Jackie Robinson of the Montreal Royals warms up before a game at Delorimier Stadium in Montreal in 1946. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)

March 17, 1946: Jackie Robinson plays his first game for the Montreal Royals

This article was written by Chris Lamb

This article was originally published in SABR’s The National Pastime, Vol. 19, in 1999.

 

Jackie Robinson warms up before a game at Jarry Park in Montreal, Quebec, in March 1946. (SABR-RUCKER ARCHIVE)Sportswriters and photographers joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and their AAA team, the Montreal Royals, in the dugout and on the field as the players warmed up before their spring training game at City Island Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida, on March 17, 1946. Black journalists were restricted to the segregated section of the field, down the right field line. Billy Rowe, a photographer with the Pittsburgh Courier, struggled to get a photograph of his friend, Jackie Robinson, who was scheduled to be in the lineup for Montreal.

Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher spotted Rowe in the stands and motioned him to the field. “You can’t get any pictures from way back there! Come into the dugout!” Durocher said. As Rowe remembered later, he began to walk across the field when someone in the bleachers yelled, “Get that nigger out of there!” Rowe froze. He didn’t know whether to continue or go back to the segregated stands.

Durocher motioned him to keep walking-and Rowe continued. The Brooklyn manager then went to ballpark officials and said that if the fan who called Rowe the racial epithet was not removed, there would be no game. In a few minutes, a man was escorted from the ballpark. “I don’t know if it was the right guy or not, but they made somebody leave,” Rowe remembered with a laugh. 1

Brooklyn won, 7-2, yet the day was Robinson’s. To Courier sports editor Wendell Smith, the world seemed to begin the moment Robinson took the field.

“Six thousand eyes were glued on the mercury-footed infielder each time he came to bat,” Smith wrote. “His performance with the willow failed to provide any thrills, but, nevertheless, his vicious swings and air of confidence as he faced real major league pitching for the first time, won the admiration of a crowd that seemed to sense the historical significance of the occasion.2

Robinson went hitless and played just five innings at second. But Smith saw something that wasn’t in the box score. Robinson had just become the first black ballplayer in the twentieth century to take the field with whites in an organized, professional baseball game. In a month, he made his regular season debut with Montreal. And a year later, in April, 1947, he broke major league baseball’s color barrier. “Baseball’s great experiment,” as author Jules Tygiel called the integration of the national pastime, got its first real test on March 17, 1946.

This was a turning point for baseball and for Robinson, who had struggled offensively and defensively through the first two weeks of spring training. But he had more on his mind that day than a sore arm and a weak bat. He doubted whether Daytona Beach officials would let him take the field. If that happened, it would represent a significant failure of the experiment. All the same, the white press paid remarkably little attention to the drama unfolding on the field.

The integration of baseball was a different story for the black press. In contrast to what was reported in white newspapers, black weeklies gave Robinson’s first game more attention, stressed its historical importance, and mentioned that the ballplayer was cheered by all spectators, black and white.

Things were changing, but America was still a segregated society in the mid-1940s. Integration was a touchy subject on the sports pages. Some white sportswriters believed in segregation. Others knew the subject made their editors and readers uncomfortable. As a result they kept it at a distance. In contrast, the story affected black sportswriters, like Smith and Rowe, personally. This was especially true for Smith, who had campaigned for the integration of baseball columns for nearly a decade.

During spring training, Brooklyn president Branch Rickey paid Smith and Rowe to act as chauffeurs, confidants, and father confessors to Robinson and Johnny Wright, a second black prospect with Montreal whom Rickey signed so Robinson wouldn’t be alone.

Smith and Rowe had the inside story of baseball’s first integrated spring training. They knew about Rickey’s meetings with Daytona Beach officials. And they knew that there were a lot of people who wanted to keep sport and society segregated. Smith admitted later that he didn’t write about certain incidents for fear of jeopardizing the integration of baseball.3

Different Reactions

When Rickey signed Robinson for Montreal on October 23, 1945, white sportswriters and their editors didn’t treat the event as a big story. The Sporting News downplayed it by doubting whether Robinson was good enough to play in the majors.4 By comparison, the news hit black newspapers “like a bombshell.”5 Smith called the signing of Robinson “the most American and democratic step baseball has made in 25 years.”6 Writing in The Crisis, Dan Burley called Robinson a “symbol of hope for millions of colored people in the country.”7

