When his barrier-breaking tour of the National League reached Pittsburgh a month into the 1947 season, Jackie Robinson extended his double-digit hitting streak with a burst of speed and surprise, but three Pittsburgh Pirates home runs, all benefiting from Forbes Field’s newly shortened outfield, yielded a 7-3 win over Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers on May 15. More than anything in its box score, however, the day’s most enduring aspect was a touching encounter between Robinson and Pittsburgh’s Hank Greenberg, the target of slurs and prejudice during his own Hall of Fame career as a trail-blazing Jewish superstar.
Thanks to league scheduling and springtime weather, the first few weeks of Jackie Robinson’s overthrow of baseball’s color line in 1947 took place close to home.1 The Dodgers’ travels began on May 9, 16 games into the season, with a series in Philadelphia. Cincinnati followed, then Pittsburgh. Recovered from a shoulder injury and an 0-for-20 stretch, Robinson had a .274 batting average and a 11-game hitting streak as Brooklyn’s starting first baseman.2
Pittsburgh was a hotbed of Black baseball in the 1930s, when stars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Cool Papa Bell played for the Negro Leagues’ Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.3 Even more relevant for Robinson, it was the home of Wendell Smith, whose writing in the Pittsburgh Courier, a prominent Black weekly, had challenged baseball’s segregation since the 1930s,4 and who had recommended Robinson to Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey as a player capable of succeeding in integrated competition.5 Robinson had played at Forbes Field once already, during a barnstorming tour in October 1946, drawing praise from legendary Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner.6
Still, in Pittsburgh and in general, inclusion had its limits in 1947. Robinson stayed in a separate hotel from his teammates.7 Several Pirates, whose roster did not integrate until 1953, targeted him with racist insults.8
The Pirates were in transition after finishing seventh in 1946.9 They had a new ownership group, including entertainer Bing Crosby, and a new manager in Billy Herman.10 At first base was four-time American League home-run champ and two-time MVP Greenberg, purchased from the Detroit Tigers in January 1947 and lured from retirement by, among other inducements, a modification to Forbes Field’s vast outfield.11
The modification, an eight-foot wire fence that carved out bullpens and reduced the left-field home-run distance by 30 feet, became known as Greenberg Gardens.12 Through Pittsburgh’s first eight home games, 11 home runs—likely outs in previous seasons—had landed there.13
A hazy, overcast sky covered Pittsburgh at the start of the series opener against the Dodgers, as a Thursday afternoon crowd of 10,806 paid, with 2,665 Ladies Day attendees, looked on.14 Both teams were among several clubs clustered within a few games at the top of the NL standings.
In his second season as a swingman for Pittsburgh, 27-year-old right-hander Ed Bahr had posted a 1.69 ERA in his last four appearances, including three starts, since allowing five runs in his 1947 debut on April 20. Eddie Stanky grounded Bahr’s fourth pitch up the middle for a leadoff single, bringing up Robinson to an ovation from the crowd.
Stanky took second when Bahr’s two-strike pitch bounced off Clyde Kluttz’s glove for a passed ball, but Robinson flied to left, and Stanky wound up stranded.
Robinson batted again with two outs in the third. An elite punt returner, basketball forward, and long-jumper in college less than a decade earlier, he bunted toward third, then dashed toward first, “setting some kind of speed record as he zoomed down the line,” reported Wendell Smith.15
Bahr picked up the ball, but his hurried toss went wild. Greenberg reached out, hoping to save the throw—and collided with Robinson, who lost his balance and tumbled to the ground as the ball rolled free. Robinson got up and continued to second.
Brooklyn lefty Vic Lombardi allowed a one-out double to Jim Russell in the first, then set down eight in a row against a Pittsburgh lineup stacked with nine right-handed bats. Russell broke the streak with a leadoff single in the fourth, but the inning appeared to fizzle when Wally Westlake hit into an around-the-horn double play.
But Greenberg walked, and Herman called for a hit-and-run with Frankie Gustine at bat. Stanky moved toward second to cover the steal, attempted to reverse course when Gustine hit a popup toward center, then slipped on the muddy infield. The ball fell for a single, and the Pirates had runners at the corners for Kiner.
After leading the NL with 23 home runs as a rookie in 1946, the 24-year-old Kiner had struggled, homering only once through 16 games in 1947. He watched three balls from Lombardi, then connected on a drive toward Greenberg Gardens. Gene Hermanski scaled the fence, but the ball cleared what the Brooklyn Eagle called “the 335-foot chicken wire” for a home run and a 3-0 Pittsburgh lead.16
Robinson’s next time up was in the fifth, and he followed Stanky’s double by lining to right for the third out. Dodgers manager Burt Shotton, wearing a baseball jacket over civilian clothes,17 replaced Lombardi with Hal Gregg in the bottom of the inning, and Billy Cox’s home run into Greenberg Gardens made it 4-0.18
Pittsburgh second baseman Eddie Basinski turned Bruce Edwards’ smash with runners at the corners in the sixth into a spectacular inning-ending double play, preserving Bahr’s shutout.19 Brooklyn threatened again in the seventh when walks to Arky Vaughan—a star shortstop for 10 seasons in Pittsburgh who converted to third after a trade to Brooklyn in 1941—and Pee Wee Reese opened the inning.
