Jackie Robinson 75: Baseball's Re-Integration

1947: Debut with the Dodgers

The 1947 Brooklyn Dodger infield was composed of (L-R) John Jorgenson, Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Stanky, and Jackie Robinson (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

In 1947, Jackie Robinson joined a Brooklyn Dodgers infield that included, from left, third baseman John “Spider” Jorgensen, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, and second baseman Eddie Stanky. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

The 1947 season began with most people expecting Jackie Robinson to take the field in a Dodgers uniform. He played for the Montreal Royals in 1946 and led the International League in batting average and runs scored. He also led the league’s second basemen in fielding percentage. His numbers clearly dispelled any doubts that a Black player was not talented enough to play in the majors.

Robinson’s road to the major leagues happened quickly in the spring of 1947. Between April 10 and April 15, Robinson went from being a Montreal Royal to Brooklyn Dodger. Although Robinson didn’t get a hit in his first regular-season game on April 15, his bunt in the seventh inning gave the Brooklyn faithful a preview of the type of baseball that Robinson would play. Robinson notched his first hit two days later and his first home run on April 18 when the Dodgers faced the Giants, their crosstown rivals.

But just as quickly as Robinson demonstrated his skills on the field, he faced racial slurs from opposing teams. His worst experience that season came from Ben Chapman and the Philadelphia Phillies. Led by their manager, the Phillies verbally abused Robinson when they faced the Dodgers for the first time in late April. Robinson later admitted that this game was the most difficult one of the 1947 season. But the Phillies’ actions only strengthened public support for Robinson and eventually Chapman asked Robinson to pose for a photograph at Shibe Park, falsely giving the impression that there were no tensions between them.

Robinson’s play on the field, including a 21-game hitting streak in the middle of the season, showed that he belonged in the National League. But that did not stop the harassment from opposing players. Perhaps the most notorious incident came on August 20, when the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter spiked Robinson in the 11th inning.

Despite all of the adversity, Robinson persevered. He led the NL in stolen bases and finished second in runs scored. He eventually earned Rookie of the Year honors and came in fifth in the MVP voting. “Robinson is everything that Branch Rickey said he was when he came up from Montreal,” said Dixie Walker, one of the Dodgers who were originally unwilling to play with Robinson.

It was only the beginning.

— Thomas J. Brown Jr.

“I’d have to say at that point [Jackie Robinson] was the most extraordinary athlete I’d seen play the game. … And to make his debut at first base was really something. I remember writing out the lineup card, didn’t think anything special of it. I just wanted to follow what Mr. Rickey and Durocher wanted. … Looking back, it was a part of history, but at that point I just wanted to get the season started before Mr. Shotton arrived. There were all sorts of photographers and newsreel cameras around home plate, all around the park. I felt the excitement. It was Opening Day and all that, but there was so much more going on.

— Clyde Sukeforth, Brooklyn Dodgers acting manager on April 15, 1947

Spring Training in Havana

When Jackie Robinson trained with the Montreal Royals in Daytona Beach, Florida, in the spring of 1946, Branch Rickey began to witness some of the racial confrontations he had feared. Trying to avoid as much of this as possible while preparing Robinson for his major-league debut, Rickey cited Cuba’s passion for baseball and its easy access from the mainland as two good reasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers to hold training camp in Havana in 1947.

While the White players were housed at the best resort in the city, the Hotel Nacional, Robinson and the Royals’ other Black players — Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Roy Partlow — were taken instead to the Hotel Boston in “old” Havana. Robinson was irate, but went along with Rickey’s judgment.

Where the team stayed, however, made no difference to a number of White Dodgers who were nonetheless offended by Robinson’s presence. Led by Dixie Walker, the de facto leader of the team, the group included Hugh Casey, Carl Furillo, and Bobby Bragan and they started a petition to keep Robinson off the club. During a trip to Panama for a three-game series against the Royals, manager Leo Durocher caught wind of the uprising and exploded.

“I told them what they could do with their petition, and I don’t think I got much back talk on it,” he said years later. “I told the players that Robinson was going to open the season with us come hell or high water, and if they didn’t like it they could leave now and we’d trade them or get rid of them some other way. Nobody moved.”

