Chandler supported Robinson as he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball
The April release of the feature film 42, which tells the story of how Jackie Robinson integrated baseball by becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues, recalled the role of Transylvania’s A. B. “Happy” Chandler ’21 in making that historic change possible.
Chandler was commissioner of baseball when Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. He had approved Robinson’s contract at a time when public opinion, as well as that of most major league owners, opposed integration of the nation’s pastime.
Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey had signed Robinson to a minor league contract and sent him to Montreal. When he wanted to bring Robinson up to the majors, the owners voted 15-1 against him. Chandler stepped in and approved the move.
In a 1985 interview, Chandler recalled some of his feelings at the time. He had visited World War II battlefields while a U.S. Senator from Kentucky and had seen soldiers of all races engaged in battle.
“They were offering to die for the freedom of mankind, and at the same time they were being told when they came home that because of their color, they couldn’t play the national pastime,” Chandler said. “I just thought it was something that couldn’t be judged as fair....”
Because of the 15-1 vote against him, Rickey told Chandler he couldn’t bring Robinson up from Montreal to Brooklyn unless he had Chandler’s full support.
Chandler’s oft-quoted response to Rickey:
“I told him I’d have to meet my maker some day, and if he asked me why I didn’t let this boy play, and I said it was because he was black, that might not be a satisfactory answer.”
In an April interview with Lexington’s WLEX television station, Ben Chandler Jr., son of Happy Chandler, pointed out that the early discussions with Rickey on the Robinson situation took place in a little cabin at Happy Chandler’s home in Versailles, Ky.
“My dad made some lifelong enemies in baseball by supporting this move,” Chandler said. “It was a difficult thing to do. Breaking down this barrier cost him his job...but it was the right thing to do. He always gloried in the fact that Connie Mack, Clark Griffin, and the real baseball players supported him.”
At Transylvania, Chandler played three sports—he was captain of the baseball and basketball teams and quarterback on the football team—and briefly pursued a professional baseball career. He instead decided to attend law school and launch a political career. He eventually served as Kentucky’s senator and governor (twice). Chandler was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and was elected posthumously to the Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2012.