In honor of the 61st Anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, here is a first hand account from someone who was fortunate enough to have had the privilege of meeting one of the game’s biggest legends. I would like to thank Jim Kneisley for taking the time to share this story with all of us.
During the spring of 1947, Duke Penn and I, along with several of our fourth and fifth grade classmates enjoyed pick up games of baseball during recess, lunch hour and after school back home in La Porte, Indiana. Duke and I along with Ron Davis were standout ball players at the time. At eleven years old, Duke was a year older than both Ron and myself. Of the three of us, he was the best ballplayer. He was one of my three or four best boyhood friends, and he was African American. All manner of outrage and anger and a little half-hearted support ensued on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Everyone around seemed to have an opinion, and most of them reflected anger, hate and disassociation from Branch Rickey’s idea that African Americans and Whites could in fact play the game of baseball together on the same team. Guarded friendships became more guarded, and the news of the day cited the difficulties that Jackie Robinson faced and some felt he deserved. But all that I knew for sure was that Nathaniel (Duke) Penn and I played ball together, were friends, and we would remain that way. And we both admired Jackie Robinson.
In the mid 1960’s, as a banker with The First National Bank of Chicago, I financed a few African American owned businesses in the city — before it was a popular thing to do. These ventures were successful for the same reasons the white businesses I financed were successful. They had the ingredients for success — even if I had to do more than lend the money. I also financed some remarkable white start-up business that needed extra help, including Tri-R Vending, that some of you will remember from its yellow building and the giant Coca-Cola sign that flashed as you approached North Avenue on the Northwest Expressway.
In 1968, another racial upheaval occurred with wrath and furry that some of you may remember as well. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and significant parts of Chicago, unfortunately and unnecessarily, went up in flames. Three African-American gentlemen, one of whom had been wrongfully convicted of murder in a stabbing death, saved the only business not to burn on a several block stretch of West Madison Street.
I helped the three African-American gentlemen with financing to the purchase an outstanding small food market in 1968. Tom Powell, the gentleman who was wrongly convicted, was the President of the new venture. Bob Remien (of Tri R Vending), Tom Powell and I even attended a few Cubs’ games along the way. The market was a success, and The Tribune did a big story on the new venture that also featured Robert Stuart, the head of Quaker Oats — another company that I had gotten involved in financing the small market.
In 1969, following the election of Richard Nixon, I received a call from the White House saying the President wanted to launch a minority business program. A search had led them to the conclusion that my experience, as meager as it may have been, was as good as there was to lead the national program. At the age of 32, I took the number two position, moved my family to McLean, Virginia and we stayed in Washington for the remainder of 1969 and 1970.
I played a lead role in White House calls to people who could be helpful in fostering minority business development. James Roche, the head of GM, Ed Rust, the head of State Farm, Harvey Firestone of Firestone, John Johnson, the publisher of Ebony and many more convened in White House meetings of 20 to 50 invitees. Bob Gibson (the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Fame Pitcher), Jim Brown (the Cleveland Browns Hall of Fame Running Back) and Bob Boozer (the Chicago Bulls) were involved in a couple of related meetings.
One of the first meetings included President Nixon and Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans, when I was only 30 days into the job. The head of a major restaurant chain stood up and said, “Tell the President that I have heard enough. I pledge 50 franchises to minorities that meet our criteria.” There was applause. I then raised my hand from the back of the room, and Secretary Stans introduced me briefly. I asked how many minority franchisees they currently had, and the CEO responded, “None.” I then said to the restaurant CEO, and the others, that my experience suggested that he had not said as much of importance as the audience was assuming.
I gave a one-minute summary of what might really work for minority business development and the President’s program. The room became very quiet, and Secretary Stans suggested that we break for lunch. I thought my days in D.C. would soon end.
After lunch, the CEO announced, “Mr. Kneisley is right.” I did not say much that would enable real progress and when the meeting ended, I returned to my office.
Near the end of the day, my phone rang and a voice said, “I’m driving back to New York. I decided that what you did in the White House today took a lot of guts, and it certainly turned the meeting into a successful one. I decided I had to pull off the road at this gas station and call. Thank you for what you did.” That voice belonged to Jackie Robinson. The man whose courage I admired on a playground in 1947 admired mine in the White House in 1969.
Baseball and teammates had something to do with both of us being there.
As an aside, Jackie Robinson and I met twice and talked several times before his untimely death from diabetes in 1972.