Garner Cleveland: Sports

Best: Smithfield’s Amby Foote reflects on Jackie Robinson legacy

Like most Amby Foote baseball stories, the first thing you’ll hear from him isn’t the real story he’s telling or the lesson he’s trying to relay. Hence the nine-ball story that starts any discussion of Foote’s days in Dodgers’ spring training camp with Jackie Robinson.

Foote, now 85, was playing pool in the large bunk house the Brooklyn franchise used in Vero Beach, Fla., to house its players in spring training. It drew the “Dodgertown” moniker that would become the name of the entire complex for decades.

“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 him. “ ‘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 onto have his best statistical season in 1949 after working with Hall of Famer George Sisler learning to hit 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 first season that Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball 66 years ago this month and whose life is chronicled in the new film “42,” went from being a barrier breaker to becoming a player with Hall of Fame-worthy numbers.

As the story goes, Branch Rickey selected Robinson to be the first black player in the majors because of his talent and his disposition. By the summer of ’49, Robinson had been through the roughest stretches of his groundbreaking act, but Foote says there was always someone looking for a run in with him.

“He was very aloof and you could understand why in spring training in Dodgertown,” Foote said. “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 spending nine years in the minors – including the old Smithfield Leafs – before settling in Johnston County and coaching and umpiring games.

Foote still offers advice to any player who will listen or he thinks he can help. Sometimes it comes with an odd story to start, like the subject of Robinson, but then comes the wisdom and knowledge only a true lover of the game like Foote can offer.

“He handled it all and he was intelligent. Jackie was as smart a man as you’ll find,” Foote said. “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 sounds like another good reason to make sure I get out and see “42.”