talk program on ABC during the 1964-65 television season. Though the pioneer of a format later embraced by television icon Phil Donahue, Crane fell to NBC’s The Tonight Show, a national brand with a decade of broadcasting tenure, proved its dominance. Donahue began his legendary career in Dayton in 1967, evolving into a daytime programming staple for nearly 30 years.
Crane’s daughter Caprice wears several writer hats, including screenwriter, television writer for the sequels of Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, and author of five novels, including Confessions of a Hater and Stupid and Contagious. She points out that her father used journalism to cover topics and people that others feared to explore. “He created the shotgun mike,” says Crane of her dad, who passed away in 2008. “He had guests who did not provide the typical fluff, for example, Malcolm X, Bob Dylan, and the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald. He had the first publicly gay man on his show. He was also an amazing listener who helped create a new television format that demanded more information for the listener. The Les Crane Show didn’t last long because the person who tries the new thing always gets penalized. People are afraid of the unknown until it becomes mainstream.”
A renaissance media man for the second half of the 20th century, Crane held interests and influences beyond journalism. “My dad gave The Mamas and the Papas group its name,” reminds Caprice Crane. “Casey Kasem credited him with inventing the Top 40 radio format at KRLA. He also got into the computer business before it was big. His company was Software Tool Works, which produced the Chess Master computer program. He was always before his time.”
Crane’s innovative format allowed one of baseball’s biggest heroes to debate one of conservatism’s biggest allies. Nowhere on television in the mid-1960s could audiences see this type of television fodder. Unfortunately, The Les Crane Show fell victim to a common policy of television networks destroying tapes because of the shortsighted view that future generations would not be interested. How wrong they were.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on August 20, 2014.