Jackie’s trickle-down effect inspired Tigers

Detroit Tigers

A version of this story was originally published in April 2020.

DETROIT — Branch Rickey will forever be known as the Dodgers general manager who brought Jackie Robinson and integration to the Major Leagues. He was also the first and only general manager to trade a player for a broadcaster.

It was the intersection of those two moves that brought Ernie Harwell, long before he became the Hall of Fame voice of the Tigers, and Robinson together in 1948. And it had an impact on Harwell long after he arrived in Detroit.

While Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Harwell was doing play-by-play radio broadcasts of Minor League games in Atlanta. His work was also catching the attention of Major League teams. The New York Giants offered Harwell a job after the ’47 season, according to Harwell’s 2002 biography written with Tom Keegan, but a sponsorship conflict kept Harwell from breaking his contract with Atlanta.

Opportunity came knocking again in 1948, when the Brooklyn Dodgers were looking for somebody to fill in for Red Barber while he was away for the Olympics that summer. When Barber was sidelined by an ulcer, that need became more pressing. To get Harwell out of his Atlanta contract, however, the owner of the Atlanta Crackers wanted something in return. After negotiating with Rickey, Atlanta got Cliff Dapper, a backup catcher who had a cup of coffee with the Dodgers in ’42 before serving in World War II.

Harwell’s first game broadcast for the Dodgers was Aug. 4, 1948. Robinson batted second for the Dodgers that night and walked in the first inning. After moving around to third on back-to-back groundouts, he stole home on Cubs starter Russ Meyer, who was promptly ejected for arguing that Robinson was out.

Harwell never forgot the sight, and talked about it decades later. He developed a friendship with Robinson, and the two would play cards when the team traveled by train on the road.

“To me the most impressive thing about Jackie was his attitude, the way he always wanted to win,” Harwell said in his book. “He was very aggressive, and he didn’t let anything stand in his way. I think that made him an ideal choice to break the color line. Rickey had to pick a player who was good, near great, and he had to get a guy who was aggressive and had the qualities of leadership. Jackie answered him in all those phases.”

The Dodgers stopped in Atlanta for an exhibition the next season on their way back from Spring Training. The series was played despite threats from the Ku Klux Klan, and Robinson handled the crowd reaction with the same resolve and grace as always.

Harwell called Robinson’s career “the most significant event that’s happened in sports.”

Harwell jumped to the New York Giants in 1950, then to the Baltimore Orioles before joining the Tigers in ’60. That same year, the Tigers had a star second baseman in their farm system named Jake Wood. He wasn’t the Tigers’ first African-American player when he made his debut in ’61, but he was the first to come up through the Tigers’ farm system and find a regular role in Detroit.

That summer, the Tigers signed a hometown hitting prodigy named Willie Horton. He debuted in Detroit two years later, and Horton and Harwell developed a close friendship that carried through the years. When Horton encountered racism and segregation during his first Spring Training, forced to walk from the bus station in Lakeland, Fla., to Tigertown because no taxi would pick him up, Harwell welcomed Horton into his home and into his family.

“Ernie Harwell would take me home on Sundays, feeding me when I couldn’t eat with the white players,” Horton said last year. “And he introduced me to [fellow Tigers broadcaster and Hall of Famer] George Kell.”

Harwell, Horton said, also introduced him to Bob Hope, who helped Horton get involved in USO visits to military bases overseas. Later, Tigers Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg introduced Horton to Robinson.

“When I had to walk from downtown Lakeland five miles to Spring Training camp in Tigertown, I look back at that as the best walk I had in life,” Horton said. “Because … it took me on another journey beyond the field.”

Horton has become a legend in Detroit, as much for his feats off the field as on it. His efforts to try to calm down rioters in 1967 became the stuff of legend, and his work in the community since his playing days created a legacy that now includes a street named after him in the city, a day in his honor across the state of Michigan and his No. 23 retired by the Tigers. He also helped get Wood back involved with the Tigers, who honored him in a ceremony at Comerica Park in 2018.

Wood has always been thankful for Robinson.

“I think about Jackie Robinson, what he did and what he had to go through, to open the door for guys like me, being a competitor and not being able to unleash some things,” Wood said in 2010, “and I benefited from that.”

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