Times Past

SLO County’s connection to baseball history provides positivity in trying times

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson The Associated Press

During a season of sad news over storms, fires and the collapse of decency in political dialogue, we watched Game 5 of the Dodgers-Cubs National League Championship Series.

When Kiké Hernandez hit three home runs to lead the Dodgers to the series victory, he became the fourth Major League player to do so in a championship series. Hernandez, from Puerto Rico, was cheered on by his father, Enrique, a cancer survivor who was in the stands at Wrigley Field, while also thinking of family still back home in a country ravaged by Hurricane Maria.

It was a touching moment, one that reminded us of our own Central Coast baseball history.

In 1934, the Pittsburgh Pirates trained in Paso Robles on grounds owned by the Paso Robles Fair & Athletic Assoc. Harry “Cookie” Lavagetto played first and third base. He became a baseball legend in 1947 at Ebbets Field during the fourth game of the World Series.

“Cookie,” then 34, went to bat for Eddie Stanky at the bottom of the ninth. Yankee pitcher Bill Bevens was one out away from becoming the first to pitch a “no-hitter” in the World Series. “Cookie” hit a ball along the right-field line over the head of Yankee outfielder Tommy Henrich. The ball bounced off Henrich’s glove, and the Dodgers went on to win the game 3-2. It became known as “The Cookie Game.”

Another SLO connection with baseball is Jackie Robinson. Famous for integrating Major League Baseball in 1947, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed him away from Montreal in the International League, where he hit .349 with 40 stolen bases in 1946.

And for a spring, Robinson played right here when he came to work for the National Youth Administration, based at Cal Poly, an organization that provided help to what we would call “at risk” youth today.

“Robinson left UCLA to take a job with the NYA, which was headquartered on the Cal Poly campus. The satellite campus, ‘Camp Atascadero,’ was here … in the spring of 1941, Robinson and his teammates [in Atascadero] got their 14th straight win over the Camp Roberts squad.”

Because of his race, Robinson was turned away at the door of a Camp Atascadero dance. Within a year, he was in the Army. In 1944, Lt. Robinson was court martialed for refusing to “move to the back of the bus” at Ft. Hood, Texas. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s legal counsel, Thurgood Marshall, helped Capt. William A. Cline with Robinson’s defense. In 1950, Rickey asked Marshall to straighten out Robinson’s financial problems.

The Ft. Hood incident for the 1990 film, The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson, was filmed at Camp Roberts, which still resembled a WWII Army encampment.

Liz and I were thrilled to read about Marshall, a film dealing with an earlier trial in the career of Marshall, who was appointed to U.S. Supreme Court in 1967. The local chapter of the NAACP was screening Marshall as a benefit at the Downtown Cinemas, but it was already filled up by the time we heard of the event. Disappointed, we drove to Arroyo Grande and saw Marshall at the Regal Cinema, its only regular venue in SLO County.

The film was more than worth the drive. It deals with a black chauffeur accused of raping the wife of his employer in Connecticut in 1940. It’s a perfect period piece of the way we were and an emotional, even sweet and often funny, roller coaster. Chadwick Baseman, who plays the title role, played Jackie Robinson in “42.”

A reluctant attorney, Sam Friedman, acted as Marshall’s mouthpiece in court because he wasn’t allowed to practice in Connecticut. Marshall reminds him of his duty, saying “the Lord commanded Moses to speak through his brother, Aaron,” in the Jews’ deliverance from Egypt.

Readers can join the local chapter of the NAACP by contacting: 805-619-5354, naacpslocty@gmail.com.

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Join me for a Halloween tour of the Old Mission Cemetery at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Bridge Street entrance.

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.