CHICAGO | It was 1951, and Nathan "Sonny" Weston was a 19-year-old recent graduate of Bloom Township staring down his big break: an invitation to spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He remembers summoning his courage to approach Jackie Robinson in the dugout.
“I had a chance to meet quite a man, that had quite a personality,” the ex-outfielder said Thursday at a news conference near U.S. Cellular Field that sought to boost awareness of surviving Negro League veterans like Weston. The consciousness-raising effort is tied to the release of “42," a biopic about Robinson opening Friday.
“If you called him, you said ‘Mr. Robinson.’ A lot of times, he said, ‘Don’t call me Mr. Robinson, call me Jackie. That’s the type of guy he was."
Weston, now 81, had played on mostly integrated teams in youth sports like the Chicago Heights A’s and as a three-sport athlete in high school. That spring with the Dodgers, the kids worked out early in the morning, giving them the chance to catch the parent club’s drills done by some of the game’s all-time names such as Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe.
Weston wasted no time introducing himself to Robinson, by then the ultimate role model to all black athletes four years after his epic, conflict-ridden big-league debut. Robinson encouraged black players, including Ernie Banks, who came after him in a sport that only grudgingly integrated throughout the 1950s.
“We got the chance to talk, and I told him where I came from," Weston said. "He just told me to follow (coaches’) instructions and you might meet up with guys who seem like they might be prejudiced. Don’t let that worry you because you’re out there for one thing – that’s to play the game.”
Weston needed the fresh perspective after growing up in a melting pot.
“I came from a mixed neighborhood — Italians, Czechs, a lot of different people,” he said. “I didn’t have any problems.”
Weston took Robinson’s advice to heart. The Dodgers released him at the end of spring training. He then signed with the Negro League Chicago American Giants, which played home games at old Comiskey Park and barnstormed to play all-white teams in places like Hobart.
The Giants players would encounter racism on the road, being refused service in restaurants and hotels.
Weston went on to jobs at the Ford Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights and St. James Hospital. He also established a livery company, Griffin’s Limousine Service, which he still runs today with one car.
Weston said “42” will be educational for the generations after Robinson.
“It’s going to bring a sense of understanding between people who didn’t know some of the hardships black players went through,” he said. “You’ll get a better understanding of respect, of honor and of trying to work together. You’ll see the things that happened to Jackie that really shouldn’t have happened. It shouldn’t have happened to anybody regardless of color or race.
“It’s the idea of whether you can produce — that’s the way I look at baseball and look at anything in life. You should be given the chance, then you have to produce. It’s the idea of what a man or woman can do.”