Pinch-hitter Duke Snider, a 20-year-old rookie, hit an apparent double-play bouncer to Basinski at second, but the former Dodger threw the ball into left for an error, and Vaughan scored. Two batters later, Robinson singled to center, driving home Reese and cutting the deficit to 4-2.
Brooklyn was positioned to draw even closer with speed on the corners in Robinson and Snider, hot hitters up in Reiser (batting .319) and Walker (.367), and only one out. But Bahr retired Reiser and Walker to preserve the two-run lead.
Pittsburgh answered the Dodgers’ rally in its half of the seventh. Basinski led off with a single.
Bahr popped up attempting to sacrifice, but Cox came through with a drive to right-center, beyond Reiser’s reach, for a run-scoring triple.20
The Pirates went back to the bunt, and this time it worked: Russell dropped down a suicide squeeze, and Cox scored standing up for a 6-2 lead.
An inning later, Kiner added Pittsburgh’s final run by belting his second homer of the game into Greenberg Gardens. Hermanski again climbed the fence, but the ball landed in the glove of a pitcher in the Pirates’ bullpen.21
Bahr was on the mound in the ninth with a five-run advantage. After a one-out walk to pinch-hitter Al Gionfriddo, a blister on Bahr’s pitching hand, caused by frequent curveballs in his 118-pitch outing, broke, and Herman brought in Tiny Bonham from the bullpen.
Stanky greeted Bonham with a hard-hit double down the first-base line, sending Gionfriddo to third. Robinson followed with a fly ball to deep left; Kiner made the catch in foul territory as Gionfriddo tagged and scored. Bonham set down Reiser, and the Pirates had a 7-3 win.
A day later, a big Friday night crowd saw Robinson get two more hits in Brooklyn’s victory.22 Pittsburgh’s win in the third game of the series was the 14th and final game of his hitting streak.23 By June 30, the Dodgers had moved into first place to stay, and Robinson finished his historic season in the World Series.
Greenberg Gardens continued to be a boon for home runs; the Pirates and their visitors combined for 182 homers in 1947, easily the most of any major-league ballpark besides the Polo Grounds, as Pittsburgh finished tied for the NL’s worst record. Kiner finished with 51 home runs, more than any other major-leaguer since Greenberg’s 58 in 1938. Greenberg himself hit 25, then retired.24
As it happened, the most significant part of Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers’ debut in Pittsburgh was not reflected in the statistical ledger. When Greenberg reached first on his fourth inning walk, an inning after his accidental collision with Robinson, he asked Robinson if had been injured and offered words of encouragement.25
“He helped me a lot by saying the things he did,” Robinson said of Greenberg after the game.31 “I found out that not all the guys on the other teams are bad heels. I think Greenberg, for instance, is pulling for me to make good.”32
“Class tells. It sticks out all over Mr. Greenberg.”33
This article was fact-checked by Jim Sweetman and copy-edited by Len Levin. SABR member Kurt Blumenau provided insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org for pertinent information, including the box score and play-by-play. Baseball-Reference.com’s play-by-play for this game included pitch-count data for each plate appearance; the author used it for narrative detail and to determine Ed Bahr’s pitch count for the game.
The author also relied on game coverage from the Brooklyn Eagle, New York Daily News, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Press, and Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph newspapers; and SABR BioProject biographies of several subjects relevant to this game story, including Scott Ferkovich’s Hank Greenberg biography, Claire Hall’s Billy Cox biography, and Michael Marsh’s Wendell Smith biography.
1 Thirteen of the Dodgers’ first 15 games in 1947 were at Ebbets Field; the other two required only a ride to Manhattan. Rain and snow postponed Robinson’s first scheduled appearance outside New York’s boroughs, a two-game series against the Boston Braves on April 20-21. Dick Young, “Dodgers’ Masterminds Ask Stanky for Help,” New York Daily News, April 22, 1947: 49.
2 The Pittsburgh Courier reported that it was an aggravation of an old football injury to his shoulder. Haskell Cole, “Robby Hitting in ‘Tough Luck,’ But He’ll Remain at First,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 10, 1947: 14.
3 Rich Emert, “Lore of the Game: Pittsburgh Was a Special Place in the History of Negro Leagues Baseball,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 8, 2001: D-3.
4 Chris Lamb, “The White Media Missed It,” in Michael G. Long, ed., 42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: New York University Press, 2021), 61-62.
5 Bill Nunn Jr., “Change of Pace,” New Pittsburgh Courier, November 18, 1972: 9. Additionally, Smith followed Robinson during the 1947 season, filing reports under his own byline and ghostwriting a column for Robinson.
6 Al Abrams, “Robinson Impresses Big League Players: Cracks Out Three Hits as His Team Defeats Major League Stars,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 9, 1946: 15.
7 The other Dodgers stayed in the Schenley Hotel, near Forbes Field, but Robinson was in the Ellis Hotel in the Hill District, a historically Black section of Pittsburgh. Ed Bouchette, “Memories Golden Here on a Golden Anniversary,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 15, 1997: A-1.
