Janesville High grad saw Jackie Robinson play—first hand

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John Barry
Friday, April 19, 2013

— Don Stoker has not seen the movie “42.”

The current box-office smash depicts the story of Jackie Robinson—the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era.

Yet in the spring of 1950, Stoker got a firsthand glimpse of the drama that followed the man whom Branch Rickey called baseball’s “great experiment.”

A 1949 graduate of Janesville High School, Stoker signed a minor league contract with the Dallas Eagles in February 1950. The Eagles were an independent team playing in the Class AA Texas League. Former major leaguer Charlie Grimm was the Eagles’ manager.

Although baseball was not offered in high school, Stoker pitched locally for a number of teams. The left-hander made a lasting impression on Grimm in 1949 when he threw batting practice for the Chicago Cubs’ major league team. He eventually signed and reported to the Eagles’ spring training camp in 1950.

Robinson broke the color barrier when he made his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.

During spring training in 1950, Robinson’s Dodgers team stopped in the Lone Star State to play the Texas League-affiliate Fort Worth Cats on its way from Arizona to Brooklyn for the start of the regular season. That’s where Stoker and Robinson crossed paths. The Eagles and Cats played an exhibition game at Burnett Field in Dallas with Robinson in the starting lineup.

“Segregation was rampant at that time,” Stoker said. “The blacks had their own section of the stands between the third-base and left field lines that were called the ‘coal bins.’

“But I didn’t care that Robinson was black. To me, he was just another ballplayer. A very good ballplayer. That came first. Honestly, I was more interested in (pitcher) Don Newcombe and (catcher) Roy Campanella.”

Stoker did not get a chance to pitch in the game but remembers the Eagles losing by a run. He said there was no added drama or fanfare during the game, only that the “coal bin” voiced its approval each time Robinson came to bat or made a play at second base.

“It turned out to be like any other game we played,” Stoker said. “In fact, I don’t think anybody on our bench even really talked about Robinson playing. Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider were also on the team.

“For us, it was a baseball game against a team of very good players that Robinson was a part of.”

Stoker’s baseball career spanned five more years, including two in a military league while serving his country, before a “tired arm” snuffed his dream of pitching in the big leagues.

In 1954, Stoker was invited to spring training with the Toledo Sox of the American Association. Hall of Famer Hank Aaron was a second baseman for Toledo.

Stoker, who now lives in Footville with his wife, Phyllis, moved back to Janesville in 1957 and was a Little League coach in the inaugural year of Janesville Youth Baseball in 1958.

Stoker still has a program from that 1950 game, his brush with a man of fame. And as publicity swirls around a new film called “42,” he may soon feel compelled to spend a few hours in a movie theater reliving a bygone era of baseball.

Last updated: 10:24 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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