Robinson’s troubles with Jim Crow began during his trip from his home in California to spring training in Florida. Robinson and his wife, Rachel, were twice bumped from planes — first in New Orleans and then in Pensacola, Florida — and had to spend an exhausting and humiliating sixteen hours making the final leg of the trip in the back of a bus. They were prohibited from eating in restaurants and staying in hotels. By the time they arrived in Daytona Beach, Robinson, furious, wanted to quit and return to California.8

In their reporting of the story, black newspapers wanted to convey to their readers the cruelties and ironies of segregation.9 The Chicago Defender, whose sports editor, “Fay” Young, had frequently written about the need for integration, said that Robinson had been bumped from an airplane in Pensacola with two other passengers “because the plane could not refuel with the weight of the three people aboard.” 10 Smith wrote that the Robinsons had to sit in the back of a bumpy bus from Pensacola to Daytona Beach, “in accordance with the jim-crow laws in Dear Ole Dixie.”11

Daytona Beach didn’t have room for the scores of ballplayers returning from the war, hoping to win a spot on one of the teams in the Brooklyn organization. Rickey moved the Montreal team forty miles away to Sanford. This turned out to be a costly mistake. The New York city dailies left their top sportswriters in Daytona Beach to cover the Dodgers and relied on secondary writers, stringers, or wire service accounts to cover what black sportswriter Sam Lacy called “the Jackie Robinson beat.” 12 Florida papers used brief wire service accounts or said nothing.13

Smith, Lacy, Young, and other black sportswriters became emotionally involved in the story. Smith praised the ballplayers for “their determined bid for sports immortality.”14 According to Lacy, Robinson wasn’t just playing for himself, he was playing for something bigger. “It is easy to see why I felt a lump in my throat each time a ball was hit in his direction those first few days; why I experienced a sort of emptiness whenever he took a swing in batting practice,” he wrote.15 None of this emotion was found in white newspapers.

The first day of practice at Sanford was uneventful. But after the second day, a delegation of Sanford citizens told Montreal officials that they wouldn’t permit blacks and whites to play on the same field. 16 Montreal began training the next day at Kelly Field in the segregated section of Daytona Beach. Robinson and Wright lived with black families a few blocks away. Their white teammates stayed in a hotel on the banks of the Halifax River, several miles distant.

Robinson could feel the pressure. During the first couple weeks of practice, he struggled. He wasn’t hitting and, to make things worse, he’d hurt his arm and couldn’t make the throw across the infield. He wasn’t the only one concerned. So was Rickey, who had risked a lot by challenging baseball’s color ban.

Given the reaction in Sanford, Rowe, Smith, Robinson, and others wondered if Daytona Beach would prohibit the black ballplayers from taking the field. There were rumors that city officials were putting pressure on Rickey to remove Robinson from the lineup.17 As Robinson later learned, the reverse was true: Rickey had been pressuring Daytona Beach.

“He had done a fantastic job of persuading, bullying, lecturing, and pulling strings behind the scenes,” Robinson wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made. 18 Brooklyn team officials had secured the promises of the mayor and city manager that Robinson and Wright would be permitted to play, not just in practices but in games.

But nobody really knew what would happen when Robinson took the field. Unlike the embarrassment in Sanford, if something happened on this day it probably couldn’t be kept out of the newspapers. For this game, the New York sportswriters who covered the Dodgers and the wire services joined the black reporters on the so-called “Jackie Robinson beat.” Rickey, of all people, wasn’t there. He wouldn’t make an exception to his rule against attending Sunday games. 19

The local newspaper barely mentioned Robinson in its story the morning of the game. Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal sports editor Bernard Kahn wrote that he didn’t know whether Robinson would play or not. He quoted Montreal manager Clay Hopper as saying: “I don’t know if Robinson will play or not. But he’ll accompany the Montreal squad.”20

The New York Times, however, reported that Robinson would play against Brooklyn that afternoon. From the reception given the ballplayer, sportswriter Roscoe McGowen said Montreal could predict how he would be treated in minor league ballparks that summer. He wrote that the crowd was expected to include many Northern tourists, who would be sympathetic toward Robinson. “But,” he wrote, “one citizen voiced the view that there might be some native Southerners who would boo him.”

