This article was written by Nathan Bierma
The bleachers at Ebbets Field were filled two hours before the first pitch. The game was a sellout by noon, and many of the estimated 10,000 fans who were turned away continued to line the streets around the park. Young boys tumbled over a gate near the corner of McKeever Place and Montgomery; most were thwarted, but “here and there,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, “a cop seemed to look the other way, infected by the holiday spirit which ruled.”1
First in line when the gates opened was Carrie Koschnick, 62, an Opening Day regular who had left her Brooklyn home at 5 A.M..2 Also in attendancewere Margaret Truman, daughter of President Harry Truman. New York City Mayor William O’Dwyer would arrive midway through the game after taking part in Opening Day ceremonies at Yankee Stadium.3 The Fourteenth Regiment Band led a parade out to the center-field flagpole for the national anthem,4 with the Giants and Dodgers marching in columns behind them.5 The sole somber moment was the dedication of the seat of Shorty Laurice, the late founder of the Dodgers’ ragtag pep band, the Sym-Phony.6 His seat in Section 8 would be left vacant for the afternoon, the lone empty seat in the packed park. The crowd numbered 34,530, surging past the Ebbets Field attendance record from 1941 by over 3,000.7
Dodgers fans were feeling more than just the perennial optimism of spring; they were sensing the strange new burden of expectations. After reaching the World Series in 1947 (when they fell to the Yankees in seven games), the Dodgers slipped to third place in ’48 thanks to injuries and the midseason ouster of manager Leo Durocher, who joined the Giants. Now many expected the Dodgers to return to form, and not just in Brooklyn; a survey by The Sporting News found that 46 percent of baseball writers picked the Dodgers to win the pennant in 1949, compared with 33 percent who thought the Boston Braves would repeat in the National League.8
Dodgers president Branch Rickey was preaching caution,9 but conceded on the night before Opening Day, “This is the best team coming back from spring training I have ever been associated with.”10 Rickey’s bold social experiment of desegregation was set to pay its biggest on-field dividend yet. Jackie Robinson was established as the starting second baseman and cleanup hitter, Roy Campanella was starting his second season behind the plate, and pitcher Don Newcombe would soon be called up from Montreal.11 The first three African Americans in the National League would all play for the Dodgers,12 and they would all help make the team a contender.
Robinson, entering his third season, was now expected not just to contribute but to help carry the offense. The two-year moratorium Rickey had given Robinson on responding to racial hostility had expired, but while Robinson would be more vocal in 1949, he still wanted his bat to speak the loudest. “More than revenge, I wanted to be Jackie Robinson,” Robinson recalled of his mindset entering the ’49 season. “When I reported to spring training I was right on target, weightwise, in excellent condition, and my morale was high.”13 Rickey had brought in Hall of Famer George Sisler to work with Robinson in the offseason; Sisler had Robinson hit off a tee for hours at a time, and helped him to sit back in his stance.14 Robinson responded by hitting .521 in spring training. “Sisler showed me how to stop lunging,” Robinson said. “I’ll never stop being grateful to him.”15
Once the opening game started, the Giants punctured the crowd’s festive mood almost immediately. After taking the opening pitch for a strike, leadoff hitter Bill Rigney hit the second pitch from Dodgers starter Joe Hatten over the left-field fence. Rigney, who had lost his starting job to rookie Bob Hofman in spring training but was back in the lineup thanks to Hofman’s sore finger,16 tied a record for the earliest home run in Opening Day history.17
Carl Furillo tied the game for the Dodgers with a home run off Larry Jansen to lead off the bottom of the second, but the Giants took the lead again in the fourth on a single by Buddy Kerr that scored two runs. (The rally was quelled when Rigney, the first-inning hero, hit a single to right and had a head of steam on his way to second. He didn’t notice that Kerr was holding at second and nearly ran into him before being picked off first.)18
Jackie Robinson led off the bottom of the fourth with the Dodgers down 3-1, still looking for his first hit of the season after grounding out in the first. Robinson swung at the 2-and-2 pitch and lifted it into the left-field seats to bring the home crowd to its feet. Four batters later, Campanella came to the plate with runners at the corners and the Dodgers still down by one. He swung at the first pitch and hit a deep line drive that cleared the wall before curling around the foul pole.19 The Dodgers took the lead, 5-3.
