Jackie Robinson: How It Was

Seventy years ago, Jackie Robinson changed the world of baseball forever. (via Paul Lowry)

About the acceptance of Jackie by Dodger players, it must be set down for the record that none wants him on the club and that some who will not be named here are pretty definite about it.”

— Beat writer Roscoe McGowen in The New York Times, March 19, 1947

Robinson waits. Here comes the pitch. And there goes a line drive to left field! Against the wall! Here comes Gilliam scoring. Brooklyn wins….Jackie Robinson is being pummeled by his teammates. A tremendous demonstration as Jackie Robinson waves to the crowd.”

— Bob Woolf broadcast, World Series Game Six, Oct. 9, 1956

That was the beginning. That was the end.  On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s unwritten whites-only rule.  Ten seasons later, the day after Don Larsen pitched the one and only World Series perfect game, Jackie Robinson got his last major league base hit.

Tomorrow, Major League Baseball will mark the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s first official game.  The story of that game has been told many times; it’s documented concisely and well by SABR here.

Most baseball fans – and many people who aren’t – know the outlines of the broader Jackie Robinson story, thanks to many retellings in articles, books, television specials and movies, most recently 42.  How Dodgers president Branch Rickey carefully set out to integrate baseball, motivated by social conscience and the desire to corner the market on great black baseball players.  How Rickey looked for just the right pioneer and found this  multi-sport athlete and how Rickey told Robinson he was looking for a man with the courage to channel his anger into his game when provoked.  How Rickey placed Robinson with the Montreal Royals for minor league seasoning, as far as possible from the Jim Crow laws of the American South, and how Robinson, in his first year of Organized Baseball, led the International League in hitting. How white players threatened boycotts and how Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson’s shoulders on the playing field.

Momentous as that story turned out to be, for baseball and for American society, it did not dominate the news or even the sports pages that spring seven decades ago, not even in New York.  The Dodgers moved their training camp to Havana, away from the controversy that would come with a black player in Florida.

Far from most of the press in Havana, says Jonathan Eig in his fine 2007 book Opening Day; The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, Robinson attracted little attention.  Star outfielder Pete Reiser’s aching collar bone (it was always something with him) was a bigger story line out of Dodgers camp.  So was the makeup of the infield.  Hall-of-Famer-to-be Arky Vaughan was coming back after three years of retirement.  He would play third base, it was thought.  Reese and Eddie Stanky weren’t going to be moved out of a middle of the infield by a rookie.

Toward the end of his “Sports of The Times” column just after spring training began, Arthur Dailey wrote:

Officially [Robinson] is still on the Montreal roster but that doesn’t mean that he can’t be transferred to the Brooklyn roster if he makes good.  He’s listed with the Royals mainly because that circumvents baseball’s waiver rules and also because it will lift the pressure from his shoulder to move up naturally and easily rather than submit him to the humiliation of demotion in case he fails.

From Eig: “For what it is worth,” the Associated Press reported on March 5, “not one of the numerous sports writers covering the Brooklyn camp thinks Jackie will be in the Dodgers lineup.”  Jimmy Powers, sports editor of the New York Daily News, had been more blunt from the start: “Jackie Robinson, the Negro signed by Brooklyn…. is a thousand to one shot to make the grade.”

Rickey and manager Leo Durocher were still playing cat and mouse. In fact, there’d been some sentiment to bring Robinson up to Brooklyn for the end of the 1946 pennant chase – the Dodgers wound up losing the pennant to St. Louis in a two-game playoff. But Rickey was still saying maybe.

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Asked about his players’ feelings about Robinson, he responded, “I should be sorry to find resentment, but if I did, then I would call upon an ally of mine – time.”  And at another point: “If Robinson is not brought up by midnight of the date preceding Montreal’s opening game April 17,  he will not be brought up at all this season.”

But if he did play with the Dodgers, where?  Rickey told reporters that first base – which would be brand new to Robinson – was Durocher’s idea, but that the team wasn’t committed to it.

The Times’ McGowen reported that “it is by no means certain that he is good enough to displace Stevens or Schultz.”  McGowen quoted Rickey:  “They’re good first basemen and fine boys.” In fact, Ed Stevens and Howie Schultz were light-hitting youngsters who’d play in seven games between them that season.

The Dodgers made Robinson’s promotion official on April 10.  But the news that would change baseball forever still took second place to another story: The day before, baseball commissioner Happy Chandler had suspended Durocher on various charges (which added up to Durocher just being ornery).

Robinson’s first game, as a baseball performance, was not extraordinary.  The Dodgers won 5-3.  Robinson had no hits, no problems at first base.  Deep in Daley’s Times column he noted that Robinson’s speed set up the winning run: the throw on his sacrifice bunt attempt was hurried and hit him in the back.