As general manager, Rickey helped quell the discontent by trading veteran pitcher Kirby Higbe and star outfielder Dixie Walker to the Pittsburgh Pirates in separate deals. Dodgers management would stand behind Robinson until his teammates came around, albeit some more slowly than others.

  Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and Jackie Robinson at El Gran Stadium. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

 Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and Jackie Robinson shake hands at El Gran Stadium in Havana, Cuba, during 1947 spring training. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Time Magazine cover of Leo Durocher on April 14, 1947 (TIME.COM)

Time Magazine cover of Leo Durocher on April 14, 1947 (TIME.COM)

Leo Durocher’s Suspension

Just before the 1947 season began, baseball commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler suspended Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for a year. Chandler cited Durocher’s string of moral shortcomings: gambling debts, associations with known gamblers and nightlife figures, and a scandalous marriage with charges of adultery, bigamy, and contempt of court. Branch Rickey often said Leo possessed “the fertile ability to turn a bad situation into something infinitely worse,” but Leo seemed finally to have hit rock bottom this time.

Durocher’s suspension was shaping up as baseball’s “story of the year” before the season even started. Then Jackie Robinson took the field in Brooklyn. Led by interim manager Burt Shotton — a sort of anti-Durocher who preferred to wear civilian clothes in the dugout as opposed to a baseball uniform — the Dodgers won the National League pennant. They pushed the Yankees to a seventh game before losing the World Series. Leo and his troubles quickly receded into memories of spring training.

The 1947 season could have provided an opportunity for Durocher to shine along with Brooklyn’s new star. Instead, a Time Magazine cover published a day before the season began would be the highlight of Durocher’s 1947. His unerring ability to find trouble and draw attention removed him from a landmark season in baseball history.

A Royal at Ebbets Field

Branch Rickey knew that Jackie Robinson was ready for the big leagues. Tested against Dodgers pitching in spring training, Robinson as a Royal hit .340 in 13 exhibition games between the two clubs in Havana, Cuba.

In his first appearance at Ebbets Field on April 10, just after Robinson popped into a double play attempting to bunt in the fifth inning, Arthur Mann, an assistant to Rickey, handed out a brief announcement in the press box: “The Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals.” The words were few, but the significance would resound beyond the game itself.

The following day would be a day long anticipated by both Rickey and Robinson. First, there would be the formality of Robinson signing a Brooklyn contract. In another exhibition game, Robinson would be wearing the Dodgers’ home white uniform for the first time against an opponent to become all too familiar in Robinson’s major-league career, the New York Yankees.

Jackie Robinson enters the Brooklyn Dodgers clubhouse after his Montreal Royals contract was purchased by the major-league club on April 10, 1947. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)

 

Clyde Sukeforth shrugged off his importance to the Jackie Robinson story, but Robinson didn’t. (BARNEY STEIN / COURTESY OF KARL LINDHOLM)

Clyde Sukeforth, the Dodgers’ acting manager for Jackie Robinson’s debut on April 15, 1947, shrugged off his importance to the story, but Robinson didn’t. Near the end of his life, Robinson expressed his appreciation in a letter to Sukeforth at his home in Waldoboro, Maine:

“I consider your role, next to Mr. Rickey’s and my wife’s — yes, bigger than any other person with whom I came in contact. I have always considered you to be one of the true giants in this initial endeavour in baseball, for which I am truly appreciative. May you never find it convenient to underplay the role you played to make the Rickey-Robinson experiment a success.” (BARNEY STEIN / COURTESY OF KARL LINDHOLM)

 

The First Game

April 15, 1947: Jackie Robinson’s major league debut was more than just the first step in righting a historical wrong. It was a crucial event in the history of the American civil rights movement, the importance of which went far beyond the insular world of baseball.

Rumors of a sellout, along with a new team policy that opened up many grandstand tickets only on the morning of the game, may have discouraged some fans from attending. So a crowd of only 26,623 saw Robinson’s highly anticipated debut at Ebbets Field. The mainstream White newspapers in New York, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and New York Times, briefly mentioned the historic nature of Robinson’s debut, but focused most of their coverage on the absence of Dodgers manager Leo Durocher and on Opening Day starting pitcher Joe Hatten.

