True Colors

Most of America didn't want Jackie Robinson to reach Daytona Beach, much less Brooklyn. In February 1946--half a century ago--Robinson and his new bride, Rachel, began one of the most important journeys in the nation's sports and social history by boarding an airplane in Los Angeles. Everything went well until a stop in New Orleans, where the Robinsons were put off the plane in favor of a white couple. The next day they were bumped again in Pensacola--for the same reason. Anxious about reaching spring training on time, the Robinsons got on a bus, and before they had traveled very far, the driver ordered them to take new seats in the back. They bit their lips and complied.

"It was our first encounter with helplessness," Rachel Robinson later recalled. "But that whole trip and our entry into the South was good in the sense that it sharpened for us the drama of what we were about to go into. We got a lot tougher thereafter."

That spring, fifty years ago, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, age 27, became the first black man since the 1880s to play baseball in America's white professional leagues. While most attention has been focused ever since on Robinson's debut season with the Brooklyn Dodgers--1947--his previous year with the Dodgers' AAA Montreal Royals farm club was perhaps even more traumatic, more testing, more revealing of American culture and values--and of Robinson's courage--than the hard triumph to come in Flatbush.

Once segregationist baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was safely in his grave, Dodgers exec Branch Rickey had hand-picked Robinson from the Negro League's Kansas City Monarchs as the man to cross the game's color line, and Rickey had exacted a promise: No matter what happened--racist taunts, high spikes, blunt insults in restaurants and hotels--Jackie Robinson would not retaliate. He would absorb the abuse in silence. He would, in effect, take the burden of an entire people on his broad shoulders, as an investment in the future.

No American had ever been asked to assume such a responsibility.
Robinson's first day at spring training was barely two hours old when his own manager cast the first stone. Convening a team meeting, Mississippian Clay Hopper took one look at his newest player and said: "Well, when Mr. Rickey picked one, he sure picked a black one."

For his part, Mr. Rickey soon told Mr. Hopper: "You manage this fellow the way I want him managed, and you'd better figure out how I want him managed."

A little later in the day, Robinson learned he would be competing for the starting spot at second base against a popular Montreal veteran who also happened to be a French-Canadian.

This was only the beginning. In Sanford, Florida, civic groups protested Robinson's presence on the field. In De Land, Florida, Robinson slid safely into home to score in the first inning, whereupon a local policeman materialized and delivered this enlightened opinion: "No niggers don't play with no white boys. Get off the field right now or you're going to jail."

Manager Hopper provided no support. As teammate Spider Jorgensen later said, Hopper was too busy trying to figure out the squeeze play.

If spring training 1946 had suddenly turned Jackie Robinson into what one newspaper writer termed "the loneliest man in the world," he got an ecstatic reception from black people in Florida. Daytona Beach kid Ed Charles, who turned thirteen that year, would later play eight seasons of major-league ball at third base and win a World Series ring with the Miracle Mets of 1969. He once told author Peter Golenbock what Jackie's arrival meant half a century ago:

"That Jackie Robinson had signed and was coming down here, I looked at that and said, 'Okay, maybe now we're going to start living the American dream like the rest of the citizens, maybe now we're going to make some headway to right what I had seen to be these types of wrongs, the inhuman treatment of our people, the hardships on blacks.' And it gave me a little hope...."

Robinson didn't hit well all spring and was worried sick he wouldn't make the Montreal roster. He did, though, and in his first regular season game for the Royals he hom-ered against Jersey City. Branch Rickey commented that Robinson might be "superhuman." Clay Hopper replied: "Do you really think a nigger's a human being?"

In Syracuse, the fans showered him with abuse and obscenities, and in mid-game one Syracuse player threw a black cat at him. "Hey, Jackie!" he yelled. "There's your cousin." After doubling in the game, Jackie replied: "I guess my cousin's pretty happy now."

In Baltimore, the minor-league Royals drew 120,000 fans to three games, but the opposing players bench-jockeyed Robinson mercilessly, and base runners tried to spike him. Baltimore manager Tommy Thomas ordered his pitchers to throw at his head, and they were happy to comply.

Meanwhile, Robinson's Montreal teammates watched the spectacle in silence. Those who supported their new teammate were afraid to say so; a majority hoped he would simply go away. "I didn't have time to worry any about him," Jorgensen said. "I was worried enough about myself."

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