The weather was threatening in the morning but cleared up for the 3 PM game. A crowd of about four thousand filled the ballpark in downtown Daytona Beach. The segregated section filled beyond its capacity and many black spectators had to stand beyond the right-field foul line.

The Game

Montreal didn’t score in the top of the first inning. In the bottom of the first, Brooklyn’s Dixie Walker hit a bases-loaded triple. After a half inning, Brooklyn led, 4-0.21

When Robinson came to bat for the first time in the second inning, he expected to be booed. “This is where you’re going to get it,” he told himself as he walked to the plate. Instead, to his surprise, he said he received applause from both white and black fans.22 He remembered hearing one drawling Southern voice: “Come on, black boy! You can make the grade!” And he also heard someone else yell: “They’re giving you a chance-now come on and do something about it!” In his first at bat, he fouled out.23

He played five innings at second before being removed to rest his shoulder. He went hitless in three at-bats, fouling out twice. In the sixth inning, he reached base on a fielder’s choice, stole second, and scored a run. In the field, he made no errors.

The Coverage

The score was overshadowed by Robinson’s appearance. Jack Smith of the New York Daily News reported that Robinson made history by becoming the first black to play against a major league team in a regularly scheduled spring training game.24 Harold Burr of the Brooklyn Eagle wrote that Robinson was on the spot “when he shuffled out to cover second base for the Montreal Royals.”25 The story said that Robinson was booed mildly by the white fans after each of his foul outs.26 Burr also wrote the account of the game in The Sporting News.

The Sporting News continue to express its attitude on integration by burying the history-making, three-paragraph item toward the back of the issue.27 Author Mark Ribowsky has written that J.G. Taylor Spink, the longtime editor of The Sporting News, reflected the voice of conservative reactionaries who wanted to keep the sport segregated.28

The New York Times provided an unemotional account of the game, saying simply that Robinson played five innings, had two chances in the field, had no hits in three trips to the plate, stole a base, and scored a run. The article noted that the historic game was “seemingly taken in stride by a majority of the 4,000 spectators,” nearly 1,000 of whom were black.29

The Daytona Beach newspapers continued to hold the story at arm’s length. The Morning Journal said nothing about it. In the Evening News, Robinson wasn’t mentioned until the third paragraph of the six-paragraph story. The game shared the page with two longer stories, one on the city’s Class D minor league team and another longer story on a pair of Swedish milers.30 Other Florida newspapers published short wire-service accounts or said nothing.

Robinson didn’t impress anyone with his hitting, putting only one ball in fair territory in three at-bats. The Brooklyn Eagle wrote that the nervous Robinson struggled against the curves thrown by the Brooklyn pitcher.31 Daily Mirror sportswriter Gus Steiger wrote: “At this stage he is a soft touch for such a pitch. Many a rookie before him has been curved into oblivion, indicating an arduous road ahead.”32

Robinson’s hitting problems continued to discourage him, but he was encouraged by the crowd’s reaction, especially after what had happened in Sanford. He later called the game a turning point. “I didn’t get a single hit that day, nor did we win the ball game; but when I got home, I felt as though I, personally, had won some kind of victory,” he told Wendell Smith a few years later. “I had a new opinion of the people in the town. I knew, of course, that everybody wasn’t pulling for me to make good, but I was sure now that the whole world wasn’t lined up against me. When I went to sleep, the applause was still ringing in my ears.”33

Smith also was encouraged. In the next issue of the Courier, he called the response of the Southern fans the most gratifying part of the day. “It definitely proved that baseball fans, whether in the North or South, appreciate talent and will not hesitate to give credit where credit is due,” he wrote.34

The mere fact that Robinson took the field represented progress, and Smith tried to capture that. Smith wrote that there had been a considerable amount of doubt whether Robinson would be allowed to play, but no objections actually were raised. According to Smith, “The most talked about player in baseball today played five innings and was given a rousing reception when he stepped to the plate in the second inning.”35

The game was at least a couple days old before the black weeklies reported it to their readers. In contrast to what was reported in white newspapers, black weeklies mentioned that Robinson was cheered by all spectators, black and white. They also stressed the game’s historical importance. They gave the story bigger play than daily newspapers, usually including photographs of Robinson.

