Frank Thomas Smith
I knew Branch Rickey because my father had been a minor league ballplayer on a team that Rickey once owned. They were great friends, my dad and Rickey, but were similar in only one way: the awful smelling cigars they both smoked. Dad never made it to the majors. Rickey offered to make him a coach for the Brooklyn Dodgers when he became their owner, but Dad was already suffering from glaucoma and felt that he wouldn’t be able to do the job justice and might let his friend down.
Rickey phoned me at my home one spring evening in 1952 and said he needed to speak with me urgently and privately. In most small businesses it’s a plus to have friends and relatives as customers, but my business was different – at least for me it was – and I usually tried to turn down personal requests. Being involved in friends’ private affairs was an obstacle to objective efficiency, I told them, and referred them to a colleague. I couldn’t say that to Branch though, first of all because it wasn’t true, I just didn’t like getting involved in washing the dirty laundry of people I knew or getting to know their shadow sides. Also, I was an ardent Dodgers fan. So I went to his office at Ebbets Field the next day. It was cloudy and cool in Brooklyn. The team was still in Florida at spring training.
He stood up in a haze of blue smoke and came from behind his desk to shake hands. He always made me think of a small town doctor instead of the owner of one of the best teams in baseball. He squinted at me from behind his rimless glasses, poured out the scotch, although it was only eleven in the morning, squirted a pinch of soda in the glasses and talked.
“How long’s it been, Darrell? Whatever, too long. You’ve made a name for yourself, I was really impressed about that whatshername case you solved.”
“Agnes Rhinelander,” I reminded him. She was a top model who disappeared and her family gave me the case when they lost confidence in the police. No one had heard of her till she disappeared, but they sure recognized her when her picture appeared in the papers. She had been a model for everything from toilet paper to Mercedes Benz. Add to that the fact that she was having an affair with a New York senator, and you can imagine the media coverage. I found her – dead, unfortunately, murdered by a screwball. The senator got a suspended sentence for perjury – denying the affair under oath – but at least he’s not a senator any more. Because of the notoriety, I’d added three more detectives to my staff (which made a total of four including myself) and still couldn’t keep up with the demand.
“Yeah, great work. Listen Darrell, I got a big problem and I need your help. I guess you’re into the big money clients now and that ain’t me, but I’ll pay you what I can.”
“You know I’ll do what I can if you really need me, Branch, and money isn’t a problem.” That’s another thing about working for friends: they usually can’t pay much. This was before baseball meant big bucks and I knew that Rickey was often strapped for cash. He was an honest and loyal man and paid his players as best he could. If he had retained control of the Dodgers, they’d never have moved to Los Angeles. He was back at his desk and I could see that he was nervous, but I knew that he’d expected no other answer from me. I didn’t ask what can I do for you or anything like that. I wanted to let him get to the point, which is what I always do with clients, which he was now. I couldn’t have refused him even if I wanted to.
He unlocked a desk drawer and extracted a manila file, opened it and leafed through some papers. He handed me one. It was a newspaper clipping from the Charleston, South Carolina Herald. It told of how one Joshua Rollins, outfielder for the Charleston Chariots of the Negro league, had been found dead, his throat cut in a Chicago motel room. Two empty bottles of whiskey were found on the floor, so it was presumed that he met with foul play during a drunken party. A short resume of his baseball career followed, and it was impressive. Most Valuable Player three times, 365 lifetime batting average, etc. Rickey waited for me to finish, then handed me another clipping, this time from the Boston Globe. A pitcher named Jerry Rose had been found shot to death on a Boston street. He played for the Boston Beacons, also of the Negro league, also a star. I looked up at Rickey and waited. He picked a piece of tobacco from his lip and re-lighted his cigar.
“Notice anything about the names?” he asked. He was staring at me in such an insistent, almost hopeful way, that I felt I better notice something about the names or fail some kind of test. I looked at both clippings again.
“No, except that the initials are the same.”
“Exactly. Now don’t you think that’s remarkable?” He leaned forward, still intense.
I shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. If it had been anyone else I would have told him no, it wasn’t interesting at all, just a coincidence, so get off my back. But to Branch I said, “Not particularly interesting in itself. Tell me if there’s more.”
“Did you know that in the entire Negro league these are no longer any players with those initials?”
