Garner Cleveland: Sports

Smithfield man recalls Robinson

With most Amby Foote baseball stories, the first thing you hear isn’t the real story he’s telling or the lesson he’s trying to relay. That’s true of any tale about Foote’s days in Dodgers’ spring training camp with Jackie Robinson.

Foote, now 85, was playing pool in the large bunkhouse the Brooklyn franchise used in Vero Beach, Fla, to house its players during spring training. The bunkhouse was known as Dodgertown, a moniker that would eventually become the name of the Dodgers’ entire spring training complex.

“There was a lobby area with pinball and some other stuff,” Foote said. “Most of the big leaguers played cards when they were around. And there was a room with a pool table.”

Foote recalls big leaguers Pee Wee Reese and Don Newcombe, among others, joining Robinson in the poolroom one spring afternoon. Soon, Foote was playing with one of baseball’s most important historical figures.

“I could shoot fairly well and had played three or four racks, won a couple,” Foote said. “They were all just easy layouts where you could run two or three balls.

“Then I got a shot on the nine ball on the other side of the table and had to cut the ball around another ball.”

Foote made the shot, winning the game against Robinson and eliciting a rare response from Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier 66 years ago this month. “I’ll be damned if I’m playing with a (pool) shark,” Foote recalled Robinson telling him.

“And he was done,” Foote said. “Now, I know he made $5,000 as a rookie, and he got a raise, so he shouldn’t have been all that concerned about a quarter on a pool game, but he was.”

Robinson went on to have his best statistical season in 1949 after working with Hall of Famer George Sisler on how to hit the ball to right field. He hit .342 that season, stole 37 bases, scored 122 runs, drove in 124 runs and was named the National League MVP. It was the season that Robinson went from being simply a barrier breaker to becoming a player with Hall of Fame-worthy numbers.

As the story goes, Branch Rickey chose Robinson to be the first black player in the Majors because of his talent – and his disposition. By the summer of 1949, Robinson had been through the roughest stretches of his groundbreaking act, but Foote says there was always someone looking for a run-in with Robinson.

“He was very aloof, and you could understand why in spring training in Dodgertown,” Foote said of Robinson. “I remember him coming into the cafeteria at Dodgertown with his wife and his son and telling them to be careful about which whites they were around because everybody in the organization was there.”

Foote never made it to the big leagues with the Dodgers. Instead, he spent nine years in the minor leagues, including a stint with the old Smithfield Leafs, before settling in Johnston County and staying involved in baseball through coaching and umpiring.

Foote still offers sage advice to any player who will listen or to anyone he thinks he can help. The advice often starts with an odd story to start, like the one about Robinson, but then comes the wisdom and knowledge only a true lover of the game can offer.

“He handled it all, and he was intelligent,” Foote said of Robinson. “Jackie was as smart a man as you’ll find. And Rickey adored intelligence. Robinson was tough, and he went through hell coming along in the minor leagues.”

“I saw them all, Mantle, Aaron, Williams, DiMaggio and Musial in their primes,” Foote said. “But there’s only two guys who I’d pay to see play the game: Robinson and Pete Rose. They played the game like I want to see it played.”

That’s as high a compliment as Amby Foote can offer a ballplayer, and it sounds like a good reason to make sure I get out and see “42,” the current movie about Robinson.