Robinson was more comfortable at second base or shortstop, but on orders from the Dodgers he had been working out at first base all spring. That’s where he made the game’s first putout in the first inning, receiving a throw from fellow rookie Spider Jorgensen on Dick Culler’s ground ball to third base. Batting second in the Dodgers’ lineup, Robinson grounded out in his first at-bat against Braves right-hander Johnny Sain. He went 0-for-3, but his daring speed on the basepaths contributed to the Dodgers’ game-winning rally in the seventh inning. Speeding down the line after a sacrifice bunt, Robinson was hit in the back on an errant throw by the Braves’ first baseman and he later came around to score a run on Pete Reiser’s go-ahead double.

Instead of the suspended Durocher, the Dodgers’ acting manager for Robinson’s debut was Clyde Sukeforth — the same scout who met with Robinson in August 1945 and accompanied him to Brooklyn for the historic meeting in which Branch Rickey informed Robinson he wanted a “man with guts enough not to fight back.” Sukeforth managed the team’s first two games before handing over the reins to Burt Shotton for the rest of the season.

🔈 Listen: SABR Oral History interview with Clyde Sukeforth (1994)

Celebration Tour Around the National League

During the Brooklyn Dodgers’ first extended road trip of the 1947 season, Black baseball fans came out in droves to support Jackie Robinson. On the night of Robinson’s debut at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, one observer estimated that there were 5,000 Black spectators. Another guessed 10,000. Some of those fans traveled more than 400 miles on a train that left Birmingham, Alabama, in the morning and picked up additional passengers as it rolled northward.

The scenes were similar all around the National League. On May 18, Wrigley Field set a paid-attendance record with 46,572, with upward of 20,000 unable to get into the ballpark. Dressed in their Sunday best, fans showed adoration and support for Robinson and cheered him for striking out at his first at-bat. In attendance that day were 12-year-old Allan “Bud” Selig, future commissioner of baseball, and future US Senator Herb Kohl.

Fourteen-year-old attendee Mike Royko, who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, later wrote of Robinson’s Chicago debut, “The whites tried to look as if nothing unusual was happening, while the blacks tried to look casual and dignified. So everybody looked slightly ill at ease. For most, it was probably the first time they had been that close to each other in such great numbers.”

Black baseball fans wait in line to enter Ebbets Field for a World Series game in October 1949. Jackie Robinson's presence in the Dodgers lineup ensured that ballparks around the National League would be full of Black fans every time he played. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Black baseball fans wait in line to enter Ebbets Field for a World Series game in October 1949. Jackie Robinson’s presence in the Dodgers lineup ensured that ballparks around the National League would be full of Black fans every time he played. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, left, poses for a photo with Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who had instructed his players to unleash a torrent of racist verbal abuse against the Dodgers' rookie when the teams first met on April 22, 1947. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, left, poses for a photo with Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who had instructed his players to unleash a torrent of racist verbal abuse against the Dodgers’ rookie when the teams first met on April 22, 1947. After the story broke publicly, Chapman was widely condemned for his actions. Commissioner Happy Chandler issued a severe warning, ordering the Phillies to refrain from using “vicious un-American racial remarks” against Robinson when Brooklyn visited Philadelphia in early May. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

A Players’ Strike Against Jackie Robinson: Truth or Myth?

“A National League players’ strike, instigated by some of the St. Louis Cardinals, against the presence in the league of Jackie Robinson, Negro first baseman, has been averted temporarily and perhaps permanently quashed.”

As exaggerated as it was, the “strike” story reset the conversation about Robinson after he had played just 15 games. Big-name sports writers like Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post and J.G. Taylor Spink of The Sporting News began to rally to Robinson’s side, defending Robinson’s right to play. African American sportswriter Sam Lacy thought the tide of support from Frick and the White press was a turning point signaling acceptance not just of Robinson, but of integration. “[A]t long last, it looks as though we have the wind at our backs,” Lacy wrote.

Rookie of the Year Campaign

As the weather warmed up in the summer of 1947, so did Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s aggressive style of play helped the Dodgers take over first place for good just after the Fourth of July. He finished the year with a .297 average, 12 home runs, 48 RBIs, and a league-leading 29 stolen bases and 28 sacrifice hits, winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year award comfortably.

Robinson’s 21-game hitting streak was proof that he belonged in the big leagues. On the same day as his hitting streak ended, the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles and made him the first Black player in the American League.