“In other words,” I said, “these were the only players in the league with those initials.” It was getting worse. Making a quick mental calculation, I guessed that the Negro league, with its sixteen teams, had a little over two hundred players. It would have been more surprising if there had been more players with the same initials.
“What makes you so interested in these two deaths, Branch?”
He handed me another paper and an empty envelope, and I noticed that the file was now empty. It was a letter written in longhand:
Dear Mr. Rickey,
I want to bring these two articles to your attention. Both of these men were star players in the Negro league. They both have the same initials. Please be careful.
The envelope was postmarked in Brooklyn a week previously.
“OK, Branch, I said, “tell me what’s eating you and what this has to do with you and why it’s so urgent.”
He gazed at me sadly. “Ever hear of Jackie Robinson?”
Of course, the Negro player you put at Montreal.” That was before African American or even “black”, when Negro and “colored” were still salonfähig. “It’s an open secret that you want to bring him up to…” I stopped when it hit me, took out a pack of Luckies and lit up, despite the fact that the accumulated smoke could asphyxiate us both. Rickey must have agreed, for he got up and opened a window.
“That’s right,” he said. “The initials.”
“So you think the same person killed those two guys and the next will be Jackie Robinson?” I asked him, trying not to sound incredulous.
But Branch Rickey was no fool; in fact, he was one of the smartest people I knew. “No, Darrell,” he replied, “I don’t really think it, I know it’s far-fetched, but it worries me anyway. I got this feeling, you know, sort of an intuition that there’s something behind this.” He looked away. “There’s one other thing. I knew about those guys. You see, if Robinson made out all right—and I’m sure he will, he’ll be a sensation—I was thinking of bringing one of them up, to Montreal first of course. Either one of them or a catcher named Roy Campanella.”
“Not the right initials.”
“Did anyone know about that?” I asked.
“Not directly, but the scouts were watching them. The scouts knew, and players know, they can feel it when big league scouts are watching them.”
“How about the managers?”
“Sure, they could guess. The scouts ask for their opinion, especially about temperament, habits, drinking, that kinda thing.”
“Just about everybody then.”
“Well, I guess everybody within that baseball community. I don’t think it got farther than that because there’s been nothing in the press.
“I can see how something like this can worry you, Branch, but I don’t think there’s much substance to it. I mean the person who sent you this stuff could be—“
“Do you realize the consequences if something happened to Jackie Robinson?” he interrupted. “I’m not talking about the team now or even Jackie himself, who’s a great person, by the way, with a family. There’d be the mother of all race riots – and right here in Brooklyn. That’s what worries me most of all.”
I digested this quickly and it sent a shiver through my gut. He was right, but that didn’t mean there was enough evidence to warrant getting an ulcer over. “Have you mentioned this to anyone else, Branch?”
“Only to one person.”
I thought that person would be his wife, but he surprised me. “J. Edgar Hoover.”
“You went directly to Hoover with this?”
“Yeah, I wanted to keep it quiet, and there’s no chance of that with the local police. Besides, it’s inter-state.”
“So what did he say?”
“His reaction was more or less the same as yours, what you’re thinking at least, but he said it.”
I didn’t deny anything, just took a deep drag on my Luckie.
“But there’s more,” Rickey continued. “That guy’s a racist bastard. Did you know that?”
“No, but it doesn’t surprise me.”
“He tried to convince me not to call Jackie up to the Dodgers, said he thinks the Majors should be reserved for whites or before we know it the niggers will take over the game.”
“Uh huh, and that warmed you up, I bet?”
“How could I keep calm?” Branch said, and he certainly wasn’t calm now. “But never mind what I said. Finally I squashed my cigar out on his desk and started to storm out. I think that worried him, that I’d go to the press or something and repeat his words. He called me back and said he never let personal opinions interfere with business. He repeated that he didn’t think there was anything to it, but would assign two agents to Ebbets Field until I calmed down.”
“So two agents get to see the games free.”
“That’s about it.” Branch started to refill my glass but I put my hand over it. I think it was his telling me about Hoover that made me decide to investigate. I didn’t like agreeing with him about anything. Also, I had a healthy respect for Branch Rickey’s intuition.
“OK, Branch, I’m in. You got anything else, anything at all?”
