Fowler: Jackie Robinson's teammate has fond memories of baseball icon

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comJuly 20, 2013 

— Ray Hathaway is 96 years old now, so it has been almost 70 years since he was Jackie Robinson’s teammate. He hasn’t seen the movie “42” yet – the Robinson biography that came out on DVD Tuesday – although he hopes to soon.

Hathaway has his own fond memories of Robinson, though. He teamed with Robinson in 1946 for the Montreal Royals – the leading farm club for the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time. Robinson would then break baseball’s color barrier a year later when he started for the Dodgers in 1947.

“What an athlete Jackie was,” Hathaway said as he leaned back in the easy chair he spends most of his time in these days. Hathaway lives alone and cooks for himself, although one of his two sons lives nearby and stops in every day.

“You only had to see Jackie in two or three games to see how great he was,” Hathaway continued. “He did everything well. If you were scouting me at the time, you would say, ‘What can Hathaway do?’ If you were scouting Jackie, the question was, ‘What can’t he do?’ And the answer was nothing. He could do it all.”

The Canadian fans generally treated Robinson with respect in 1946, Hathaway said (and Robinson’s autobiography confirms). The trouble came more on the team’s road trips into the U.S., when one insult after another was heaped upon Robinson from the stands.

“In our baseball family that year, Jackie was treated well,” Hathaway said. “But outside of it, he took some terrible abuse. He had to be quite a man to take it and just keep taking it. I could never have done it.”

$3.25 to sign a contract

A World War II veteran who served in the U.S. Navy for three years, Hathaway grew up in Greenville, Ohio, the youngest of 13 children. He pitched in the only four major league games of his career in 1945.

When he came to Ebbets Field for the first time to sign his major-league contract with Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, an exhibition game was being played.

The usher didn’t believe Hathaway was a member of the Dodgers, so Hathaway had to buy a ticket – “It cost $3.25,” he said – to get into the stadium to go sign his contract for $500 per month.

“The players today may be better than I was, but they aren’t a million dollars better,” Hathaway said.

Hathaway started one game in 1945 for Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher, pitched in three other games in relief and finished his major-league career with an 0-1 record and a 4.00 ERA. Although Durocher used Hathaway sparingly and is commonly credited with coining the phrase “Nice guys finish last,” Hathaway said Durocher “always treated me well” and was a pretty nice guy himself.

Hathaway is now thought to be the fifth-oldest living former major leaguer. He has lived in Asheville for close to 40 years and managed the Asheville Tourists farm club on two different occasions for a total of seven years. That was part of a minor-league career in which he managed more than 3,000 games over a 27-year span. “My managing record was better than my playing record,” he laughed.

Hathaway mellowed over the years, he said. As a rookie manager in low-level minor-league ball, he got thrown out of the game 13 times in 1947. Hathaway occasionally pitched in the minors into his late 40s, putting himself into games that his team already trailed by a huge margin “when I didn’t want our pitching staff to take another beating,” as he said.

Hathaway got started as a manager due to Branch Rickey, who hired him to manage a minor-league team for the Dodgers in 1947 at the end of spring training. A midgame conversation between Hathaway and Rickey in Cuba, where the Dodgers were playing an exhibition, cemented the deal. That was the same year Rickey broke the color barrier with Robinson and the Dodgers.

One more meeting

Hathaway’s major-league career had ended by the time Robinson was ascending – he was having injury trouble with his pitching arm. But the two men intersected in 1946 in Montreal and again briefly in 1951, when Hathaway – by then Asheville’s manager – managed against Robinson and the barnstorming Dodgers in an exhibition held in Asheville.

“We had a young pitcher who was pitching a great game,” Hathaway said, “and we really had them beat. Then Robinson hit a ground ball to shortstop, and he beat it out, and suddenly that got the Dodgers going and they scored six or seven runs. We should have won, but we didn’t.”

Robinson had an inside-the-park home run that day in Asheville, too.

Willie Stargell, Dick Williams and Maury Wills were among the more famous players Hathaway managed in the minors. He managed all over the country for four different organizations – from Pueblo, Colo., to Zanesville Ohio, from Newport News to Portland, Ore., and from Raleigh to Gastonia to Wilson, N.C. (although never in Charlotte). He never got a shot at directing a major-league team.

Of all his stops, his favorite was Asheville. In 1973, at age 56, he decided he had had enough of being gone half of every year. He and his wife relocated with their two sons to Asheville, and he has called it home ever since. He picked up a new career operating a lathe for a construction company, did that for another decade and then retired for good.

By then, Robinson was long gone. Robinson died in 1972, at age 53, of a heart attack.

The oldest living former major leaguer is a pitcher from Cuba, Connie Marrero, who is 102. Ace Parker, a former Duke standout in both football and baseball, is second on the list at age 101. Parker is also the oldest living former NFL player, and his NFL career was so good he made pro football’s hall of fame. Longtime Charlottean Bill Werber was once the oldest living major leaguer until he passed away at age 100 in 2009.

Hathaway and his wife, Mary Helen, were married 63 years until she passed away in 2002. Hathaway still lives in the same house in Asheville, watching a lot of TV but not a lot of baseball. He mostly gets around in a wheelchair. But his mind remains sharp, and a recent medical checkup pronounced him to be in good health for his age.

As for Robinson, and those days nearly 70 years ago in Canada, Hathaway said: “Jackie was an outstanding ballplayer and man. I am just glad I got to play with him.”

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler

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