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."
But Robinson's ferocious, all-out style of play--he set an International League stolen-base record in 1946--enthralled the Montreal fans, and they embraced him in a way that a country to the south, one that had once endorsed slavery, could not. Later Rachel Robinson said, "We've always thought it was either fortuitous or brilliant planning on Rickey's part to be sent [to Montreal]...He was absolutely, tremendously fortified by being there."
To no one's surprise, the Royals overcame manager Hopper's bunglings, won their league title going away and earned a trip to the "Little World Series," where they faced Louisville. Before the first game, Redbirds manager Harry Leibold and his players staged a symbolic walkout, and when they retook the diamond they heaped the most vile abuse of the season on Robinson. After splitting the first two games in Kentucky, Montreal won the next three at home to take the Series. Jackie Robinson was really a hero now, and when thousands of joyful fans stormed the field, he and his teammates were hoisted onto shoulders and carried aloft.
Next morning, Sam Malton wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier that it was the first time a mob had chased a Negro to love him instead of lynch him. Even the obstinate Clay Hopper came around. After the final game, the skipper knew he would now lose Robinson to the parent club in Brooklyn, and he tried to make his amends: "You're a great ball player and a fine gentleman," he said. "It's been wonderful having you on the team."
Sincere or not, Hopper's words would prove to be prophetic when Jackie reached Brooklyn and the glare of an even hotter spotlight. In 1947, half a dozen of his own teammates would sign a petition trying to banish him--but most of those players would come to respect him. In St. Louis, Enos "Country" Slaughter would intentionally spike Robinson high on the thigh, but the great Stan Musial would quietly tell Robinson that any retaliation he took was justified. Of course, there was none. A promise is a promise.
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In his first major-league season, Jackie Robinson would change American sports and American society forever. The "loneliest man in the world," burning with what Roger Kahn called "dark fire," would start a quiet revolution. When Robinson died, in 1972, the Reverend Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy, noting that Jackie's fate had been "to transform stumbling block into stepping-stone."
Almost thirty years earlier, little Ed Charles, age fourteen, had just watched the Dodgers and the Yankees play a spring training game on a Sunday afternoon in St. Petersburg, Florida. The entire black community had turned out to catch a glimpse of the new hero, Charles remembered--tiny children, people in their nineties, and everyone in between.
"After the game," he recalled, "we followed the Dodger bus to the train depot, and we found out which of the cars had the Dodger players, and we went just to look at Jackie, and we just stood there and stared at him. He was like a god to us, he was our idol, and when the train started to pull away, we chased the train down the side of the platform, waving to him, and he was waving back, and we were running beside the train, as though we were trying to hold the train back. Our hands were against the train along the section where Jackie was sitting, as though we were trying to stop Jackie from leaving."
Little did the teenager know he'd one day be getting aboard himself--thanks to Jackie Robinson.