For the third consecutive game, all Philadelphia Phillies will don the No. 42 Sunday as they host the Atlanta Braves on Sunday Night Baseball. Friday – a day after boycotting a game to protest police brutality and racial inequalities in America – Joe Girardi and Andrew McCutchen were visibly emotional as they spoke about the challenges that No. 42, Jackie Robinson, faced when he first broke MLB’s color barrier.
The Phillies franchise, unfortunately, wasn’t always on the right side of the fight for equality in America.
As portrayed in the 2013 film “42,” starring the late Chadwick Boseman, Robinson was subject to brutal racism from then-Phillies manager Ben Chapman when the two teams met at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn from April 22-24 during the 1947 season.
“You name it in terms of race and they were yelled [at me] – everything, I think it was quite vicious. I think the Philadelphia Phillies, with Ben Chapman, was perhaps the most vicious of any of the people in terms of name calling,” Robinson said in a rare interview with Dick Cavett in 1972.
While Robinson added that some members of the 1947 Phillies yelled racial epithets at him in addition to Chapman, he was struck by one player on the team that went against the grain.
“There was a fellow by the name of Lee Handley on that ballclub that came down to first base when I was there and apologized for the Phillies,” Robinson continued. “He just said ‘I just want you to know all of us don’t feel that way, but it’s been led by the manager and many of the guys are doing it simply because of instructions, I would have to imagine.’ But it did give me a good feeling to know that in spite of what was coming out of the Phillie dugout, one guy would come down and say that he’s awfully sorry.”
Handley hit .253 for the Phillies in 1947, his lone season with the team. As it turned out, 1947 was the final of 10 seasons that Handley, a Pittsburgh native, would play in the majors. While he led baseball in stolen bases in 1939, he largely had a forgettable career when you consider how long baseball has been played professionally. But the impact that his words had on Robinson – and ultimately, the history of baseball – is hard to quantify.
The Dodgers would visit Shibe Park in mid-May of 1947 for a four-game set against the Phillies. After receiving backlash – even in the racial climate of the late 1940s – for how miserably he had treated Robinson earlier in the season, Chapman agreed to pose for a picture with Robinson before a game to attempt to make up for the incident. The incident was largely believed to be a public relations gimmick, with the scene in “42” suggesting that they held a bat so they wouldn’t have to come in contact with each other.
Robinson went on to say that the Chapman-led racism actually helped to bring that Dodgers team closer together. The Dodgers would go 94-60 in 1947, with Robinson winning the Rookie of the Year Award and the team reaching the World Series.
In April of 2016, the Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a resolution that aimed to apologize for how Robinson had been treated by Chapman and the Phillies, as Marc Tracy of The New York Times chronicled tremendously at the time.
There’s a scene in “42” where Dodgers Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese tells Robinson “maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42, that way they won’t tell us apart.” As it turns out, the Phillies franchise, who treated Robinson abhorrently when he first broke the color barrier, has come full circle. They’re now wearing No. 42 for an entire weekend series, one that features two nationally televised games. Perhaps the encouragement of Handley 73 years ago played a small role in getting the organization to this moment.
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