Miss Murphy and Jackie Robinson

by Dick Kossoff

It was April 1947 and I had won a contest sponsored by Durex Razor Blades. The challenge was to write a short essay on your favorite baseball player. I picked Pee Wee Reese of the Brooklyn Dodgers, which was not surprising because at 12 years old my friends and I were avid Dodger fans. They were like a religion. We ate and breathed their successes and failures!

The prize was a ticket for the 1947 Dodgers opening game, which featured Jackie Robinson’s major league debut. One problem–the game day was on a Tuesday, a school day. In order to go I needed permission from the P.S. 199 Principal, Miss Lillian Murphy. She was a strict by “by the book” lady who rarely allowed such midweek excursions. My friends assured me that she would never let me go to a baseball game on a Tuesday.  I agreed and told my parents that it was hopeless to even try. My dad disagreed and said, “Sometimes our perceptions of possible outcomes of important issues are wrong; you have to take the chance of losing. You may be surprised.” In today’s vernacular he was saying “ to win it you have to be in it.”

So with great trepidation I asked my teacher Miss Moran if she would request Miss Murphy’s permission for me to attend the game. She gave me a note on a small yellow slip of paper indicating that I possessed good scholastic ability and character. I went to Miss Murphy’s office and was ushered in. She was a large woman with a permanent scowl on her face.

“Richard, I understand that you want to go a Dodger game next Tuesday,” she bellowed. I was almost speechless, and was on the verge of bolting from the room. “Yes Miss Murphy,” I whispered. “Ordinarily,” she said, “that is not acceptable, but I am going to allow it this time since you exhibited great prowess in entering this competition and writing a winning essay. ” I was flabbergasted! She smiled for the first time and said “Who’s pitching?” “Joe Hatten for the Dodgers and Johnny Sain for Boston,” I quickly replied. She responded, “It’s going to be a tough game. Sain is one of the best pitchers in baseball and has a wicked curveball.” OMG I said to myself, she’s a baseball fan!

“Richard, I want you to realize that this is no ordinary game–it is a milestone, as Jackie Robinson, a Negro, will break baseball’s color barrier. It is a great social experiment that could have a major impact on our country for years to come. I want you to write an account of what you experienced. Don’t tell me about the details of the game–I can read that in the newspaper. Describe the attitude of the fans. How did they react? Did many boo or disparage Jackie? How did the players react towards him? Note in particular actions of players from the South whom you can identify from the program. I want you to approach this as a sociological event even more than as a ball game.”

I heartily agreed and when I returned to my room and reported the result to my class I received a standing ovation for “doing the impossible.” My dad was right; if you want to win, you have to take a chance even when the outcome seems bleak.

I went to Ebbets Field that day with a thermos of cocoa and a chicken fat sandwich. I sat in the reserved seats behind third base and proudly took out my yellow pad and fountain pen. “What are you writing about?” the woman next to me asked. “I’m writing an article about Jackie Robinson,” I proudly answered. The stadium was packed with a large representation of blacks. Jackie had a mediocre day, going one for four. But that didn’t matter. Every time he went to bat he received a huge ovation from black and white fans alike. In a city where the Dodgers were so important, Jackie was “our guy” and everyone was in his corner. It was my first experience with racial harmony.

When I arrived home I sat down with my sister Janice, a wonderful writer, and crafted the essay. Two days later I sent it to Miss Murphy. She responded with a note:  “That was a creditable job, Richard. Thank you.” At the week’s assembly she asked me to read it aloud. Even the girls who had no interest in baseball listened intensely. She also sent it to the Brooklyn Eagle, which actually printed excerpts. My story was picked up by other national newspapers. I was asked to speak to the employees of Abraham and Straus department stores, local churches and public schools. This skinny, freckled 12 year old had inadvertently become a sought after personality!

I learned several lessons from that experience that served me well for the rest of my life:

–That to “win it “ you have to be in it, i.e. be ready to take a chance on issues you perceive as not winnable.

–That our parents were usually much smarter than we gave them credit for.

–That Jackie Robinson’s determination to win against all odds became a bellwether for my own life challenges.

Thank you, Miss Murphy!

Dick Kossoff was an avid Dodger fan. The success of this article energized him to continue writing, first as editor of the James Madison High School paper and later for the Cornell Sun. At a function for the late Jackie Robinson he met his wife, Rachel Robinson, who remembered the article and thanked him. This made his day!