Jackie Robinson's debut: Dodgers, and baseball, win on long-awaited day
Acknowledging Jackie Robinson Day has become an annual part of our coverage at SI.com, but one thing we haven't devoted much time to is what happened in his actual major league debut. To that end, we asked Brooklynite Jay Jaffe to relive that day as though he had been in the Ebbets Field press box on April 15, 1947.
BROOKLYN—Jack Roosevelt Robinson made history on Tuesday when he wore the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers for Opening Day at Ebbets Field, for never before had a black player taken the field in a regular season major league game. While Robinson, number 42 on the scorecard, officially went hitless in three at-bats as Dem Bums downed the Boston Braves, 5-3, he played a key part in a three-run rally that helped the Brooklyns come from behind in the seventh inning.
Until the bottom of that frame, the 28-year-old Robinson had played a quiet game despite the historic implications of being the first of his kind to see the light of the major leagues. Playing first base—where he handled all 11 of his chances cleanly despite it not being his natural position—and batting second, he was kept at bay by Johnny Sain, the Braves’ ace. Robinson grounded out to third base in the first inning, flew out to end the third and hit into a double play to end the fifth, quashing a two-on, one-out situation that the Dodgers had brewing. At first, it looked like the last of those might result in a hit, but Dick Culler, the Boston shortstop, made an outstanding play to start a 6-4-3 twin killing.
Undaunted, Robinson came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with the Dodgers trailing 3-2. Following a walk by pesky Eddie Stanky, who took the free pass a league-leading 137 times last year, Robinson chose not to risk grounding into a double play and instead bunted down the first base line. Amid a scrum involving Sain and catcher Phil Masi, Braves first baseman Earl Torgeson plucked the ball off the ground, but his rushed throw bounced off Robinson and sailed into foul territory in rightfield. Robinson sped to second base while Stanky took third. Pete Reiser followed by hooking a double into the rightfield corner, barely fair, that scored them both, giving the Dodgers the lead and sending last year’s 20-game winner to the showers. Two batters later, Reiser, who had taken third on an Arky Vaughan grounder, scored on Gene Hermanski's fly ball off reliever Mort Cooper for a 5-3 lead that held up, allowing the 26,623 Brooklynites of all colors, shapes and sizes in attendance home happy. Interestingly, it was some five thousand fewer fans than saw the Bums’ home opener against the Giants last year.
The less-than-full take at the gate aside, it was an excellent start to what may well be a tumultuous season for Brooklyn, which won 96 games last year under skipper Leo Durocher but lost a best-of-three tiebreaker to the Cardinals, who went on to beat the Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game World Series. The Dodgers are still searching for a follow-up to their 1941 pennant, and they're reeling from Durocher's recent one-year suspension by commissioner Happy Chandler for associating with known gamblers, handed down last week. Coach Clyde Sukeforth is in charge of the club for now, but he has told team president and general manager Branch Rickey that it's only a temporary solution. Scuttlebutt in the press box is that Rickey sent a telegram to former Phillies manager Burt Shotton, but it's not yet clear that the 62-year-old, who hasn't managed in the bigs since 1934, would even be a good fit.
For the opener, Sukeforth tabbed Joe Hatten, one of last year's rookie surprises and the loser of that second tiebreaker game in St. Louis, to take the ball. Hatten had to work out of early trouble, showing enough moxie to strand five Braves over the first four innings. The Dodgers scored first against Sain, meanwhile, with Reiser scratching out a run in the fourth inning with only the faintest of help. Pistol Pete walked, advanced to second on Dixie Walker's groundout, took third on Hermanski's single—which would have scored him had second baseman Connie Ryan not knocked it down with a fine play—and then scored when Hermanski went in hard on a potential double-play grounder, holding Boston to a force play. The Braves evened the score in the very next half-inning, with Ryan's single and a pair of sacrifices setting the table for Johnny Hopp to drove home the equalizer with a single off Hatten.
Ryan had a big day, with three hits. He drove in Boston's next two runs during a sloppy sixth inning that saw Hatten hit Danny Litwhiler, who took second when catcher Bruce Edwards threw away Torgeson's bunt. After Masi sacrificed, Ryan brought home both runners with another single for a 3-1 advantage. Brooklyn cut its deficit in half in the bottom of the sixth. Reiser and Walker singled and Edwards was hit by a pitch, loading the bases for new third baseman Spider Jogenson. He grounded out, but Reiser scored, though the Dodgers' hopes for more were dashed when Sain struck out pinch-hitter Ed Stevens with the bases loaded.
