Feb. 22, 2010
By Amy E. Whitesall
On April 12, 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey signed three players from his team's top farm club, the Montreal Royals, to the Dodgers' major league roster.
One was a sharp-eyed third baseman named Spider Jorgensen, who would someday be a successful major league scout.
One was Detroit native and three-sport University of Michigan letterman Don Lund, whose baseball career would eventually circle back to both his alma mater and his hometown team.
The other was Jackie Robinson. He would make history.
Lund was 22, old enough to appreciate what Rickey and Robinson were doing for baseball as Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. But at the time, Lund didn't give a lot of thought to the broader implications for the civil rights movement and the country. The things that mattered to him then were the same things that have always mattered to him, that Robinson was a great player and a "solid guy."
"He struggled for just a little bit and then finally found his groove and really established himself well," said Lund, whose baseball career is captured in the biography "Playing Ball With Legends" by James Robert Irwin (Saint James Books, 2009).
"It's been said many times that it wasn't easy from the standpoint of there you are, you're like one guy in an ocean. Guys from the South primarily, just because of the way they're reared, not that they're bad guys, but some of them struggled with it. Down there, you know, blacks were called 'n------.' That's the way it was, and they weren't going to let this guy come play in the big leagues. In my case, I was raised in Detroit; I'd played with black kids. I guess I wasn't too overwhelmed by it."
Scouted by baseball Hall of Famer and former Michigan player George Sisler, Lund signed a contract with the Dodgers in 1945, not long after his final game at Michigan. He spent the 1945 season playing on a farm team in St. Paul, Minn., and the '46 season bouncing from team to team in the Dodgers' farm system.
Then came 1947. Lund reported to spring training in Havana, Cuba, and was assigned to a 40-man Montreal roster that included Robinson, who'd been in the Dodgers' system for a year.
The Cuban fans, who'd been watching integrated baseball for almost 50 years, welcomed Robinson warmly. Like Lund, they appreciated the way he played the game -- the uncannily quick lateral movement, the aggressive, deceptive baserunning. They'd call out his name, stretching "Robinson" into "Rohhhh bean sun."
The Royals and Dodgers ended spring training with an exhibition game at Ebbets Field in New York. Lund had been hitting well all spring, and in his first at-bat at Ebbets Field he hit a fastball into the upper deck seats in left centerfield. As he rounded third, Lund saw Robinson, who'd been on base ahead of him, waiting to congratulate him at home plate.
The next day, both men became major leaguers.
Lund's daughter, now Susan Allison, was just two when her father stood witness to one of the most historic moments in baseball. Some would say he was in the right place at the right time -- Lund, in fact, would probably say exactly that. But Allison wonders if it wasn't by design, if Rickey -- himself a University of Michigan law school graduate and former U-M baseball coach -- didn't take the parallels into account.
Both her dad and Robinson were multi-sport athletes in college -- Lund lettered in baseball, basketball and football at Michigan, Robinson in baseball, football, basketball and track at UCLA. Both had young families -- Susan and Robinson's son, Jackie, were the same age. They shared important values, like being true to yourself and getting the job done.
"Branch Rickey probably knew they would be a good pair," she said.
Lund stayed with the Dodgers for just a few weeks in the '47 season before being sent to the team's AAA affiliate in St. Paul, Minn. But he was there long enough to see and hear some of what Robinson endured. Hate mail. Taunts from opposing players and fans who wanted nothing more than to see Robinson fail or lose his composure, or both.
"The things that they said were just nasty things that you can't put in print," said Lund, now 86. "He withstood the whole thing, and he got at 'em by the fact that he could run the bases really well. He used to hit the ball and run like heck and round first base like he was going to second, then he'd put on the brakes. He was a gamer and a solid guy, and he handled it well."
When the team traveled to Cincinnati and St. Louis, Robinson couldn't stay in the team hotel. But because of him, the Dodgers also drew huge crowds in those cities. In Cincinnati, they roped off the edges of the outfield and let spectators stand on what was essentially the warning track.
"It shortened the distances sometimes," Lund said with a smile.
While Lund played for the St. Paul Saints and kept an eye on the Dodgers from a distance, Robinson picked up steam in a season that earned him Rookie of the Year honors. When the Saints' season ended in September, Lund, his wife, Betty and their daughter, Susan, moved home to Detroit, where Lund worked as a substitute teacher and basketball and football referee in the offseason.
He'd only been home a few days when the Dodgers called him back up to help them win the pennant. Lund obliged, batting .300 in the postseason, including a pinch-hit home run in his first game back. But because of his late call-up, he wasn't eligible to play in the World Series against the New York Yankees.
By season's end, Lund says, Robinson had his teammates' full support. If nothing else, they understood that if he played well, they stood to win the World Series. That meant bonus money in their pockets. Shortstop Peewee Reese, a Louisville, Ky., native who commanded the respect of his teammates, had made it clear he was in Robinson's corner. And Robinson took care of things on the field.
"I think being a leader like he was, and things he would do, he'd spark the team a little bit," Lund said. "He was such a good athlete, and he was competitive. He'd do little things here and there. Take an extra base. In that '47 World Series I think he stole home, too. You don't see too many guys steal home anymore.
"Mr. Rickey was looking for a person that could handle the pressure and compete in the game itself, and Jackie did an excellent job."