Niagara Gazette — You’ll probably hear from someone that “42,” the story of the legendary Jackie Robinson, is a movie not to be missed. What you may not know, however, is the Niagara Falls connection.
Robinson, who broke the barrier as the first black player in Major League Baseball, and Sal ‘The Barber’ Maglie, a native of the Cataract City, had a stormy on-the-field relationship that erupted in the early 1950s. For starters, the pair couldn’t stand to be in the same stadium, let alone the 60 feet between home plate and the pitcher’s mound.
The high-profile feud crystalized in 1951 when Robinson played second base with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Maglie pitched for the New York Giants. The teams were arch-rivals, drawing record crowds to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn or the Polo Grounds in Manhattan. Neither Maglie nor the Giants are mentioned in the film script. (That’s like writing a history of Notre Dame football without any reference to Knute Rockne or the famous Four Horsemen.)
What’s missing from this new movie is the dramatic episode that unraveled April 30, 1951. When Robinson stepped up to bat in the third inning, Maglie threw a beanball right at his head. A second time, he fired the same kind of pitch. Robinson had had enough. On the next swing, he bunted down the first base line, but surprisingly didn’t seem to be in a hurry. What he really wanted was for Maglie to cover first base, so he could nail him from behind as he fielded the ball.
As Maglie neared the base, the trim and muscular 220-pound Robinson unleashed a burst of speed and rammed the ‘Barber’ from behind, sending him sprawling in the infield. News reports of that nasty scene note that Maglie then went after Robinson but he was restrained as the two exchanged bitter remarks.
Again, it’s not in the movie, but Dodgers manager Leo (The Lip) Durocher argued with the umpires that he had urged Maglie to stick with his pitching and that “Robinson was just trying a bush-league trick to get his goat.” Later, in the clubhouse, Robinson told reporters, “If it was a bush stunt, he is a bush manager because he taught me how to do it,” Robinson added, “In fact, Leo (Durocher) used to say if a pitcher tries to stick the ball in your ear, lay a bunt down first base and run up his back!” That pearl of wisdom comes from the same mouthy manager who claimed, “Nice guys finish last.”
Without Maglie on the mound, the movie obviously needed someone else as the villain, so Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk), manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, was selected as Robinson’s No. 1 agitator. In real life, he hurled every conceivable racial slur at the first black to play in the majors. When Robinson was at bat, Chapman would call him ‘Snowflake,’ among other names, and demand to know in a loud voice when they let him out of the jungle. Chapman hated blacks so much that sportswriter Roger Kahn called him a “Klansman without a hood.”
Maglie seldom if ever talked about his relationship with Robinson. After ‘The Barber’ retired from baseball (He played or coached with five major league teams) he invested in a tire business and a couple of other failed enterprises. For a brief time, he worked with the sales staff of the former Niagara Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. After suffering two strokes he was confined to the Schoellkopf Health Center in Niagara Falls where he died Dec. 29, 1992.
Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, July 23, 1962. Among the guests that day was 80-year-old Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), general manager of the Dodgers in 1945 when he discovered Robinson playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. He was assigned to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ farm team in the Triple-A International League. He played his first game with the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Under his contract at the time, he was given a $3,500 signing bonus and $600 per month. He died Oct. 24, 1972, at age 53,
THE LAST WORD: Andy Pafko, an outfielder with the Dodgers in the Robinson-Maglie era, said: “Those Dodger-Giant games aren’t baseball — they’re civil wars!” The movie misses that part of the story.
Contact reporter Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246.