When Jackie Robinson walked into Griffith Park Stadium in Washington, D.C., on May 14, 1957, 9,000 fans broke out cheering.
Fans were there to celebrate the man who broke baseball’s color barrier during the Interfaith Baseball Game organized by the Knights of Columbus along with B’nai B’rith and the Almas Temple Shrine.
Ten years prior, during Robinson’s first season in the majors, racial insults were hurled his way. Less than a week after Robinson made his first start on the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, they played the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies and their manager Ben Chapman verbally abused and racially taunted Robinson. The abuse almost drove Robinson “to the brink of abandoning the ‘noble experiment’ in pacificism.” Robinson had been told by Branch Rickey, the Dodgers owner, to be a player with “guts enough not to fight back” in order to not give racists reasons to keep black players out of the Major Leagues.
So Robinson’s teammate, Eddie Stanky, a Knight of Columbus, stepped in and tried to stop the abuse.
As depicted in the movie 42, while Robinson was being taunted during an at-bat, Stanky shouted down the Phillies, calling them cowards and saying, “Why don’t you guys go to work on somebody who can fight back? There isn’t one of you has the guts of a louse.”
Stanky was the starting second-baseman and leadoff batter for the Dodgers that year. He had a reputation for being scrappy, leading the majors at one point in walks, runs and plate appearances. His playing-style got him the nickname “The Brat.”
When it came to Robinson, previous biographies stated Stanky initially didn’t like Robinson. But the Society for American Baseball Research says that both Robinson and Rickey “rated Eddie Stanky as Robinson’s earliest important backer.” And his stand against the Phillies’ bombardment of racial insults truly united the Dodgers as a team.
Stanky’s son, Mike Stankiewicz, said that his father was “so impressed by Jackie's raw ability and the way he dealt with everything he had to handle, that, despite what’s been written over the years, they became really close.”
Stanky would go on to be an All-Star in 1947 and play in the World Series along with Jackie Robinson that year. He retired with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953 and coached several teams until 1977.
His story is one of many Knights who defended racial equality, both on and off the baseball diamond. The Knights of Columbus’ long history of racial equality includes commissioning and publishing The Gift of Black Folk by NAACP co-founder W.E.B. DuBois, which argued that African Americans have the right to be considered American citizens. Floyd Patterson, a world-heavyweight champion and Knight, promoted civil rights and integration throughout the 1950s and 1960s. And during World War I, the Knights provided recreational and spiritual services for all American troops, no matter their race.
Other Knights have fought against the Ku Klux Klan, marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and named a council in Harlem, N.Y. in his honor and restored cemeteries for black Union soldiers.
The Knights even sponsored an African American baseball team, which played at the K of C Army Hut at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky. As the K of C Huts stated, everybody was welcome.
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