STARKVILLE, Miss.–Amid the storyline of Jackie Robinson’s epic struggle and ultimately successful effort to break major league baseball’s color line is a smaller storyline involving a former outfielder who played for what now is Mississippi State University.
Prior to making his April 15, 1947, national debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played in Canada for the minor league Montreal Royals. His manager there was Mississippian Clay Hopper.
Though born in Porterville in Lauderdale County, Robert Clay Hopper spent a good portion of his life on the other side of the state in Leflore County. As a three-year letterman in the mid-1920s on Mississippi A&M College’s baseball team, he was coached by the legendary C.R. “Dudy” Noble.
A search of the limited MSU athletic records from the period found that Hopper’s first collegiate year was Noble’s 1924 team that won the last of A&M’s six baseball championships in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
Before eventually becoming a manager, Hopper played a number of years with various minor league teams around the country. He retired from managing in 1956.
According to one biographical sketch, he also owned a farm near Greenwood and worked off-season during his baseball years as a cotton broker.
In the current box office hit, “42: The Jackie Robinson Story,” Hopper is portrayed by veteran actor Brett Cullen.
In “Baseball’s Pivotal Era, 1945-1951” (University of Kentucky Press, 1999), author William Marshall tells how Dodgers president Branch Rickey had hired Hopper for the Montreal job because he “respected Hopper for his baseball knowledge, his soft-spoken manner and his ability to work with players.”
In an opinion piece featured last week in Canadian newspapers, University of Indiana journalism professor and baseball historian Chris Lamb specifically addresses what he characterizes as “The redemption of Clay Hopper.” Lamb is the author of “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training” (University of Nebraska Press, 2004).
According to Lamb, Hopper understandably was excited when Rickey promoted him to lead what then was the Dodgers’ top minor league team. “He was elated–until Rickey told him the team had Jackie Robinson, the first black in professional baseball since the 1880s,” Lamb wrote.
Both Lamb and Marshall relate how Hopper begged Rickey not to put him in charge of an integrated team. In his column, Lamb said Hopper implored Rickey: “Please don’t do this to me . . . I’m white and I’ve lived in Mississippi all my life. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to force me to move my family and home out of Mississippi.”
Rickey would not budge, however.
Lamb continued: “Hopper remained the team’s manager, and, according to Robinson, put aside his racist attitudes and treated the ballplayer fairly well during the season, which ended with the Royals winning their first International League championship.
“By overcoming his own sense of bigotry, Hopper became redeemed. But more than that, he represented how countless others–baseball players, managers, spectators, and even those who previously had given little thought to baseball–were transformed by Jackie Robinson.”
Hopper died in Greenwood in 1976 at age 73.
In 2009, he was inducted posthumously into the International League Hall of Fame.