Philadelphia is unfairly infamous for bad behavior in sports. No month can go by without a sportswriter or sportscaster mentioning that Philadelphia is the town that threw batteries wrapped in snowballs at Santa and cheered the career-ending injury of Cowboys wide receiver Michael Irvin.
Philadelphia’s biggest moment of notoriety, however, may very well be the treatment it dished to Major League Baseball’s first African American player Jackie Robinson when his Dodgers visited the Phillies in 1947.
Perhaps the most notorious figure in that moment was Philadelphia Phillies manager at the time, Ben Chapman. Chapman’s brutal mid-game verbal abuse of Robinson was a pivotal scene of the recent biopic “42.”
Throughout his life, Chapman tried to live down those words, words that had overshadowed what was otherwise a pretty good career in the sport. Well known sports writer Lester Rodney told Atlantic writer Allen Barra, “That Chapman, he was something special. He could taunt with a viciousness that would have made Ty Cobb blush.”
Chapman claimed he was just playing head games with Robinson and gave the player no worse than he’d give to any other player, regardless of race or ethnicity. Major League Baseball officials, however, were so shocked by Chapman’s words that the Phillies were given a warning to stop.
Chapman wasn’t alone, however. A Philadelphia hotel refused to give Robinson a room when his team visited the Phillies that same year.
Philadelphia wasn’t unique. In a recent interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, filmmaker Ken Burns, who made a 2-part documentary on Robinson for PBS, noted that Robinson was treated horribly everywhere he went.
“He got it everywhere he went,” Burns said. “Black cats were put on the field, people aimed at his head. Other opposing players came sliding spikes up … It’s still startling to me how he did it. And so I think it is appropriate that the City of Brotherly Love might be the first to acknowledge that these are errors that can be repaired through gracious apology.”
City officials officially apologized for that treatment in a day of ceremonies on Friday, April 15, which has become Jackie Robinson Day. Although it has been nearly 70 years since those incidents, an official recognition and apology is not too little too late.
That resolution, sponsored by City Councilperson Helen Gym, offered the city a chance to reflect on that past and apologize for its role in a campaign of racism aimed at keeping Robinson and every other African American marginalized.
That apology won’t do much to minimize the city’s bad reputation for sports behavior, and the city and Chapman will always be arch villains in any retelling of the story of Jackie Robinson. But it’s better to acknowledge that part of the past and own up to it. Even if it took 70 years.
— Pete Mazzaccaro
Note: The original version of this column claimed that Ken Burns’ documentary on Jackie Robinson had 12 parts when it has only 2.