U.S. News

03.30.14

Playing Pinochle and Breaking Barriers With Jackie Robinson

Wally Triplett accompanied the major league’s first black player on trips to the most racist city in the league before making history on his own in pro-football.

Two weeks after opening day, Major League Baseball will hold its annual Jackie Robinson day celebration, the 67 years after he broke the color barrier. There are very few people still around from 1947 who can talk about Robinson and the second player to have broken the color barrier, Larry Doby. But Wally Triplett knew both and struck up a friendship with Robinson and Doby that historic year. Triplett was a chauffeur, confidant, card-playing buddy of Robinson and made sure Jackie always got a home cooked meal when Robinson played in Philadelphia when Brooklyn played the Phillies.

Philadelphia may have been the toughest place in all of baseball for Robinson but Wally Triplett and his family made it easier for Jackie and provided an oasis away from the pressures that Robinson was facing.

“Philadelphia was the worst team in the league (for taunting),” said Triplett who in his own right was a sports pioneer by being one of the first Negro players ever to play college football on a field in Texas as a member of the Penn State football team that went to the Cotton Bowl. Triplett was Penn State’s first Negro player. “Philadelphia is where they threw the black cat on the field.”

Triplett had a very weird connection to Robinson through Joe Tapsic. Tapsic befriended Triplett while the two were at Penn State. Tapsic would sign a contract with Brooklyn and had a clause where he could not be sent down to the minor leagues. In 1946 Tapsic was a struggling player with Brooklyn while Robinson was with Dodgers Triple A team in Montreal.

“Jackie signed in (October 23) 1945 and was sent to Montreal,” Triplett remembered. “I was at Penn State and met Tepsic. Tepsic and I became close friends. In 1946, (Brooklyn manager) Leo Durocher wanted Jackie and asked Tepsic to go down to Montreal. Tepsic said no. Tepsic had signed with Brooklyn and had a clause in his contract that he could decline going to the minor leagues He delayed Jackie until 1947, he would not go down.”

According to accounts available from 1946, Tepsic’s teammates were hoping that he would accept the demotion and the team would pick up a veteran pinch hitter. There is no indication that Brooklyn would have added Robinson but Triplett said Durocher wanted Jackie.

Jackie made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947 and soon afterward became friendly with Triplett. Wally had been around baseball as a kid, his father had worked for Ed Bolden’s Philadelphia Stars Negro Leagues team. He knew Satchel Paige and others through his father. He struck up a conversation with Robinson after a game and took him home. He would do the same thing for Major League Baseball’s second Negro player, Cleveland’s Larry Doby later on in the 1947 season. Philadelphia had two Major League teams, the National League Phillies and the American League’s A’s. Connie Mack, the owner and manager of the A’s wasn’t too keen on allow Negroes into his stadium to watch the A’s.

140328-weiner-robinson-embed
Former Detroit Lions player Wallace "Wally" Triplett waves to the fans during the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Ford Field on December 16, 2013 in Detroit, Michigan. (Leon Halip/Getty)

Philadelphia was a hotbed of racism then. In 1948, the Dixiecrats held their party’s only political convention in the city. The States Rights Democratic Party was openly a segregationist political organization and nominated Strom Thurmond as the party’s presidential nominee.

Triplett’s role was to help Robinson find a place where he could relax.

“I took Jackie home, let’s kill some time,” Triplett said of his role as Jackie’s driver and friend. “My mother cooked special rolls and greens for him. My mother fell in love with him. He was a nice guy. (Branch) Rickey selected Jackie because he knew he could withstand the guff. He was a nice person. We used to play pinochle all night and then I would drive him back to the hotel. He always got a meal from my mother.”

Triplett has an interesting insight into baseball history. He understood why Robinson and not Larry Doby or Satchel Paige was the first Negro player in Major League Baseball since the 1880s.

“Jackie was a good diplomat,” he said. “Larry Doby always thought he should have been the first one but…”

Doby was not as bubbly a personality as Satchel and was more matter of fact in personality than Jackie. Doby and Paige did not get along as Doby thought Paige was too much of a showboat and didn’t like his act.

Paige finally made it to a Major League team on July 7, 1948 with Cleveland. But as Triplett pointed out everyone in baseball knew Satchel Paige and Paige was one heck of a business man.

“Satch told the white boys how to make money,” said Triplett. “He showed Bob Feller and the others by suggesting they barnstorming (after the 1946 season). Satch was a showman; he knew how to handle people. We were just players.”

Robinson and Triplett didn’t see much of each other after 1948. Triplett faced his own struggles. In 1946, Penn State was scheduled to play the University of Miami but school officials did not want to face a team with a Negro player and told that to Penn State officials. Penn State canceled the game. That was before Robinson made his debut with Brooklyn.

In 1947, after being Robinson’s Philadelphia friend, Triplett and teammate Dennis Hoggard were told Cotton Bowl officials didn’t want them to play in the January 1, 1948 game because they were Negroes. Penn State’s opponent, Southern Methodist University, came up with a suggestion.  Stay at the Dallas Naval Air Station. Penn State accepted the suggested and practiced at the military instillation and played the game.

Triplett would become the first Negro that was drafted by a team, the Detroit Lions, to make an NFL roster in 1949. Because the National League and the American League did not play interleague contests, Triplett who settled in Detroit never saw Robinson during the baseball season but he did see Doby and Paige and others who were on American League rosters at the Gotham Hotel.

Triplett played two years in Detroit in 1949 and 1950 and went into the military in 1951. After his military obligation he was traded to the Chicago Cardinals where he played two years in 1952 and 1953. He did compare notes with Robinson, Doby and others like Jesse Owens but sports in America in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a witness to history with Jackie Robinson, eating with him, playing cards with him and enjoying some quality time together.

“In one sense, it was a lot of fun but we also wonder what did we miss?”