The Atlanta Daily World, using an American Negro Press account, told its readers that “all southern precedents were shattered” when Montreal’s Robinson played in a game against Brooklyn.36 The People’s Voice of New York said Robinson became the first black athlete to play against a major league team in a regularly scheduled spring training game. It added that the ballplayer was cheered by fans of both races.37

In addition, the Washington Afro-American said that Robinson was applauded during each trip to the plate, which the newspaper interpreted as a good sign that he would be well-received in the International League. 38 The Norfolk Journal-Guide reported that it had been predicted that Robinson would be booed by white Southerners, but this didn’t happen.39

The Future

During the spring, the Robinson story remained little more than a minor human interest story to the mainstream press. By comparison, it was clearly the big story in the black press. History has proven the black press was right.40 No sports story has had greater ramifications on society than Robinson’s breaking of the national pastime’s color ban.

As it turned out, Daytona Beach was the only city to permit Robinson and Wright to play in games during the spring training of 1946. Florida cities, such as Jacksonville, DeLand, Sanford, and other Southern cities like Richmond and Savannah, refused to let blacks and whites share the same field in their ballparks.41

By the end of spring training, Robinson found his hitting stroke and his throwing arm had healed. When Montreal began its regular season, he was the team’s starting second baseman. He led the International League in hitting during the 1946 season. Johnny Wright would be released by Montreal after pitching poorly and would return to the Negro Leagues.

Most baseball fans remember Robinson for what he did in April 1947, not March 1946. But the earlier date is an important one in the story of the integration of baseball. The city of Daytona Beach hasn’t forgotten. There is a monument to Robinson outside the ballpark where he played his first game. The facility is now called Jackie Robinson Stadium.

CHRIS LAMB is an assistant professor of Media Studies at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina. He is writing a book about baseball’s first integrated spring training.

 

Notes

1. Telephone interview with Billy Rowe. March 10. 1993.

2. Pittsburgh Courier, March 23. 1946.

3. Ibid., April 13, 1946.

4. The Sporting News, November 1. 1945.

5. Bill Weaver. “The Black Press and the Assault on Professional Baseball’s ‘Color Line,’ October, 1945-April. 1947,” Phylon 40 (Winter 1979). p. 305.

6. Pittsburgh Courier, November 3, 1945.

7. Dan Burley, “What’s Ahead for Robinson?” The Crisis, December, 1945. p. 364.

8. Telephone interview with Billy Rowe, March 10. 1993. See, Chris Lamb, “I Never Want to Take Another Trip Like This One’: Jackie Robinson’s Journey to Integrate Baseball.” Journal of Sport History 24 (Summer 1997), pp. 177-191.

9. See, Chris Lamb and Glen Bleske. “Democracy on the Field: The Black Press Takes on White Baseball,” Journalism History 24 (Summer 1998). p. 54.

10. Chicago Defender, March 9, 1946.

11. Pittsburgh Courier, March 9, 1946.

12. Telephone interview with Sam Lacy. February 17, 1995.

13. Lamb and Bleske, p. 54.

14. Pittsburgh Courier, March 16, 1946.

15. Washington Afro-American, March 16, 1946.

16. Jackie Robinson and Wendell Smith, My Own Story (New York: Greenburg Publishers, 1948), p. 27.

17. Ibid., p. 78.

18. Jackie Robinson and Alfred Duckett, I Never Had It Made (Hopewell, N.J.: Ecco Press, 1995), p. 46.

19. New York Times, March 17, 1946.

20. Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal, March 17, 1946.

21. New York Times, March 18, 1946.

22. Robinson and Smith, p. 78.

23. Robinson and Smith, p. 78

24. New York Daily News, March 18, 1946.

25. Brooklyn Eagle, March 18, 1946.

26. Ibid.

27. The Sporting News, March 21, 1946.

28. Mark Ribowsky, A Complete History of the Negro Leagues (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1995), p. 253.

29. New York Times, March 18, 1946.

30. Daytona Beach Evening News, March 18, 1946.

31. Brooklyn Eagle, March 18, 1946.

32. Daily Mirror, March 18, 1946.

33. Robinson and Smith, p. 79.

34. Pittsburgh Courier, March 18, 1946.

35. Ibid.

36. Atlanta Daily World, March 20, 1946.

37. People’s Voice, March 23, 1946.

38. Washington Afro-American. March 23, 1946.

39. Norfolk Journal and Guide, March 23, 1946.

40. Lamb and Bleske, p. 58.

41. Ibid, p. 57.