In the 2013 movie 42, T.R. Knight plays Harold Parrott, the publicity chief for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Parrott, a former sports writer, was well suited for the task of handling his former brethren from the press box. He knew their pressures, their deadlines, and their editors, in addition to a readership starving for information, analysis, and scoops on a daily basis.
Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager, selected Parrott to head publicity for the team. And it was no small task. Besides the usual responsibilities, Parrott handled the press during Rickey’s breakthrough hiring of Jackie Robinson to be the first black player in Major League Baseball during the 20th century; Moses Fleetwood Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884—the AA, long since defunct, is considered a major league by baseball historians.
Robinson’s emergence shook baseball to its core. And Parrott, Rickey’s conduit to the sports press, needed to deflect questions, shape answers, and protect the team. Robinson, especially.
In his 1976 autobiography The Lords of Baseball, Parrott recalled the Brooklyn squad’s first trip to Cincinnati, largely cited as a pivotal event sourced in Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson before the game to show hostile fans at Crosley Field that he, a Kentuckian with southern values, good and bad, embraced #42 as a teammate, a friend, and an equal. Parrott may have been the trigger for Reese’s gesture.
“There had been a sack of mail for Robinson at our hotel, and I went through it the morning we hit town,” wrote Parrott. “Three of the letters contained threats that Jack would be shot in his tracks if he dared to take the field. I handed these over to the FBI, which got pretty excited about it and searched every building that overlooked the ballpark and would afford a sniper a shot at Number 42.”
Parrott continued, “Usually I didn’t show Robbie the hate mail, most of which was scrawled and scribbled like the smut you see on toilet walls. But this time I had to warn him, and I could see he was frightened. I passed the word to Pee Wee, who was the captain, and to a couple of the other solid players on the club. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen in the Queen City, right across the river from Kentucky. But all the folk from the hill and still country were flocking into town for the big event.”
When Rickey succeeded Larry MacPhail as Brooklyn’s General Manager in 1942, Parrott was a sports writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In a five-part series, he introduced Rickey to Brooklyn. Parrott’s October 30, 1942 article “Meet Mr. Rickey: ‘The Brain’ Is Perfect Frame for Brooklyn Baseball Scene,” Parrott described the incoming legend from St. Louis, where he spearheaded front office management of four World Series titles for the Cardinals:
“Characters? Say, buddy, we’ve had ’em!
“But we haven’t had ’em all. Not yet—not until we’ve had Mr. Rickey. Branch Rickey Sr., Mr. Baseball himself.
“He follows MacPhail, and ordinarily they’d call that bad theater. Coming after the Dodger Dynamo onto the Brooklyn stage is like following Toscanini with a tin horn. Or would be for almost anybody I can think of.
“But Rickey—well, he’s a card! He may not make Brooklyn fans forget MacPhail—but I guarantee he’ll make ’em remember Rickey.”
Parrott was right. Rickey’s selection of Robinson ushered in a wave of talent from the Negro Leagues. And Parrott, the wordsmith, was at the center of it.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on February 1, 2014.