He beamed and charged toward me. I stepped back by instinct. He gave me a bear-hug and said how he knew he could count on me. Then, always the businessman, he asked, “How much do you charge?”
“Look, Branch,” I said without hesitation, being prepared for the question, “I have serious doubts as to whether this is any more than a coincidence—“
“So do I, Darrell, so do I."
“But I’ll give my best because if it’s not a coincidence it’s important, very important. I don’t get many cases with such serious social consequences. so.. I’ll only charge expenses—“
“Jeez, Darrell, that’s white of you.”
“I wouldn’t use that expression when talking to Jackie, Branch.”
“He looked at me wide-eyed, then almost yelled, “Dammit,” and banged his fist on the desk. “It’s ingrained in us, that kind of thing.”
“Yeah. A Negro woman once told me that all white people are prejudiced, it’s only a question of degree.”
“I guess that’s right, but I thought that I, of all people…” He let the sentence dissolve into his thoughts.
“Any idea who wrote this letter?” I asked him.
“No idea, but I think it’s a woman.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know, the handwriting just looks feminine.”
“You could be right. It looks like my mother’s handwriting, and my aunt’s. Know what I mean? – their generation.”
“That’s my generation,” Rickey said. “They still taught penmanship in school then. Guess that’s why the writing looks so much alike.”
“But not men it seems.”
“No, I guess men are in too much of a hurry. What are you going to do, Darrell?”
“The obvious, I guess, unless I get an inspiration. First to find out who wrote the letter.”
“Do you think she has something to do with it?”
“I don’t know, Branch. On the one hand, how did she pick up these two murders, one in Charleston, the other in Boston and her – if it is a her – in Brooklyn? Secondly, nutty killers sometimes like to give away clues. It’s like a game to them. On the other hand, I never heard of a killer writing in longhand and making it too easy to pin something on him…her.” I shook my head. “So I don’t know.
“Then I’ll look into those two murders. Took place exactly a month apart. The papers don’t say anything about a police investigation, probably there wasn’t any, but it’s worth checking. Nothing else occurs to me at the moment.”
“This has got to be kept confidential, Darrell. You understand that. I mean the people in your office— ”
“Of course. I’ll have to do everything myself. My secretary will have to know though.”
“Are you sure of her, Darrell?” Branch said, looking worried. “I don’t want to question your judgment, but—“
“Branch, do you know who that woman was who told me all white people are prejudiced?”
“OK, sorry.” He took a big drag on his cigar. My cigarette was out long ago. “It’s urgent, Darrell,” Branch said. “Robinson is on his way to Florida right now to work out with the team.”
“So he’s being called up?”
“He’ll be at second base on opening day – God willing.”
First things first, I always say, and that usually means most convenient first. In this case the letter, mailed in Brooklyn. If such a high degree of confidentiality were not required in the case, I would have turned that part over to one of the new guys and gone to Boston or Charlotte right away. Two of the guys I hired after the Agnes Rhinelander case were retired cops, one a homicide detective and the other had been in missing persons. They were competent but I didn’t know them well enough yet to trust them. The third was a colored kid, Jimmy Mckew, also an ex-cop, but not a retired one. He quit because of the bureaucracy and corruption. At least that’s what he told me. He was studying at night for a law degree, which meant he wouldn’t be with me long. I knew, though, that in this case I might need him sooner or later because of the race element.
Then there was my secretary, Charlene. But more about her later. My office, for practical reasons, was in the Borough Hall section of Brooklyn. In Manhattan I couldn’t get within ten subway stops of City Hall at an affordable rent. Of course I lost out on the high paying Fifth Avenue divorce investigations and the Wall Street stuff, but I didn’t like that chickenshit anyway. Now that I could afford it, I saw no reason for moving. Clients from Manhattan came to me. There were plenty of lawyers around Borough Hall, where the law courts also were, and lawyers provide a good chunk of any private dick’s income. Lawyers don’t like to move off their fat asses, so you have to be near them.
