Jackie Robinson enlightened a nation

As a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson was remembered for his selfless nature. AP Photo

Ralph Branca returned home on the evening of April 15, 1947, to find his older brother John incredulous over something his kid brother did that day at Ebbets Field. As a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Ralph stood on the first-base line next to a rookie named Jackie Robinson during introductions on Opening Day.

"What are you, nuts?" John asked.

"What are you talking about?" Ralph answered.

"You stood next to Jackie," John barked. "What if there was a shooter in the crowd and the guy was a lousy marksman and missed by five feet?"

Ralph let the question hang in the air for a moment, then said, "I would've died a hero."

Jackie Robinson is the one who died a hero in 1972, died as the most important athlete of his generation, or any generation. He was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, where his tombstone reads, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

In fact, it can be argued Robinson changed the face of his country more than he changed the face of his sport. At a time when a black man can be a two-term president of the United States, African-American players don't even account for 10 percent of big league rosters.

As baseball struggles to reconnect with the black athlete who has turned to basketball and football, rather than advance the legacies of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, this truth remains intact: It was an infielder, not a 2-guard or quarterback or receiver, who helped enlighten the separate-but-unequal nation that started to come together -- slowly and painfully -- in the clubhouse of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

With the film on Robinson's breakthrough, "42," set to open Friday, Jackie's two good friends from the Brooklyn teams of the late '40s, Branca and Carl Erskine, spoke of how the Hall of Famer showed the racist and ignorant corners of America that the same black citizens forbidden from certain restaurants, restrooms and water fountains were just as capable as whites of being selfless, productive employees and workplace leaders. Yes, leaders.

For all the verbal and psychological abuse he absorbed while hurdling the game's color barrier, some of it inflicted by Southern-born teammates who circulated a petition against his signing, Robinson showed he understood the team-centric value of building up those around him.

Erskine was in the minors in Fort Worth in the spring of '48, pitching against the big club in an exhibition when the reigning rookie of the year crossed the field and approached the minor leaguers' dugout. "Where's Erskine?" Robinson asked. The right-hander stepped up and shook the Dodger's hand.

"I hit against you twice today," Robinson told him. "You're not going to be here for very long."

Sure enough, Erskine was called up for his first start in July. "And Jackie was the first guy at my locker that day," Erskine, 86, recalled by phone from his Indiana home. "He said, 'I told you that you couldn't miss.' For Jackie to have said those things to a kid in the minors, it meant so much. That started a wonderful nine-year experience of playing with him."

That same season, Branca was throwing a perfect game against St. Louis when Enos Slaughter, a virulent racist, spiked Robinson as he crossed the first-base bag. Branca told his first baseman he would retaliate, but Robinson insisted he focus only on his perfect game, one that Slaughter -- of all people -- would break up with a single in the eighth.

Jackie always looked after Ralph, because Ralph had looked after him in '47, when the likes of Dixie Walker, Bobby Bragan and Eddie Stanky wanted no part of Robinson on their team. Branca had grown up in Mount Vernon, N.Y., playing for the integrated Ninth Avenue Vandies and spending time in the homes of black neighbors and friends.

"Ralph Branca was good to my husband," Robinson's widow, Rachel, told me once, "when it wasn't fashionable to be good to him."

In '47, when Branca kept Robinson from falling into the dugout in St. Louis, where opponents and fans could be especially vicious, Jackie told Ralph, "That will help show the world this is a united team."

Robinson always cared more about the team's journey than his own. On Oct. 3, 1951, after Branca surrendered the shot heard 'round the world to Bobby Thomson, giving the Giants the pennant, Robinson did what he could for a friend who would go through life haunted by that 0-1 pitch.

First, amid the Polo Grounds hysteria, Robinson carefully studied Thomson's romp around the bases in case the home-run hero happened to miss a bag. And in the clubhouse afterward, with Branca sobbing on a staircase, Robinson started the process of piecing together a broken man.

"I was all alone when Jackie came up to me," Branca, now 87, recalled by phone from his Harrison, N.Y., home. "He said, 'Hey Ralph, if it wasn't for you we wouldn't have been here."

