It was not an ideal night for a ballgame. There were no warm-up drills, after a rainstorm delayed the start of the uncovering of the field until 8:20 P.M.1 Once the game started, however, Jackie Robinson wasted no time in making an impact on this damp evening game at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field. Robinson homered in his first two at-bats as the Brooklyn Dodgers defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-1, before a crowd of 29,625.2 The storm also grounded the plane that Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey was taking to Pittsburgh and kept him from getting to the game.3
Earlier in the week, on May 20, newly promoted Don Newcombe made his major-league debut in a relief appearance for the Dodgers. Along with Robinson and Roy Campanella, his arrival distinguished the Dodgers as the only team to have three African-American players active.4 In his first season, Newcombe went 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA on his way to winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award.
The starting pitcher for the Pirates was Bob Chesnes, a right-hander who had led the Bucs staff the previous season with 14 wins against 6 losses. Starting for the Dodgers was another right-hander, All-Star Ralph Branca, who had also won 14 games the previous season. Branca was the NL’s starting pitcher in the previous year’s All-Star Game.
Like the Dodgers, the Pirates had the day off before this game. While the season was barely over a month old, one of the local writers bemoaned the fact that the Pirates had already lost eight one-run games. He declared that there had been much joy watching the team take batting practice on Monday knowing that at least they could not lose an offday by a single run.5
Chesnes got two quick outs with his first five pitches. Pee Wee Reese flied out to center field and Johnny Hopp grounded out to second. However, slugger Duke Snider followed with a line single to right, and Robinson pounded his first home run of the game, a drive to deep left field. As it turned out, it was all the runs the Dodgers would need.
After a three-up, three-down inning in the second, the Dodgers were back to the top of their batting order in the third. In a near-replica of the first inning, a fly out and groundout by Reese and Hopp, brought Snider to plate again with two out. This time Snider drove a double to center. Then Robinson hit his second home run to deep left field in as many at-bats. Both home runs landed in the visitors bullpen.6
The Dodgers added to their lead in the fifth. A leadoff double by Reese and a groundout by Hopp to second base moved Reese to third. Snider’s third straight hit scored Reese, giving the Dodgers a 5-0 lead. Robinson then came to the plate looking for a third straight homer. It was not to be: Chesnes hit Robinson with the third pitch of the at-bat.
In the top of the ninth, after Snider collected his fourth hit of the game, Robinson got his third hit, a sharp single to left, moving Snider to second base. Spider Jorgensen closed out the scoring for the Dodgers with a line-drive single scoring Snider. It was Jorgensen’s third hit of the game. The third, fourth, and fifth hitters in the Dodgers lineup accounted for 10 of the team’s 13 hits and drove in all six runs, five of them with two outs.
Only Robinson’s groundout to short in the seventh kept him from a 4-for-4 game. He drove in four runs as part of his productive 3-for-4 night with two home runs, a single, and a hit-by-pitch. His 32 RBIs led the league at the time.7
Weeks later Robinson was named a starter on the National League All-Star team for the first of six consecutive seasons. He was touted as “the greatest one-man show in the National League” by a Dodgers beat reporter in The Sporting News. Dodgers GM Branch Rickey claimed he was “the best since Cobb.”8 Robinson won his only Most Valuable Player Award after finishing the 1949 season with a league-leading .342 batting average, 16 home runs, and 124 runs batted in. He also led the league with 37 stolen bases and 17 sacrifices. Statistically, 1949 was one of Jackie’s finest years.
Robinson’s two-home-run performance against the Pirates was his first. He did it seven more times in his career, including twice in 1953 and 1954. He also hit a home run in each game of a doubleheader on August 3, 1952, against the Chicago Cubs. His last two-homer game came in his final season, 1956, at the age of 37. He finished his career with 137 regular-season home runs.
While Robinson’s two home runs were the story of the day, Ralph Branca deserved some kudos as well. Branca went the distance for Dodgers, scattering nine hits and raising his season record to 7-0. He also was named to the NL All-Star team for the third consecutive season. The 23-year-old Branca finished the season 13-5 with a 4.39 ERA. His .722 winning percentage led the National League.
The Dodgers gained ground on both teams they were chasing. Both the New York Giants and the Boston Braves lost that day, putting Brooklyn just two games back. They won again the following afternoon at Forbes Field and beat Boston on Friday. The modest three-game win streak allowed them to pull even with the Braves for the league lead.
Two weeks later, in the June 8, 1949, issue of The Sporting News, it was announced that Branch Rickey “had been singled out in special honor” by the Harlem YMCA in New York City for his efforts in integrating baseball.9 Robinson had taken on the role of youth director for the organization as a way of giving back to the community. In his role, he worked with at-risk children to improve their minds and not just their bodies.10 Not surprisingly, juvenile involvement with the Harlem YMCA quickly doubled. Robinson’s association with the Harlem YMCA lasted the rest of his life.11
Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made, said 1949 was a year when Rickey had told him that he no longer had to turn a cheek to taunts and heckling. And it was a season in which there was a “tremendous improvement in the closeness of the Dodger team. Racial tensions had almost completely dissipated, and the team cared most about acquiring talented players” like Campanella and Newcombe.12 The Dodgers went on to win the National League pennant by one game over the Cardinals.
The Dodgers lost the World Series to the crosstown rival New York Yankees in five games. In the only game the Dodgers won, by a 1-0 score, Robinson scored from third on a single by Gil Hodges. Robinson had been bluffing stealing home, and the losing pitcher, Vic Raschi, was highly complimentary. “I had just never seen anything like him before,” Raschi said, “a human being who could go from a standing start to full speed in one step. He did something to me that almost never happened: He broke my concentration and I paid more attention to him than to Hodges. He beat me more than Hodges.”13
In addition to the sources included in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 Jack Hernon, “Werlin’ Willie Opposes Rex Barney Wednesday,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 25, 1949: 18.
2 Chester I. Smith, “Pirates Host Dodgers Again After Losing First Game, 6-1,” Pittsburgh Press, May 25, 1949: 32.
3 Hernon: 18.
4 Harold Burr, “Newcombe Tagged New Dodger Dandy,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1949: 11.
5 Vince Johnson, “Once Over Lightly, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 24, 1949: 15.
6 Jack Hernon, “Branca, Robinson Rout Pirates, 6-1,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 25, 1949: 18.
7 Lester Biederman, “The Scoreboard,” Pittsburgh Press, May 25, 1949: 32.
8 Harold Burr, “Brooks Bill Jackie as Big Show of N.L.,” The Sporting News, June 8, 1949: 20.
9 Oscar Ruhl, “From the Ruhl Book,” The Sporting News, June 8, 1949: 20.
10 William C. Kashatus, Jackie & Campy (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 123.
11 Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1997), 204.
12 Jackie Robinson, I Never Had It Made (New York: Putnam, 1972), 86.
13 David Halberstam, The Summer of ’49 (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1989), 258.