When Jackie Robinson Was a Coffee Executive
On the eve of the Dodger’s fateful 1957 move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Jackie Robinson’s baseball career was winding down. He didn’t want to play outside of New York, he wasn’t the athlete he once was, and team management was busy arranging to trade him to the New York Giants. But at the absolute last moment, in a move that was made completely in secret, the legend was swiped by another iconic New York institution: Chock Full o’Nuts.
Chock Full o’Nuts was New York’s most popular coffee shop, operating 80 locations at the height of its business. It began in 1926 as a store that actually sold roasted nuts (hence the name), but soon the Depression hit and rendered nuts a luxury good. Founder William Black pivoted to transform his stores into bargain lunch counters selling five-cent coffee and, in a nod to the original business, a sandwich known as the nutted cheese (cream cheese spread on walnut bread).
It was a simple, sensible business with fast service and hygiene (advertisements trumpeted the fact that food was touched only by tongs, never by human hands). So why, then, was Jackie Robinson brought on as Vice President of Personnel rather than something more typical for a celebrity athlete, like spokesperson? According to William Black, he simply liked Robinson and believed he would be a personable and energetic liaison between corporation and his workers. In fact, his stores were staffed with a predominately black workforce, so much that Black’s commitment to equal-opportunity hiring evoked criticism of “reverse racism.” Black believed that Robinson would bring to the table a special ability to connect with and inspire employees.
And Black was right—Jackie became intimately involved with the lives of the workers. He made visits to franchise locations, to bakeries, and to roasting facilities all over New York. He even became known for using his fame to help employees through personal issues—he testified on behalf of one coffee roaster accused of stabbing someone. He worked to help one immigrant employee bring his sons over from Jamaica.
But Robinson’s tenure at Chock Full o’Nuts was concerned with the struggles of the black community on a much more macro level as well. When the NAACP invited Robinson to chair a fundraising tour shortly after starting work at Chock Full o’Nuts, William Black told Robinson to go ahead. Not only was he essentially subsidizing Robinson’s Civil Rights work by keeping him on the payroll, but he wrote a $10,000 check to the NAACP as well. Also with Black’s backing, Robinson wrote a column for the post on race issues and vocally defended the owners of the Apollo against anti-semitism. Much of Robinson’s Civil Rights related correspondence was written on Chock Full o’Nuts letterhead.
But he also made much less fortuitous correspondence in coffee—to mark the end of the 1960 presidential campaign, Robinson sent 24 pounds of coffee to Richard and Pat Nixon. Robinson’s support of Nixon over Kennedy, a choice he later regretted, made him a more controversial figure than ever. Robert Kennedy not only excoriated him for his conservative presidential pick, but was vocal in his belief that Robinson was being used by William Black as a union-busting tool. And indeed, it was Robinson’s job to discourage union activity, a thing that made him the target of black nationalists, set off lengthy feuds with leaders from Lewis Michaux to Malcolm X to writers at The Amsterdam News. And while he cared very little about being liked by figures he saw as divisive, being liked by employees mattered to him deeply. Resentment over the unionization issue and the daily task of making firing decisions began to take their toll.
Towards the end of Robinson’s seven year tenure with Chock Full o’Nuts, he was asked to a meeting with Nelson Rockefeller (then governor of New York state) to discuss a controversial line in the company jingle, one which claimed that “better coffee [than Chock’s] even Rockefeller’s money can’t buy.” Whether Rockefeller was truly concerned about the offending lyric due to his South American Coffee interests (Black was not worried about a lawsuit, he claimed to want the publicity), or whether he was trying to poach Robinson, we’ll never know. But at the beginning of 1964, the two had struck up a mutual admiration and Robinson left Chock Full o’Nuts to join the Rockefeller presidential campaign.
In a sound off with another Hall of Famer, Bob Feller, who retired contemporaneously with Robinson, Robinson inadvertently admitted one of the great disappointments with his baseball career, saying he didn’t believe that “black players were getting an equal opportunity with whites after their playing days are through.” When Robinson began at Chock Full o’Nuts, he had hit a wall in integrating baseball and he saw the corporate world as the next place he could make some headway. Though he broke color line on business pages, he still remained a controversial figure, firmly stuck between two worlds, seen as both an agitator and a lackey. Whether he called his first retirement gig “Chock” out of affection or expediency, the experience kept him alert—downright jittery even—in his newfound relationships with American business and politics.