Four years earlier, Robinson had thanked Branca for not signing Walker's petition. He would thank Erskine for speaking to Rachel outside of the Dodgers' clubhouse, with white fans looking on, an expression of appreciation that wasn't necessary.

Erskine's best friend growing up in Anderson, Ind., was a black ballplayer named Johnny Wilson, who would play in the Negro Leagues and for the Harlem Globetrotters. "And if the local YMCA wouldn't let Johnny in the gym," Erskine said, "we wouldn't go in, either."

The pitcher couldn't understand the hate the Dodgers encountered in Atlanta in the spring of '49, when a threat was made on Robinson's life before an exhibition and when the Ku Klux Klan picketed the team hotel even though Robinson wasn't allowed to stay there. Erskine couldn't understand what drove the narrow-minded to continue to slur and degrade Robinson after Brooklyn's general manager, Branch Rickey, decided he was the one strong enough to weather the storm.

"For years, he couldn't stay with us at The Chase [hotel] in St. Louis, where I was told Lena Horne, the headline singer there, wasn't allowed to use the front door," Erskine said. "It's almost impossible to think one individual ever faced the indignities that Mr. Rickey put Jackie out there to face in a totally separated United States.

"Mr. Rickey called segregation 'the bully,' and his charge to Jackie was, 'Don't run from the bully, or fight him. That's what he wants. If you don't do either one, and you turn the other cheek, the bully will be defeated.'"

Branca saw the bully at his worst. "In Philadelphia," he said, "they threw black cats and watermelon and little bales of cotton on the field. Their manager, Ben Chapman, would get on Jackie and say things like, 'Hey, how come you're not working as a porter.'

"I'd tell Jackie, 'These people are stupid, and they don't know what's happening here. I know it's tough, but you've got to ignore it.' … Jackie wouldn't dwell on it, but he was a great competitor. He rose to the occasion when you ticked him off."

Erskine heard former Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, then with the Giants, engage in heated back-and-forths with Robinson after Rickey gave Jackie the green light to fire back at those who taunted him. (This was the same Durocher who had told the Dodger dissidents they had to accept Robinson in the spring of '47.)

"Jackie was no shrinking violet," Erskine said. "He could taunt the opposition, too. The Milwaukee Braves had a running battle with Jackie, and late in his career, when he wasn't in the lineup every day, during batting practice he might walk by the Braves and say, 'Hey fellas, no off-day today for me. We're going to beat your asses.'"

Truth was, Robinson managed the impossible with so much dignity and grace that barriers came tumbling down in all sports, and in all corners of everyday life. Erskine still misses his friend dearly. Ditto for Branca, who used to take his wife, Ann, to Sunday fundraisers at the Robinsons' home in Stamford, Conn., where they'd be joined by Horne, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

But both old Dodgers pitchers are thankful Robinson's elegant 90-year-old widow, Rachel, was blessed with a life long enough to witness the dramatic change her husband inspired. Bragan, the late son of Birmingham, Ala., and a Dodgers segregationist, once told me that Jackie Robinson "changed my ways, my thinking." Years before his 2010 death, Bragan was running a foundation that offered kids of all colors and creeds college scholarship money, and some candidates had written their essays on Robinson.

Now the film "42" tells the story of the one and only, and Branca is scheduled to see it for the first time Tuesday evening at an appearance at Yankee Stadium, with Hamish Linklater in the role of Branca, Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, Nicole Beharie as Rachel, and Harrison Ford as Rickey.

Erskine saw the movie in a private screening in Indianapolis. He said that he couldn't believe how closely "42" mirrors reality, that the film is more like a documentary, and that Boseman, Beharie and Ford nailed the Robinsons and the GM.

During the showing, Erskine's wife, Betty, kept checking to see if her husband was crying. The old Hoosier had loved Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig in "Pride of the Yankees," but he quickly decided "42" had replaced it as the best baseball movie he'd ever seen.

"There were points in the film where very strong rebuttals against bigotry were made after Jackie had taken all this abuse," Erskine said, "and about three times the crowd in the theater broke out in applause.

"Did I cry? Well, let's say I felt some surges of strong emotion. It just feels good that everyone knows my friend changed society for the better."