The mainstream press took just passing note of Robinson’s debut. The Times’ main headline was on Reiser; McGowen’s game story didn’t mention Robinson, but the paper’s photo from the game was of Robinson taking a routine hold-‘im-close pickoff throw from the mound.  The New York Post made note of the “first colored boy ever to don major league flannels.” The Brooklyn Eagle made scant mention of the historic moment. But the black press, in New York and elsewhere, celebrated the moment: “Triumph of Whole Race Seen in Jackie’s Debut in Major League Ball,” said a Boston Chronicle headline cited by Eig

Only 25,623 saw the Opening Day game on a beautiful day for baseball, 5,000 short of Ebbets Field capacity. The Eagle said the absence of Durocher, “their pepper pot manager,” and a smallpox scare held down the crowd.  Arthur Daley’s explanation: If a sellout is mentioned, the crowds stay away in droves.

But, says Eig, “everyone knew the real reason.” Black fans, usually a small, scattered portion of Dodgers crowds, made up an estimated three-fifths of this one.” White Brooklynites were not accustomed to being surround by black Brooklynites.”  In fact, from Rickey and from the black press had come warnings that the black community itself would be on trial as Robinson’s season played out.

We know now that it all worked out, better than racial integration has worked out in many other aspects of American life.  “By applauding Robinson,” Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer:

A man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or open housing, but for an instant he had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ballplayer. To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.

Jackie Robinson is rightly remembered for his courage and his place in American history.  In a sense, it’s a shame that those factors overwhelm his extraordinary career as a baseball player.

These are givens among baseball observers:  Major league players are at their prime around age 27.  Their bodies are in peak condition, their skills fully honed through practice and through minor- and major league coaching. Players who haven’t reached the majors by that age – indeed, by several years earlier – are no longer deemed top prospects for stardom.

Jackie Robinson was 28 years old when he appeared in his first major league game.  His professional  baseball background consisted of part of one season in the Negro Leagues and one season in the minors. And yet, in a 10-year career that lasted until his legs were gone, Robinson was in the top 10 in the major leagues – not just the National League – in:

  • WAR: 1949 through 1953. He led the majors in three of those years.
  • Batting average: 1949 through 1953.
  • On-base percentage: 1949 through 1953. He led the majors in ’52.
  • Slugging: 1949 and 1951.
  • OPS: 1949, 1951, 1953.
  • Runs: 1947, 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953.
  • Hits: 1949, 1951 and 1952.
  • Total bases: 1949, 1951 and 1952.
  • Doubles: 1947 through 1951, 1953.
  • Stolen bases: Every season of his 10-year career except 1954. He led baseball in 1949.
  • OPS+: 1949, 1952 and 1952.

Yes and hit by pitch.  In his first eight (and his only eight full time) seasons  he was top 10 in HBP seven times.  The only man hit more during the years of Robinson’s career was Minnie Minoso, the White Sox’ first black player, also flashy, also unafraid.

FanGraphs has this handy device that lets you compare players over the matching points of their careers.  Look at wOBA, one of the best tools for measuring a hitter’s overall value.  Look at Robinson’s in his best years – age 30 to 35, remembering again that at that period he hadn’t had the years and years of developing baseball skills that others had had.  Compare his wOBA, then, to that of others who were still playing peak baseball at those ages.  His 30-35 years didn’t match those of Williams, Ruth, Cobb, Musial. But they were better than Aaron, Griffey, Yaz, as good as Mays, Reggie, Frank Robinson.

And, finally, there is this.  You’ll recall from the narrative above that the 1946 Dodgers, after deciding not to recall Robinson for a stretch drive, lost the pennant to the Cardinals for want of a single win.   Had the Dodgers won that pennant, one of the most famous plays in World Series history – Enos Slaughter’s “mad dash” – never would have happened. Ten World Series later, Jackie Robinson got his last hit in a major league uniform.  It flew over the head of the Yankees’ left fielder.  Enos Slaughter.

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Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
The history of integration of major league baseball is top heavy with way too much focus on Robinson. Seemingly forgotten are the experiences of other black players who wound their way through the minor leagues of the South before making their debut in the big league. Players such as Aaron, Gibson, Pinson, and a host of others belie the media myth that Robinson’s was a one man show. I would say that there were many other players who had a much tougher time of it than Jackie Robinson ever did. Imagine it being 1953 and you are playing for some… Read more »
Richie
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Richie

The ‘First!’ of everything always gets more attention. I actually like your post in and of itself. Quite a bit, in fact. But you could lose the arrogance, pomposity and self-righteousness. Less left for me, otherwise.

John Autin
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John Autin

You may be right that other baseball integration pioneers experienced more head-on hatred. Why not share some of what you know about that, instead of just griping about the simplified narrative?

But meanwhile, who else faced the other huge part of Robinson’s challenge — representing the hopes of millions, knowing that failure would bring personal shame and would further delay the cause of justice?

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
It’s interesting to me that lack of interest displayed by the mainstream press. I’m wondering if this was a fear of being branded a Red. American communists had been in the forefront of pushing for baseball’s integration and 1947 was about the time that rabid anti-communism was coming to the fore for ambitious politicians. The House Un American Activities Committee (itself un-American) was beginning to hold hearings about the supposed infiltration of communism into American life. I could imagine some writers being afraid of making too big a deal about Robinson because of that. Of course, there were still plenty… Read more »
Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Re: John Austin. I thought I was clear in citing Halberstam’s book. For another account of the travails of black players in the 1950’s, check out David Snyder’s A Well Paid Slave, a history of Curt Flood’s battle against the reserve clause.

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