By Sid Salter
A Mississippi baseball manager – one with an acknowledged background that included less than progressive racial views early in his life – played a pivotal role in bringing the first black player to America’s pastime.
The number one movie in America this week is “42: The Jackie Robinson Story,” a marvelous film that chronicles the iconic baseball player’s struggle to climb from the old Negro Leagues to become the first African-American to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. The movie makes note of the Mississippi minor league manager named Robert Clay Hopper.
The film is at once disturbing and inspiring. There are moments captured from Robinson’s life that communicate the sheer unfairness that the unwritten rule of the color line in baseball embodied – in which talented athletes aren’t allow to compete based solely on the color of their skin.
There are also moments captured in the film that focus a bright light on the depth and breadth of snarling racism that existed not merely in the South, but all over the country in the post-World War II days when African-American soldiers, sailors and airmen returned home to face the same social and in some cases legal barriers that existed before the war.
But the film also provided a small window into a Mississippi connection to Robinson’s journey to the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Alerted to the connection from retired Mississippi State University vice president Roy Ruby, I asked MSU News Editor Sammy McDavid – our reliable institutional memory and a really fine journalist of the old school – to research the facts surrounding Robinson’s relationship with Mississippi native Clay Hopper that is portrayed in the movie.
McDavid’s research revealed that prior to joining the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, Robinson played in Canada for the minor league Montreal Royals. His manager there was Mississippian Clay Hopper.
Hopper was a three-year letterman in the mid-1920s at Mississippi A&M College (now MSU). His first year at State was 1924, when Coach C.R. “Dudy” Noble won the last of the school’s six Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships.
After college, Hopper played minor league baseball around the country and eventually became a baseball manager. That’s where Hopper’s life intersected with Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey’s plans to propel Robinson toward breaking the color barrier in the major leagues.
Rickey hired Hopper in 1946 to manage the Dodgers’ Triple-A farm club – the Montreal Royals. McDavid’s research turned up this account of the hire from the book “Baseball’s Pivotal Era, 1945-1951” (University of Kentucky Press, 1999), in which author William Marshall recounts that Rickey had hired Hopper for the Montreal job because he “respected Hopper for his baseball knowledge, his soft-spoken manner and his ability to work with players.”
But Marshall also reported that Hopper initially reacted badly to Rickey’s decision to sign Robinson and send him to the Montreal squad that he was managing, telling Rickey: “Please don’t do this to me . . . I’m white and I’ve lived in Mississippi all my life. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to force me to move my family and home out of Mississippi.”
McDavid’s research found that Hopper’s views moderated after witnessing Robinson’s abilities and the shameful manner in which he was treated in some venues. University of Indiana journalism professor and baseball historian Chris Lamb, who researched Hopper’s relationship with Robinson for the book “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training” in 2004, wrote last week in Canadian newspapers that Hopper was “redeemed” by the experience.
“Hopper remained the team’s manager, and, according to Robinson, put aside his racist attitudes and treated the ballplayer fairly well during the season, which ended with the Royals winning their first International League championship,” Lamb wrote. “By overcoming his own sense of bigotry, Hopper became redeemed. But more than that, he represented how countless others – baseball players, managers, spectators, and even those who previously had given little thought to baseball – were transformed by Jackie Robinson.”
Hopper died in Greenwood in 1976. But in theaters across America, Hopper’s role in Robinson’s triumph lives on and it is a worthy legacy.
SID SALTER is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 601-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.