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Memories of Jackie Robinson still strong in ex-pitcher

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Published:   |   Updated: April 12, 2013 at 10:02 AM

Walter “Dirk'' Gibbons is 84. He's diabetic. He has prostate cancer. He doesn't move as quickly as before. But he still moves.

“Got to, got to,'' said Gibbons, a Tampa native and Negro League pitching legend who still works in the University of Tampa's campus maintenance department. “People ask why I don't just stay at home. If I stopped working, I might just fade away.''

For Gibbons, some things can't fade.

Such as that 1950 weekend, when the barnstorming Jackie Robinson All-Stars came to Tampa. The old Plant Field, on UT's campus, swelled with thousands of spectators. It was the chance to witness high-level baseball – and history.

Robinson, who broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was more than a curiosity to Tampa's black community. “He was a hero,'' former Hillsborough High School baseball coach Billy Reed said.

The pioneering story of Robinson, the Baseball Hall of Famer who died in 1972, still resonates. It's the subject of a movie – entitled “42'' in honor of Robinson's uniform number – that opens today. Far from just a sports film, it features a sense of the taunts, bigotry and racial discrimination endured by Robinson, hand-picked by Dodgers executive Branch Rickey as a tough-minded player who could successfully integrate the game.

Gibbons, who mostly played for the Indianapolis Clowns, got a small taste of Robinson's life.

After a memorable game – Gibbons retired Robinson on a groundout, but surrendered a long home run to Larry Doby – the players were milling around. Robinson kept staring at the minarets atop UT's Plant Hall.

“What are those?'' Robinson said.

“Well, let's go take a closer look,'' said Gibbons, warming to his role as hometown tour guide.

But when Gibbons tried to enter Plant Hall with Robinson, they were turned away.

“I hate telling that story, but it's the truth,'' Gibbons said. “That's the school I love. Jackie Robinson, a living legend. They told us to go away. That was the world of segregation.

“Jackie didn't get mad. He had a temper, but he didn't want any trouble. He just said, 'Well, maybe we'll come back another time,' and we headed back to the field.''

Today's irony?

“Now I've got the keys to every building on campus,'' Gibbons said, laughing. “I can go anywhere I want.''

In time, so could Jackie Robinson.

His ground-breaking career was about more than baseball. It was an attention-getting catalyst for social change.

“Although Mr. Rickey and I had agreed that I had to stay very much in line, it was hard for me to do,'' Robinson said during a 1964 interview with The Tampa Tribune, when he participated in a golf tournament at Rogers Park. “But when I got out of baseball, I was able to say what I feel was right and wrong more freely than I had.

“I say what I believe and it has made some people mad. Sometimes, I give people an answer other than the one they're looking for. But I say what I think.''

During spring training, Robinson's Dodgers were a prime attraction in the Tampa Bay area as they visited Plant Field, Al Lopez Field, Clearwater's Jack Russell Stadium and St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field, then home to the New York Yankees.

Former St. Petersburg resident Ed Charles, who now lives in New York, remembers cutting classes at Gibbs High School, just to catch a glimpse of Robinson against the Yankees.

“The whole community was there,'' said Charles, who played major-league baseball and is best known for his contributions to the 1969 New York Mets. “We waved at Jackie and he waved back.''

Charles and his friends followed the Brooklyn team bus to the 1st Ave. North train depot, where they spotted Robinson playing cards with teammates. As the train pulled out of the station, the youngsters ran and waved.

“We chased that train all the way down the track,'' Charles said.

It was a similar sensation for Tampa resident Carl Boles, an outfielder for the 1962 San Francisco Giants who became that franchise's first black scout. Boles, an Arkansas native, was a teenager when he moved with his family to Missouri. There, he followed the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League's longest-running franchise. The Monarchs produced fabled players such as Robinson, Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks, Elston Howard and Buck O'Neil.

“Kids these days have no idea what some of those great players went through,'' Boles said. “You wouldn't get served in a restaurant. You couldn't stay in a hotel. People said derogatory things.

“Jackie was front and center for all of that. He could've easily walked away. But he didn't. And that made a better life for so many people. What he did touched so many lives.''

Even in subtle ways.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger baseball fan than Brandon's Tony Saladino, who founded one of the nation's elite high-school tournaments and has operated it since 1981. Saladino never saw Robinson play in person during spring training. But each weekend, he remembers tuning in to the “Jackie Robinson Show'' on radio.

“It was about baseball, but mostly it was about life,'' Saladino said. “A lot of wisdom. He clearly stood for so much more than just being a ballplayer.''

Gibbons learned that early on.

On a brick wall at Plant Field, he once wrote an inscription: “I pitched to Jackie Robinson here.'' When the stadium was demolished, Gibbons begged for that to be preserved. It didn't happen.

“I didn't push it,'' Gibbons said. “Didn't want any trouble. It would've been a pretty good souvenir.

“I'd like to see that movie, but I don't go to many movies these days. I can close my eyes and still see him. The movie is nice, but some of us got to see the real thing.''

jjohnston@tampatrib.com


(813) 259-7353

Twitter: JJohnstonTBO

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