And in Brooklyn I was practically the only independent private investigator around. If you knew what you were doing the mafia wanted you to work for them, and if you wanted to stay healthy, wealthy and alive, you did. I told them to fuck off. Not that I’m some kind of dumb-cluck hero. I just had a few higher up mafia friends I grew up with, went to mass and confession with, and they protected me for friendship’s sake. They’re like that, you know. Very loyal to the family, and I was a family friend, which is almost the same thing. Only once was I involved in an investigation that could have been embarrassing to one of them. We discussed it in O’Shaunessy’s bar on Atlantic Avenue. Practically crying in his beer, he advised me to lay off or our friendship would end, and so would I. So I laid off and returned the client’s retainer. Anyway, all I could have told her by then was that his husband was dead but she’d never prove it because the body didn’t exist, so she’d have to wait the statutory seven years until he was declared legally dead in order to collect the life insurance.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Charlene – Charlie for short – was studying a script when I arrived the morning after talking to Branch Rickey. She was an actress and had recently formed an off to the nth degree Broadway theater group. There wasn’t much work for black actresses, and she swore she’d never play another maid, so she and her friends were doing their own thing. The first play they were doing was Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie with an all black cast. I told her she was crazy. She agreed, but they were going ahead anyway. Some kind of a “statement”, I don’t know. She had the outer reception office, which you passed through to get to mine. Due to our recent expansion, I had to rent another room across the hall. I’d glanced in and saw Jimmy McKew studying for some exam. I hoped the other two were working.
I asked Charlie to come into my room. I was in love with her, by the way, but it wasn’t going anywhere. Interracial relationships weren’t exactly the thing to do those days, even in New York. I didn’t care about that, but she said that her parents, especially, and her friends, wouldn’t understand her going around with a paleface. So who’s prejudiced against whom? All of which doesn’t mean that we didn’t engage in certain interracial activities on the sly.
After placing my coffee and a bagel in front of my watering mouth and sitting in front of my desk, she waited for me to take a sip and a bite and said, “What’s up, Chief?” trying to be funny.
“Not yet,” I said, “not yet. Jeez, I just got here, gimme about ten seconds and I’ll be ready.” I stuck out my tongue, panting and made as to rise from my chair. She laughed, a deep, sonorous sound. “Keep your jockstrap on, Samson, it’ll still be warm when you need it.”
“I need it, Charlie,” I said, soulfully I hoped.
She looked at me and didn’t say anything for a good ten seconds. Was she thinking up a wise crack? No. “Me too,” she said. “How about tonight?”
I gulped down the bagel and coffee while she read through Rickey’s file. Then I told her the rest. She was shaking her head, meaning that it was all bunk or that she was impressed. I didn’t have to ask what she thought; she knew I wouldn’t have shown her that stuff if I didn’t want her opinion. She was more an assistant than a secretary. We were pretty flexible, as you may have noticed.
“Who wrote the letter is the first question. Right?”
“Wrong,” I said. “The first question is whether it’s a coincidence or Jackie Robinson is really in danger.
“I don’t believe in coincidences, especially when so much is at stake.” Even her accusing frown was beautiful.
“OK, the letter is the first question. Assuming that this is serious, the writer could be the criminal.“
“Or someone who is genuinely concerned and wanted to warn Mr. Rickey,” she said.
“So which do you think?”
She studied the letter again. “It’s written in longhand. Would a murderer do that?”
“So who could it be?”
“That’s what I wanted to ask you—what you think, I mean. It would have to be someone in the Negro community who knows baseball and—“
“Which doesn’t exclude any brother or sister I know. And where do you get that Negro community shit?”
I didn’t know. “Just thought it sounded good. Guess not. I just dropped it from my lexicon. Anyway, who in Brooklyn reads both the Boston and Charlotte newspapers?”
“Someone who travels?” She smiled like a Cheshire Dr. Watson.
I’d have liked to say elementary, my dear Charlie, but the truth is that I hadn’t thought of it.
“Yeah! – how about a baseball player.”
“Wait a minute. The handwriting.”
“What about it?”
“It looks like my mother’s.” I told her what Rickey and I thought about that.
“Your right, I think,” she said. “It looks like my mother’s, too. A retired player then,” she said.
“How about your father’s?”
“Noo…my father’s handwriting was sort of…”
“Hurried, I’d say.”
“This is still all guesswork, but guessing we’re down to a female baseball fan of our parents’ generation.”
“The mother of a Negro baseball player,” she said.
“Who travels,” I added.
“Who travels,” she repeated. Her lower lip protruded, which meant she was thinking hard. She jumped up. “Darrell, I know someone like that!”
Continued in the next issue of Southern Cross Review