Robinson got a two-out single in the fifth but was stranded. Billy Cox tripled and came home on a wild pitch in the sixth to make it 6-3. Then Robinson dazzled the sellout crowd in the top of the seventh with his defense. When Johnny Mize hit a grounder that deflected off first baseman Gil Hodges’ hand, Robinson swooped in, grabbed the ball and fired to first, where Hatten was alertly covering, to end the inning.20
The Dodgers would pour it on with another four-run rally in the seventh. They were facing reliever Hank Behrman, whom the Dodgers sold to the Giants in the offseason. Pee Wee Reese led off with a single and Robinson added a single to center. Robinson reached third on a Cox single that scored Reese, and came home on a wild pitch to Hodges to make it 8-3.
After Hodges singled to put runners at the corners, Campanella hit his loudest blast of the day, a fly ball to deep center field. It looked like his second round trip of the day, but the wind suddenly held it up. Bobby Thomson slipped and fell making the adjustment, and the ball hit the ground.21 Two runners scored and Campanella made it to third on the error. Hatten, for whom Dodgers manager Burt Shotton was about to pinch-hit in the fifth before Campanella homered,22 held the Giants hitless the rest of the way and the Dodgers won 10-3.
“It makes it easy on a manager,” Shotton joked afterward about his team’s three (nearly four) home runs. “All I had to do was ask ’em to hit a home run and they up and did it.”23
“The Dodgers did, indeed, perform magnificently in the brilliant glare of a Flatbush sun as they weathered a first-inning Giant homer and then steam-rollered right over the so-called pulverizing Polo Grounders,” wrote the New York Times. “So far as the vast majority in a record inaugural gathering of 34,530 were concerned they could toss the remaining games of the 1949 National League schedule right out of a window and start the world series at Ebbets Field tomorrow.”24
“The Dodgers look to be on their way,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle allowed. “Baseballs, like footballs, take funny bounces, and there are still 153 games to go. But for one day, anyway, the Flock25 had the gleam of champions in their batting eyes.”26
Among the Dodgers’ brightest stars on Opening Day was Robinson. He led the Dodgers with three hits, finishing 3-for-5 with one RBI and two runs scored. In the field he had six putouts and six assists. “Robinson’s spectacular opener,” wrote Lyle Spatz, “set the stage for what would be his greatest season, one that culminated in his winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award.”27
In addition to the sources mentioned in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
4 John Drebinger, “Dodgers Rout Giants With Pair of Four Run Innings Before 34,530,” New York Times, April 20, 1949: 34.
5 Arthur Daley, “Battle of the Boroughs,” New York Times, April 20, 1949: 34.
6 Harold Burr, “Dodgers Call on Hatten to Oppose Giants,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 19, 1949: 1.
7 Lyle Spatz, “Jackie Robinson on Opening Day, 1947-1956,” in Joseph Dorinson and Joram Warmund, eds., Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports, and the American Dream (London: Routledge, 1998), 136.
8 Carl T. Felker, “Experts Vote for Red Sox, Dodgers,” The Sporting News, April 20, 1949: 1.
9 “So many prognosticators are throwing their opinions around that the Dodgers are going to win the National League pennant that President Branch Rickey is frightened lest this ball club gets a big head and blows the works,” wrote Harold Burr. “Burr Sees Dodgers Copping N.L. Duke,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 17, 1949: 23.
10 “Knot-Holers Hail ’49 Dodgers as ‘Champs,’,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 19, 1949: 3.
11 Tommy Holmes, “Red Barber’s Pet and Other Rookies,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 10, 1949: 27.
12 Larry Doby broke the American League color line with the Indians in July of 1947, followed by Hank Thompson with the St. Louis Browns later that month. Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson would debut together for the Giants in July of 1949. No other major league team would integrate before the decade was out.
13 Jackie Robinson and Alfred Duckett, I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson (As Told to Alfred Duckett) (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), 79.
14 Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), 208.
16 Drebinger, “Dodgers Rout Giants.”
17 Herman O. Krabbenhoft, Leadoff Batters of Major League Baseball: Complete Statistics, 1900-2005 (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006), 343. Rigney was the second visiting leadoff batter to hit a home run on the second pitch of the season, joining Charlie Jamieson of Cleveland, who homered on Opening Day in St. Louis in 1925. A first-pitch Opening Day home run by a visiting batter would not occur until Gary Thomasson of the Giants achieved the feat against Don Sutton in Los Angeles in 1977: at least five more players have done it since then. Krabbenhoft, 343.
18 Daley, “Battle of the Boroughs.”
22 Harold Burr, “Dodgers Swipe Giants’ Thunder,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 20, 1949: 27.
24 Drebinger, “Dodgers Rout Giants.”
25 This nickname referred to the Dodgers’ previous name, the Robins.
26 Burr, “Dodgers Swipe Giants’ Thunder.”
27 Spatz, “Jackie Robinson on Opening Day,” 137.