Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line with the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ AAA International League farm team, on Opening Day, April 18, 1946. Wearing No. 9 – not the 42 for which he is now famous – and starting at second base, he had four hits, including a three-run homer, in a 14 – 1 win against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Field in Newark. But the iconic moment that day was not Robinson’s homer, it was a handshake.
In the third inning, two on and nobody out, Robinson smashed the first pitch 330′ over the left field fence. As he circled the bases, pitcher Barney DeForge and outfielder Marv Rackley crossed home in front of him. Waiting in the on-deck circle was left fielder George “Shotgun” Shuba, who earned his nickname by spraying line drives to all fields like buckshot. As a jubilant Robinson crossed the plate, George extended his hand, “That’s the way to hit that ball, Jackie, that’s the old ballgame right there.”
After the game, Jackie called George to thank him, because he worried that his white teammates wouldn’t shake his hand. George replied, “Why? Aren’t you on our team? Aren’t you on our side? Ok, then.” The next day Shuba hit three homers and joked afterwards that he had dialed it back in the first game because “I didn’t want to rain on Jackie’s parade.”
“That day the dam burst between me and my teammates,” Robinson said in his 1972 memoir, I Never Had It Made. “Northerners and Southerners alike, they let me know how much they appreciated the way I had come through, and . . . it generated a tremendous power and drive in me.”
Jackie hit only two more home runs the rest of the year, but led the International League with a .349 average and 113 runs scored as the Royals ran away with the regular season and beat the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in the 1946 minor league World Series. That would earn him a call-up in 1947 to the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black ballplayer in the major leagues since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884. But getting there would be no proverbial walk in the baseball park.
In the early 40’s, Branch Rickey, president and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was looking for new talent and began scouting the Negro leagues, where Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson were already legends, and would soon be followed by eventual Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks. But Rickey had another hidden, much more far reaching, agenda.
In 1903, a very young Rickey, barely 21, was coaching Ohio Wesleyan’s baseball team. On a road trip to South Bend, catcher Charlie Thomas, the lone African-American on the team, was told he couldn’t stay in the hotel with his white teammates. With tears in his eyes he said, “Mr. Rickey, if I could just rub this color off me, I’d be as good as any man.”
Thomas’s words haunted Rickey and for the next 40 years he would be on a mission to end the “gentlemen’s agreement” that had kept black players out of baseball for 60 years. After the New York Legislature passed the 1945 Ives-Quinn Act banning race discrimination in the workplace, Rickey told his wife, “They can’t stop me now.”
But who would be the first? Jackie Robinson, a four-sport phenom at UCLA and now the star shortstop of the Kansas City Monarchs, was on his short list, but Rickey fretted that he was too volatile, arrested while attending Pasadena Junior College for challenging a stop and frisk of a black friend by police, and court-martialed as a second lieutenant at Fort Hood, Texas after refusing to move to the back of the bus.
On August 28, 1945, a reluctant, wary Robinson had arrived at Dodger offices on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, suspecting that Rickey was only recruiting him for a Negro League team of his own. But right out of the box, Rickey told Robinson, “Truth is I’m interested in you as a candidate for the Dodgers, I think you can play in the major leagues, starting in Montreal. What about it?”
Robinson knew it was only one step from the Royals up to the Dodgers. Caught on the back foot, at first he could spit out only one word, “Yes,” but finally added, “I just want to be treated fairly.” Rickey retorted, “You will not be treated fairly, before long [the N-word] will seem like a compliment,” and for the next three hours he drilled into Jackie, calling him every demeaning racist name in the book and role-playing one infuriating scenario after another, from another ballplayer baiting him into a fight to a waiter throwing him out of a “whites only” diner. An Oscar-worthy performance by Rickey. Robinson was barely able to control his temper, “I found myself chain-gripping my fingers behind my back.”
At the end, Rickey told Robinson, “I need more than a great player, I need a man who will take abuse and insults for his race.” Robinson retorted, “You want a Negro who’s afraid to fight back?” Rickey barked, “No, I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back. We can’t fight our way through this. There will be nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, no newspapermen. Or fans. They’ll taunt you, . . . try to provoke a race riot in the ball park. We can only win if we can convince the world you’re a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman. One incident, just one, can set us back twenty years.”
Robinson looked Rickey in the eye. “I think I can play baseball in Montreal, in Brooklyn too. . . . If you want to take this gamble, I will promise you there will be no incident.” Rickey had found his man. In October, the Dodgers signed Robinson to a minor league contract worth $600 a month with a $3,500 signing bonus.
Lowell Thomas, a well-known radio broadcaster at the time, told his good friend, “Branch, all hell will break loose!” Rickey replied, “No, Lowell, all heaven will rejoice.” Time would tell. One thing was certain, Robinson told reporters, “I am now a guinea pig in baseball’s racial experiment.” The New York Amsterdam News called it “a drop of water in the drought that keeps faith alive in American institutions.”
