With Major League Baseball about to get under way, it’s with double anticipation that I look forward to this season.
Sure, I’m excited to see how my Atlanta Braves evolve in a world without Chipper Jones. And I’ve found myself rooting for the Giants because I think Bruce Bochy might be among the best managers of all time.
But come April 12, the movie “42” is expected to give the first, polished Hollywood look at the life and times of social pioneer Jackie Robinson.
As a student of the game, I’ve read countless books about Robinson, Satchel Paige, Branch Rickey, the Dodgers and what I consider the Golden Age of Baseball (1920-60). What I’ve found in my voracious thirst to drink in our national pastime is that so many old baseball roads lead back to this city.
Seriously. If our town was Kevin Bacon, baseball would be a good place to start a game of six degrees of separation to Davis.
Recently, my wife and I spent some time with longtime Davis couple Nancy and John Keltner. As readers of this column know by now, Nancy is the granddaughter of that former Brooklyn Dodger and St. Louis Cardinal architect, Branch Rickey (“A Little Dodger Girl …” Oct. 23, 2011).
It was Rickey who, as the Dodger GM, signed Robinson, who debuted in April 1947 as the first black MLB player.
Nancy and I chatted about the movie. She told me her family had been approached many times over the years for contributions to books and ideas for several unmade movies. She said “42” is “Rachel Robinson’s movie” and she deferred most of the producers’ requests to her brother, Pacific Coast League President Branch Rickey III. Rachel, 90, is Jackie’s widow.
Branch III appeared earlier this month with the Robinsons’ daughter Sharon at the movie’s advance premiere in Austin, Texas. As far as I’ve heard, there are no grumblings about Harrison Ford portraying the elder Rickey — and the first motion picture about Robinson in 62 years, by reviewers’ accounts, seems to be historically accurate.
That said, the six degrees of separation from baseball to Davis is a flash: Jackie Robinson was signed by Branch Rickey, whose granddaughter lives here.
But some of baseball’s other landmark moments and larger-than-life figures also can link — some circuitously — back to Davis. Ready to play?
Since we’re speaking of Jackie Robinson, let’s talk briefly about Pumpsie Green …
* While Robinson was the first black man to play modern Major League ball, African-American infielder Green (of Richmond) signed with Boston in 1959 — making the Red Sox the last of the original 16 teams to break the color barrier.
Green, who threw out the first pitch at last year’s Jackie Robinson Day at Fenway Park, also was scheduled to throw out the first pitch for the summer collegiate Solano Thunderbirds’ 2007 season. The team folded over a facilities dispute before the season started. The Davis connection? Former UC Davis skipper Phil Swimley was the T-Birds manager. (Oh yeah, I was the GM who invited Green to join our never-to-be Opening Day.)
* Lefty Gomez, the brilliant Yankee pitcher of the 1930s who was born in Rodeo, also quickly connected to our fair city.
Gomez roomed with reserve outfielder Myril Hoag, and Hoag was instrumental in Gomez eventually marrying his wife of more than 50 years — dancer/actress June O’Dea.
Hoag, it seems, knew ballroom dancing. Gomez was not only a port-sider on the mound, he apparently had two left feet as well.
Gomez enlisted Hoag to teach him to dance, according to the book “Lefty.” After games, the pair would trip the light fantastic in their mid-town apartment. Hoag taught Lefty to dance, in turn impressing June and sealing the deal between the sweethearts.
The link? Hoag — the great-great-uncle of the Yuba City baseball dynasty Stassi family — was born in Davis in March 1908.
* Back to Rickey …
Last weekend, my new friend George Hinkle (a 90-year-old baseball fanatic), took me to a Sacramento luncheon of the Society for American Baseball Research.
At the gathering was a Bible presented by the 1953 Pittsburgh Pirates to their boss, Branch Rickey. Rickey had moved on from Brooklyn after Walter O’Malley bought the Dodgers. Thirty-one Bucs signed the inside cover. Mysteriously, the Good Book wound up in the hands of the Friends of the Sacramento Public Library.
Bob Gorham, president of the library friends, was on hand at the SABR meeting to share his find, which he says will be lent in perpetuity to Rickey’s Portsmouth, Ohio, hometown library.
Two of the signatories — twins Eddie and Johnny O’Brien — had special meaning to me.
Ten years ago, Eddie (a friend of Swimley’s from the Aggie coach’s playing days in Washington) and I were introduced at Phil’s place. I couldn’t get enough of the colorful O’Brien’s stories about minor-league ball and playing for a team that lost more than 100 games three successive years (1952-54).
“We needed diversions. We were creative,” Eddie told me. Then the stories started. (Someday we’ll visit a few of those.)
Anyway, the highlight of our meeting was that the conversation turned to Rickey and I blew the secret …
“Eddie, Branch’s granddaughter lives here in Davis,” I told him.
“Little Nancy?” came the reply. Before he was done saying “Nancy,” I handed him her phone number. Off Eddie went. Forty minutes passed and he returned to the festivities: “That was great. What memories,” he told me.
Keltner wondered how Eddie found her. I fessed up five years later.
There are many more: DiMaggio, the 1971 Giants, Carl Hubbell, Big and Little Poison … Six degrees of separation with them all lead back to Davis. Maybe someday, those stories will be unveiled here. Right now I’m trying to wrap myself around Harrison Ford portraying the Ferocious Gentleman (as Rickey was known).
— Bruce Gallaudet is a staff writer for The Davis Enterprise. Reach him at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.