Two weeks before the World Series began, Robinson was named Rookie of the Year by The Sporting News and its editor J.G. Taylor Spink on the basis of “stark baseball values … his hitting, his running, his defensive play, his team value.” Spink wrote, “The sociological experiment that Robinson represented, the trail blazing he did, the barriers he broke down did not enter into the decision.”

Jackie Robinson during his rookie season in 1947 (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Jackie Robinson during his rookie season in 1947 (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel, pose for photographs after a special award ceremony in Ebbets Field, where Robinson was given a new car on Jackie Robinson Day, September 24, 1947 in Brooklyn. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel, pose for photographs after a special award ceremony in Ebbets Field, where Robinson was given a new car on Jackie Robinson Day, September 24, 1947 in Brooklyn. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Rachel Robinson: The Rock by Jackie’s Side

When Branch Rickey was scouting for a player to integrate baseball, he wanted someone with a family who could support him, and that family started with Rachel Isum Robinson.

Jackie and Rachel, who met when they were both students at UCLA, had married on February 10, 1946, and she was by his side for his first season in Montreal and his rookie season with the Dodgers in Brooklyn. In 1947, she cared for their infant son, Jackie Jr., and still managed to attend every home game. She embraced the role of Jack’s protector, including oftentimes intercepting the mail before her beleaguered husband could read it. At first, she threw away the threatening letters that came to their home, but when they grew in ferocity, she started sharing them with the Dodgers.

But Rachel’s role as the guardian of Jackie’s legacy was just one of her many accomplishments. While her husband was still alive, they hosted jazz fundraisers at their home to help out jailed civil rights activists. She worked for many years as a nurse after earning her master’s degree in the field. Rachel was also a distinguished professor at Yale, a psychiatric nurse, a vocal civil rights activist, a cunning businesswoman, and a generous philanthropist. Hers is a stunning résumé for anyone, but most especially a Black woman born nearly a century ago.

The Fall Classic: Dodgers vs. Yankees

In his 10 seasons with the Dodgers, 1947 through 1956, Jackie Robinson played in six World Series, all against the Yankees. There was no better time for baseball fans of all ages in the New York City area.

In 1947, Robinson and pitcher Dan Bankhead became the first African-Americans to play in a World Series, which was being televised for the first time, although only in the Eastern part of the United States. Robinson seemed more than ready and displayed no outward sign of the jitters. “Gosh,” he said with a smile, “it can’t be any more nerve-wracking than that St. Louis series [when he was spiked by the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter in August]. After that, nothing can seem too important.”

In Game One at Yankee Stadium, the Dodgers struck first and Robinson was at the center. In the first inning, he drew a one-out walk. “Then the agile Negro started prancing back and forth off first base and a wave of expectancy swept through the stands,” the New York Times reported. With Frank Shea pitching, Robinson stole second. Moments later he was tagged out between second and third on Pete Reiser’s tap to the mound. But he prolonged the rundown to allow Reiser to advance to second and subsequently score on Dixie Walker’s single. The first run in the first inning in his first World Series was to some extent of Robinson’s doing, as unrecognizable as it might appear in the box score.

The Dodgers, however, would go on to lose the game and, eventually, the Series in seven games.

At the 1947 World Series Brooklyn Dodger fans in Ebbets Field celebrate with pennants and signs. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

At the 1947 World Series, Brooklyn Dodgers fans at Ebbets Field celebrate with pennants and signs. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

Many teams sold photo packs of their players and other personnel, going back to at least the 1930s. The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers photo pack consisted of 25 photos, 6″ x 9″ in size, including this one of Jackie Robinson.  (TRADING CARD DATABASE)

42 in ’47: Jackie Robinson’s Baseball Cards

The 1947 season brought with it not only the integration of Baseball but — several rungs down the ladder of importance — the opportunity to integrate baseball cards as well. All that was missing were the baseball cards themselves!

While today we take it for granted that a new baseball card set, if not dozens, will come out every year, such was not the case in the 1940s. Where baseball cards were produced at all, they most often took the form of smaller regional issues, often connected to food or other household products, cards that today many collectors classify under the umbrella of “oddball.”

This review of Jackie Robinson baseball cards from 1947 will feature bread, slacks, and even cigarettes but not a single stick of gum.

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