Rickey’s plan was immediately put to the test during 1946 spring training in Florida, Jim Crow country with its laws and mores strictly segregating Blacks from Whites in schools, hotels, restaurants, buses, trains, every venue of daily life. Jackie and his wife Rachel had to stay in the home of a local black leader rather than the Dodgers’ beachfront hotel in Daytona Beach. Jackie and his lone black teammate, pitcher Johnny Wright, couldn’t go out to dinner with their white teammates, and more than once a bus driver ordered, “Boys, get to the back where you belong.”
Rachel pushed back in her own quiet way. When their flight from Los Angeles to Miami stopped in New Orleans, she saw for the first time in her life restrooms marked “white” and “colored,” and promptly walked head high into the “white women only” restroom. She told a reporter, “Coming from California, Jack and I had never been to the Deep South and the treatment we received there was just horrendous.”
When it came time for games, the locals dug in their heels, they would rather go without baseball than watch black players on the same field as whites. When Robinson and the Royals went to Jacksonville to play, they found the field padlocked. A game in Deland was called off because, they were told, the field lights weren’t working. For a day game. After the Royal’s second practice in lily-white Sanford, one resident told black journalists, “Folks will take matters into their hands if that [“N-word”] is not out of town by nightfall.” Not an idle threat: between 1880 and 1950 there was a lynching at least once a week in the South for some perceived breach of the racial hierarchy. At a game the next afternoon, the sheriff showed up after Robinson scored in the second inning and ordered him off the field.
Bill Mardo of the Daily Worker wrote, “Sanford’s got the Smell. The Smell of the South, the silent, lazy and ominous smell of a million lynchings that weren’t good enough for the pretty palms.”
The start of the regular season was a big relief, because Rickey had astutely signed Robinson to the Montreal Royals rather than a minor league team south of the border. According to Jack Jedwab, author of Jackie Robinson’s Unforgettable Season of Baseball in Montreal, “The issue of race was not as fundamental a marker of identity in Canada as in the U.S. . . . It wasn’t an existential issue here, our conflicts centered [on] the French and English, Catholics and Protestants, . . . language and religion, not race, Canada doesn’t have the history and legally-enforced prejudice towards African-Americans found in the United States.”
Rachel Robinson recalled, “When we got to Montreal it was like coming out of a nightmare, the atmosphere was so positive, it was a good omen for Jack to play well.” When she became pregnant with their first child, Jackie Jr., the eight French-speaking children who lived upstairs competed to be the first to carry her groceries. “The neighbors were all friendly and protective,” Rachel said, “The women came over and helped sew my maternity gowns.”
On April 11, 1947, after Robinson’s terrific ’46 season with the Royals, Rickey signed him to a $21,000 major league contract with the Dodgers (the original was recently offered at auction with a $5 million reserve). But if Rachel expected another Montreal, she would have a rude awakening. She and Jackie were about to free-fall into American cities being transformed by the Great Migration:
“Until 1910, more than 90% of all African-Americans lived in the South. But in the winter of 1916, the migration began, like the flap of a sea gull’s wings, as a rivulet of black families escaping Selma, Alabama. Their quiet departure was scarcely noticed except for a single paragraph in the Chicago Defender, to whom they confided that “the treatment doesn’t warrant staying.” The rivulet would become rapids, which grew into a flood of six million people journeying out of the South over the course of six decades. They were seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country. . . . Until that moment and from the time of their arrival on these shores, the vast majority of African-Americans had been confined to the South, at the bottom of a feudal social order, at the mercy of slaveholders and their descendants and often violent vigilantes. The Great Migration was the first big step that the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.” Isabel Wilkerson, The Long Lasting Legacy of the Great Migration [Smithsonian Magazine, September 2016]
It was one of the largest migrations in history, greater than those of the Irish, Italians, Poles or any other ethnic group into the United States. By the 1970’s, almost half of all African-Americans, six million in all, were living outside the South, most of them in New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and other large northern and western cities.
This great influx of “foreigners” roused deep-seeded racial fears and hostility that had lingered beneath the surface when African-Americans in relatively small numbers were mostly out of sight, out of mind, above the Mason-Dixon line. Now, one community after another erected exclusionary barriers, starting with a proliferation of restrictive covenants that prevented African-Americans from buying or renting property in white neighborhoods, and so their schools too were segregated, de facto if not by law. The message: Come if you will, but not to our neighborhoods, not in our schools, not near our daughters.
Baseball reflected the country at large. In January 1947, the 16 major league team owners had met in Toronto and voted 15 – 1, Rickey the only nay, against allowing Robinson to join the Dodgers. Fortunately, Rickey had a crucial ally, new baseball commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler, former Kentucky governor and a strong civil rights advocate, who vetoed the vote and never revealed it to the public. Chandler laid the law down to the owners, “If they can fight and die on Okinawa and Guadalcanal, they can play ball in America.”