8 Hank Greenberg reported in his posthumously published autobiography, “Our Southern ballplayers, a bunch of bench jockeys, kept yelling at Jackie, ‘Hey coal mine, hey coal mine, hey you black coal mine, we’re going to get you! You ain’t gonna play no baseball.’” A 1997 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s NL debut in Pittsburgh quoted four members of the 1947 Pirates—Eddie Basinski, Ralph Kiner, Jim Russell, and Frankie Gustine—asserting that unnamed teammates had directed slurs at Robinson. Hank Greenberg with Ira Berkow, Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life (Chicago: Triumph, 2001), 181-182; Bouchette, “Memories Golden Here on a Golden Anniversary.”
9 The Pirates’ 63-91 finish in 1946 was only their fifth losing record in 29 seasons.
10 Vince Johnson, “Crosby One of New Buc Owners: McKinney Heads Group Including Local Attorney,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, August 9, 1946: 1.
11 Greenberg’s contract with the Pirates was $100,000, an increase of $15,000 over his Tigers contract and more than any other player in baseball in 1947. John Rosengren, Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes (New York: New American Library, 2013): 298-304.
12 Harry Keck, “Sports: Pirate Dreams Come True in Opener Friday,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, April 13, 1947: 2,5.
13 “Bucs Hold Edge in Garden Blows,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 12, 1947: 18.
14 Attendance was well below the turnout for the night games that had opened Brooklyn’s series in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Al Abrams noted that the weather “kept away quite a few customers.” A crowd of 22,680 came to Robinson’s first game in Philadelphia; the paid attendance was 27,164 for Robinson’s Cincinnati debut. The Friday night game a day later drew 34,184 to Forbes Field; two subsequent Robinson appearances in Pittsburgh in July 1947 had crowds of over 42,000. Al Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 16, 1947: 18.
15 Wendell Smith, “The Sports Beat,” Pittsburgh Courier, May 24, 1947: 14.
16 Harold C. Burr, “Higbe Tackles Former Flock Mates Tonight: Dodgers Tumble Into 2d Division on Pirates’ Home Run Barrage,” Brooklyn Eagle, May 16, 1947: 17.
17 As Al Abrams observed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Burt Shotton, scholarly-looking Dodger manager, doesn’t wear a baseball uniform, directing the team in civvies from the bench. He had on a baseball jacket yesterday as a compromise.” Abrams, “Sidelights on Sports.”
18 Seven months after this game, in December 1947, the Pirates traded Cox to the Dodgers in a six-player deal. In seven seasons in Brooklyn, he played on three pennant-winning teams and three teams that finished second in the NL.
19 “[Basinski] started a double play on Bruce Edwards’ smash while lying flat on his stomach in the dirt,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported. Burr, “Higbe Tackles Former Flock Mates Tonight.”
20 “[Cox’s triple] might have been an out, if Pete Reiser had gotten any kind of jump on the ball,” Dick Young observed in the New York Daily News. “But Pete had less pickup than a coal truck, and the drive plunked safely in right-center. …” Dick Young, “‘Cheap’ Buc HRs Trim Flock,” New York Daily News, May 16, 1947: 50.
21 “Five of the Bucs’ runs … came as a result of the three round-trippers—and all of them would have been cinch outs under the natural boundary surroundings of last season,” Young concluded. Young, “‘Cheap’ Buc HRs Trim Flock.”
22 A crowd of 34,814 saw Brooklyn’s 3-1 win over former teammate Kirby Higbe, whom Rickey had traded to the Pirates earlier in May after the veteran right-hander protested Robinson joining the Dodgers. Vince Johnson, “Reese’s Home Run Beats Pirates, 3-1: Dodgers Bump Bucs Into Fifth Place,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 17, 1947: 10.
23 Les Biederman, “Pirates Blank Dodgers, 4-0, Behind Osty: Portsider Wins Third of Season,” Pittsburgh Press, May 18, 1947: 24. Robinson’s streak ended when he went hitless in four at-bats on May 18, his first game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field.
24 Greenberg Gardens remained at Forbes Field through Kiner’s eight-season tenure in Pittsburgh. When the Pirates traded Kiner to the Chicago Cubs in June 1953, Rickey, who had moved into the Pirates’ general-manager job in 1950, announced that the fence would be dismantled. It was torn down prior to the 1954 season. “Greenberg Gardens to Be Torn Down: Quick Announcement of Bullpen’s Doom Follows Kiner Deal,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 5, 1953: 1; Joe Bradis, “Greensburg Gardens Discarded by Pirates,” Terre Haute (Indiana) Tribune-Star, February 28, 1954: 49.
25 Smith, “The Sports Beat.”
26 Smith, “The Sports Beat.”
27 Smith, “The Sports Beat.”
28 Rosengren, Hank Greenberg, 309.
29 Kostya Kennedy, True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022), 218.
30 Kennedy, True, 234.
31 Smith, “The Sports Beat.”
32 Smith, “The Sports Beat.”
33 Harry Keck, “Sports: Hank Gives Robinson a Helping Hand,” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, May 17, 1947: 11.