Jackson owes a great deal to Jackie

Jackson owes a great deal to Jackie

Jackson owes a great deal to Jackie
NEW YORK -- Al Jackson checked into the team hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., and went to his room. It was the spring of 1962, and the Mets had recently selected Jackson, a pitcher, in Major League Baseball's expansion draft. He was the first black player to arrive in camp.

Not long after Jackson checked in, the hotel manager called. You are the first black person ever to stay at this hotel, he told Jackson. As such, do not use the restaurant. Do not use the pool. Do not use the bar.

Jackson was floored, angry, upset. Later that day he ran into the Mets' traveling secretary, who introduced himself and asked how he was doing.

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"Not too well," Jackson remembers replying. "I can't go eat. I can't go swim. I can't get a drink. I can't do nothing."

Jackson was able to laugh as he recalled the story earlier this week, in the days leading up to the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first Major League game.

"But it wasn't funny," he said. "I knew some of the things that Jackie had gone through, and this was just a small fraction of [that]."

By the time the Mets came into existence in 1962, Robinson had long since broken through the barriers that once prevented blacks from playing in the Majors. The Mets selected multiple black players in the expansion draft, from Jackson to Sammy Drake to Choo-Choo Coleman, at a time when such roster diversity was no longer unique.

But racism and discrimination still existed in conspicuous forms throughout the country, in daily life, particularly in some of the cities on the National League circuit. So whenever the Mets encountered a situation such as the one in St. Petersburg, they made a point to shun those institutions.

"Throughout the year," Jackson said, "if blacks couldn't go to certain places, no one did."

Such was the reality at a time when sports were playing a significant role in the country's Civil Rights movement. Eleven years old in 1947 when Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, Jackson grew up as most boys did in central Texas: an aspiring football player. It was not until his high school coach created a baseball program to keep his players in shape over the summer that Jackson grew interested in the game.

Jackson knew of Robinson, of course. Everyone did. So when the Brooklyn Dodgers traveled to St. Louis, the league's westernmost outpost in the 1940s, Jackson would attempt to pick up the signal on his AM radio in Waco and listen to Robinson play.

"First, he was a great athlete," Jackson said. "But being the first black to go into professional baseball, that was something that was unreal. It was more than just baseball. It was more than baseball what he did. He changed the minds of people."

Beginning with that day in St. Petersburg, Jackson carved his own niche with the Mets, the NL franchise that replaced the Giants and Robinson's Dodgers in New York. Jackson won 43 games for the Mets over parts of six seasons, a mark that stands 19th in the franchise record book. And he did so despite playing for some of the worst teams in baseball history.

He was the Mets' most durable and consistent pitcher over the club's first four seasons, personally accounting for more than 22 percent of its victories. And he was well liked. While visiting Citi Field this week, Jackson's former teammate Roger Craig called him "one of my favorites."

The Mets have so much respect for Jackson, 76, that they have employed him for the past six decades as a player, coach, Minor League manager and front office advisor. He has spent 44 of his 51 years in professional baseball with the organization.

And Jackson knows that he owes a portion of everything he has accomplished to Robinson. Jackson had an opportunity to meet the Hall of Famer late in his career, when the latter was an analyst for ABC's baseball broadcasts. The two spoke briefly, Jackson more awed by Robinson's stature than anything.

"He was accepted into professional baseball, and I thought that was a tremendous, tremendous thing that he did," Jackson said. "He was the one that started this whole thing for the black athlete, especially in baseball. That was a big thing."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDicomo. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.