It wasn’t just the owners. According to Stanley Woodward in a May 9, 1947 story in the New York Herald Tribune, the St. Louis Cardinals and several other teams threatened to strike if Robinson played. Part of the motivation may have been economic: Robinson was taking one of the only 400 spots on major league rosters, each black player meant one less white.
But most of it was unvarnished Jim Crow animus. The Cardinals roster was deep South, including Harry Walker and Terry Moore from Alabama, Marty Marion, whose South Carolina pedigree traced back to the “Swamp Fox” Francis Marion and the Revolutionary War, and Enos Slaughter from North Carolina. Woodward derisively called them “the boys from the Hook Worm Belt.” Slaughter later denied trying to blackball Robinson, and said of Woodward, “That son of a bitch’s story kept me out of the Hall of Fame for twenty years.”
In any case, the strike never got off the ground. Ford Frick, who replaced Chandler as Commissioner in 1951, summed it up, “You know baseball players, they’re like everybody else, they pop off, sitting around a table with a drink or two they commit many acts of great courage but don’t follow through.”
Closer to home, five Dodger veterans, Dixie Walker, Hugh Casey, Kirby Higbe, Carl Furillo and Bobby Bragan, signed a petition during spring training to keep Robinson off the roster, they didn’t want a black man as a teammate. Georgian Dixie Walker, Harry’s brother, was the clubhouse leader, runner-up to Stan Musial for 1946 National League MVP. Higbe, grandson of a Confederate soldier, boasted that growing up in South Carolina he built up his pitching arm by throwing rocks at black children. Casey, from Atlanta, was of the same ilk.
Feisty manager Leo Durocher was not having it, “I don’t care if the guy . . . has stripes like a . . . bleepin’ zebra,” he told his players, “I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.” And they were. When a defiant Higbe demanded a trade, two weeks later he was out the door, Casey was released a few months later and Walker traded to Pittsburg at the end of the season. After a heart to heart with Rickey, Furillo and Bragan told Durocher that they would give Robinson a fair shake.
On April 15, 1947, two years before President Harry Truman integrated U.S. armed forces, eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and 18 years before passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, Robinson started the first game of the season at second base for the Dodgers against the Boston Braves at historic Ebbets Field, with its “Hit Sign, Win Suit” sign. Robinson went hitless, but reached base on an error and scored the winning run.
Robinson soon won his teammates’ respect and acceptance, but it was a different story in opponents’ clubhouses. A week after his debut in Brooklyn, the Dodgers played the Phillies in Philadelphia. Manager Ben Chapman, a close friend and former Yankee teammate of Dixie Walker, jeered at Robinson, ”Hey, you black [expletive], why don’t you go back to the cotton fields where you belong?” Philly players and fans piled on, calling him “shoeshine boy” and “snowflake.” Jackie’s teammates rallied to his defense, Ed Stanky yelled at the Phillies’ dugout, ”Listen, you yellow-bellied cowards, why don’t you yell at someone who can answer back?”
In 1979, Allen Barra, a writer for The Atlantic, interviewed Chapman, now 71. “Is it true,” Barra asked, “You said those things to Jackie Robinson? . . . The names, the words, that everyone said you used?” Chapman laughed, “Yeah, sure I did. Everyone used those kind of words back then. Heck, we said the same things to Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg. . . . We tried to rattle DiMaggio by saying, ‘Hey, Dago’ or ‘Hey, Wop,’ and we called Greenberg ‘Kike.’ It was all part of the game back then. You said anything you could to get an edge. Believe me, being a southerner, I took a lot of abuse myself when I first played in New York. The deal was, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Equal opportunity raspberries is the nicest thing you can say about it.
Chapman was just the start. All season long Robinson endured an onslaught of racial abuse, opposing pitchers threw at his head, base runners went out of their way to spike him. Enos Slaughter opened up an 8″ gash in his thigh, but for him it may not have been racial, he was notorious for his no-holds-barred play, and that season also spiked Eddie Stanky and the Giants’ Bill Rigney, both white.
More sobering were the unambiguous death threats. And not just against Jackie, but Rachel too, there was even a threat to kidnap Jackie, Jr. It ate Robinson alive, he had chronic stomach pains and his hair began to grey. Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post wrote, “There is a great lynch mob among us and they go unhooded and work without rope.” No question, anonymous, cowardly trolls were around long before the internet.
But eventually the tide of racism slowly began to ebb, starting in a late season game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. As the Reds bench and fans shouted racist epithets, Kentuckian Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger shortstop and captain, walked across the diamond and put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder, quietly talking to him. The ballpark hushed. A simple human gesture stopped abuse in its tracks. Years later Robinson told author “Boys of Summer” Roger Kahn: “After Pee Wee came over like that, I never felt alone on a baseball field again.”
