He remembers the drive west from Calgary to Banff on to Lake Louise, just him and his friend talking about sports, about life, about what it was like. He remembers it was late in the year, sometime in December, and that he was behind the wheel of his 1955 Oldsmobile while his buddy told stories.
Ezzrett (Sugarfoot) Anderson thought he knew what Jackie Robinson had gone through as the first black player in major league baseball. Turned out Anderson didn’t know the half of it. “I couldn’t believe it, the things he was saying,” Anderson recalls from that day. “His own teammates ... That’s what hurt him the most.”
It is late afternoon in northwest Calgary and 93-year-old Sugarfoot Anderson, former football great with the Calgary Stampeders, finds a spot at a movie theatre concession table and says how much he’s looking forward to this. He has come, at a writer’s request, with his son Barry and partner Anne to watch the movie 42, Hollywood’s latest go at the Jackie Robinson story.
We all know the plot line, how Robinson endured venomous hate in 1947, his rookie season, ultimately winning over many a critic by being what Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey said he had to be, “A fine gentleman and a great ball player.”
Robinson was that and more. Anderson wants to see if 42 (Robinson’s jersey number) delivers on the more.
He first met Robinson in the early 1940s through Jackie’s UCLA football teammates Woody Strode and Kenny (Kingfish) Washington, the first black to sign with the NFL after the Second World War. Anderson, a 6-foot-4 receiver, and Robinson, a halfback, were teammates on the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League and became lifelong buds.
Robinson gave up football secretly hoping to one day got a shot at baseball’s big leagues. Anderson stuck to the gridiron, even though his father had played for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs and been a catcher for the legendary Satchel Paige. (At exhibitions, Ezzrett Sr. would sit in a rocking chair behind home plate and throw runners out at second base.)
Eventually, Sugarfoot trekked north to Calgary, where Strode had helped the Stampeders win the Grey Cup in 1948. From there on, Anderson and Robinson stayed in touch until Jackie’s death from a heart attack in 1972.
As Anderson watches 42, he laughs at all the funny parts and says nothing during the film’s most vile moment, a rival manager’s verbal harassment of Robinson. Afterward, Anderson offers his critique: the film, while entertaining, doesn’t go far enough in detailing the man, a point upheld by a review in The New Yorker that said of 42’s Robinson, “His character remains utterly undeveloped.”
“Jackie told me what really bothered him was how his teammates treated him,” Anderson says, explaining how Jackie had expected anger from fans and opposing teams, but not from the Dodgers. “They wouldn’t throw him the ball [only did it during the game]. He’d try to sit at the same table with the guys and they’d get up and leave. They treated him like he was an animal or something.
“He couldn’t stay at the same hotel [on the road]. They didn’t really show that in the movie. He spent a lot of time by himself.”
Robinson, near the end of his playing career, revealed the depth of his travails when he came to Calgary in 1955 and visited Anderson, who at that time operated an auto service station. On the drive to Lake Louise, Robinson asked a lot of questions about how Anderson had been accepted in Calgary as a black athlete. Born in Arkansas, Anderson said it wasn’t like the Deep South where attitudes and prejudice were engrained. Some Albertans called him “darky” but would stop when they learned it was offensive.
“They just didn’t know better,” Anderson says. “Jackie said he was glad they picked him [to break the barrier] because he had the temperament to do it.”
Robinson’s temper is another avenue not fully explored in 42. As former Dodger Ralph Branca recently told CBS News, “I knew how competitive he was and I learned that it took a lot of doing for him to act contrary to what he really was.”
In Anderson’s words, Robinson was not someone to trifle with. “You didn’t say hello too hard for him.”
Robinson called himself “tough.” Bull-headed would have been another word.
“If Kenny Washington threw Woody three passes [in a football game], Jackie wanted five. If Jackie wanted to steal second, with or without a signal, he stole it,” Anderson says. “Off the field, he was hyper. He’d drive a car fast … He was a hopped-up guy and he’d tell you, too. If this hot dog was better than one he’d eaten from a different [vendor], he’d go back and tell the first guy about it. Some of us would just let it go. Jackie wouldn’t.”
Robinson, the person, was so much more intriguing than Robinson the player that to this day Anderson remembers one of Jackie’s favourite sayings, “Anything worth doing is hard.” That pairs nicely with another Robinson credo, “A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.”
On that count, Anderson sees his friend as “a recipe, like making a cake. I’d have to say Jackie was part Nelson Mandela, part Cassius Clay, part Joe Louis. You find everything in this man. And he was smart. He was at the top of his class at UCLA. He liked history and geography. He was the type of guy I liked to be around every day because he was alive.”
So does Anderson think his friend would do it all over again, take his run at history?
“Do it again? He’d say, ‘What did I do?’ That was the kind of guy he was. That was the man.”