Robinson, with a .297 average and 29 stolen bases with only 36 strikeouts – a truly remarkable stat, these days hitters with 180 strikeouts in a season are not unusual. He was named Rookie of the Year, spurring the Dodgers to 94 wins and the ’47 National League pennant, only to lose the World Series to the crosstown Yankees.
Before the start of the 1949 season, Rickey issued what he called “an emancipation proclamation,” telling Robinson, “You can be yourself now.” No more Mr. Nice Guy. Robinson started arguing with umpires and challenging other players. In short, he was now just another ball player. But still black. So he got other labels. “Uppity,” of course, “troublemaker” and “rabble-rouser.” Sporting News called him “a chronic griper,” no surprise, he had a lot of pent up gripes, all the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
With Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, two other black future Hall of Famers signed by Rickey, the Dodgers won the pennant in 1949. Jackie was National League MVP, and the song “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit that Ball” climbed to number 13 on the charts.
The Dodgers won the pennant again in ’52, ’53, ’55 and ’56. In ’55, sparked by Jackie’s Game 1, 8th inning, steal of home – years later Yankee catcher Yogi Berra was still arguing the “Safe!” call by ump Bill Summers – the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series, their one and only title before relocating to LA in 1958.
In July 1947, three months after Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers, Larry Doby crossed the color line in the American League, going directly from the Negro League to the Cleveland Indians, followed the next year by pitcher Satchel Paige, barred from the majors until he was 42, the oldest rookie ever, helping the Indians win the 1948 World Series.
Between 1949 and 1960, black players won 8 out of 12 Rookie of the Year awards and 9 out of 12 Most Valuable Player awards in the National League, But it took a decade for some teams to catch on. By 1954, five years after Robinson broke in, only six major league teams had a black player, the Boston Red Sox didn’t have one until 1959. For some, it seems, prejudice trumped wins and titles.
Robinson would go on to hit a lifetime .311 with 137 home runs, 734 runs batted in, and 197 stolen bases, including 19 steals of home, over 10 seasons. He retired from baseball in 1957 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, but was never offered a manager or coach position. Instead, he became a vice president for Chock Full o’ Nuts, founded Freedom National Bank, formed Robinson Construction Company to build low-income family housing, and dove headfirst into the civil rights movement.
He decided, “If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations, and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living.”
He criss-crossed the country speaking and fundraising for the NAACP, and hosted jazz concerts at his Connecticut home to raise bail money for jailed activists in the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. In October 1959, he entered the whites-only waiting room in the Greenville, South Carolina municipal airport and refused to leave. The following New Year’s Day more than a thousand demonstrators filled the terminal, and the waiting rooms were desegregated two years later.
Robinson was in the front rank of many civil rights marches, including the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, and was on the dais when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” oration. King said of Robinson, “I didn’t start the Civil Rights Movement, Jackie Robinson did. . . . He underwent . . . the loneliness [of] a pilgrim walking through the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom . . . a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
In his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson wrote, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag, I know that I am a black man in a white world,” inspiring Colin Kapernick and other professional athletes four decades later to risk being ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem.
Branch Rickey played professional baseball from 1903 to 1905, including a “cup of coffee” in the major leagues with the St. Louse Browns, but he was terrible, couldn’t hit, couldn’t field, and wasn’t much better as an on-the-field manager with the St. Louis Cardinals in the early 20’s.
Kicked upstairs to the front office, Rickey found his niche, developing an outstanding farm system, he even came up with the Cardinals’ two red birds on a bat logo. In 1942 Rickey became part-owner and GM of the Dodgers, and changed baseball forever. In 1967 he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. A plaque in his honor by sculptor George Lindeen is aptly inscribed, “It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind.” Rickey died in 1965, seven years before Robinson.
And what became of George Shuba? The son of an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who worked in a Youngstown steel mill, Shuba was signed by the Dodgers out of a tryout camp in 1944. He played only 20 games for the Montreal Royals in 1946 before being sent down to Dodgers’ AA minor league team in Mobile, but in 1948 was called up to the majors and reunited with Robinson for seven Dodger seasons. He hit .305 for the Dodgers’ 1952 pennant-winner, and in 1953 was the first National Leaguer with a pinch-hit homer in a World Series.
Shuba knew that baseball is about much more than any home run, no matter how momentous. One day after his son Mike was suspended from school for bullying, George pointed to the wall above his recliner, “Look at that photo, Mike, that’s me and Jackie Robinson and I want you to understand what it means: You treat all people equal. Do you understand?”
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (2010)
Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson, A Biography (2011)
Alfred Duckett and Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made (1972)
Featured photo: Mike Shuba