Then the big seventh inning rally put the home team on top, and relief pitchers Hal Gregg and Hugh Casey shut down the Braves, who put two men on base on both the eighth and the ninth to no avail. Casey struck out Torgeson, a 23-year-old rookie from far-off Washington state who was making his major league debut, to end the game. Poor Torgy must have felt like walking all the way back home after that, and we haven’t even talked about how Walker’s hit bounced off first based and rolled through his wickets.
The other rookie fared better in kicking off Rickey's bold experiment, and it was a bit of serendipity that Sukeforth was the man who wrote Robinson into the lineup card. Sukeforth, in fact, was the one tasked by the Mahatma a couple years back with scouring the Negro Leagues in search of a ballplayer with enough talent and fortitude to challenge a color line that's unofficially been in place for more than half a century. Rickey didn't want Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige or Willie Wells, names far more famous among those in the know about such things. He wanted Robinson, who went to college at UCLA and played alongside many whites while becoming the first athlete at the school to letter in four sports (baseball, football, basketball and track; his brother Mack ran with Jessie Owens in Berlin, winning silver in the 200 meter race). After serving in World War II, Robinson was playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, and that's where he was when Sukeforth found him him in a game in Chicago two years ago. Sukeforth brought Robinson to Dodgers headquarters on Montague Street under the guise of being part of the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. That was August 28, 1945, and it was there that Rickey let Robinson in on his plan, not to play for another rival league but for the Dodgers' top farm team in Montreal.
Robinson spent the 1946 season with the Royals and became a gate attraction wherever he went, especially at home, where attendance more than quadrupled from the year before, to north of half a million. Despite the hostility he experienced from the less evolved fans when he went on the road, Robinson hit .349, good enough to win the International League batting title. He also scored a league-high 113 runs, stole 40 bases and made a clean conversion from shortstop to second base, making just 10 errors.
That performance helped Montreal win the IL flag by 18 1/2 games, and it made a convert out of Clay Hopper, Robinson's Mississippi-born manager, who had tried to avoid the task handed down to him by Mr. Rickey. After beating the Syracuse Chiefs 4-games-to-1 in a best-of-seven championship, Clay told Robinson, “You’re a great ballplayer and fine gentleman. It’s been wonderful having you on the team.” The Royals then beat the American Association's Louisville Colonels in the Little World Series, 3-games-to-2, with the fans in Montreal giving Jackie a joyous reception, in marked contrast to the mean-spirited element he encountered in Louisville.
Much intrigue had followed this spring when the Dodgers and Royals set up their spring training camp in Havana, Cuba, hoping to avoid Jim Crow as well as the prying eyes of most reporters. Robinson wasn't alone among the black players signed by the Dodgers, as catcher Roy Campanella and pitchers Don Newcombe and Roy Partlow went to Havana as well (a hint that there may soon be more to follow Robinson?) but there was some grousing about the point of avoiding the segregated southern United States when those four players were housed at the run-down Hotel Los Angeles, which didn’t even have a restaurant, while their white Royals teammates enjoyed nicer accommodations at the Havana Military Academy. The Dodgers themselves stayed at the grand Hotel Nacional.
While the Dodgers were in Cuba, there were rumors of a rebellion among the ranks, as several of the team’s Southern players such as Walker and Kirby Higbe were said to have signed a petition telling Mr. Rickey they would not play with Robinson. Durocher, always a man to put winning before anything else, told the boys in no uncertain terms what they could do with that petition, but on April 9, as the Dodgers and Royals were playing exhibition series at Ebbets, Chandler handed the loquacious Leo his ban.
A day later, the Dodgers officially purchased the contract of Robinson with the intention of going forward with their attempt to integrate major league baseball, something that would have been unthinkable under the previous commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Despite hailing from Kentucky, Chandler okayed the contract, withstanding the opposition of a majority of National League owners. That might make it tough for the old senator to keep his job down the road, but he's already made his mark on the game.
(Perhaps it bodes well that the Dodgers’ unofficial captain, Pee Wee Reese, is also from Kentucky, yet doesn’t seem to have a prejudiced bone in his body. Asked by a reporter recently if he worried about losing his job at shortstop, he said, “If he can take my job, he's entitled to it.”)
Now Robinson is in the history books as well, and while he is likely to face more angry crowds—and old Jim Crow—in other cities, the Brooklyn fans have let him know he’s welcome in their ballpark. If this experiment continues to go well, it will be a positive not just for the Dodgers, who have a shot at a pennant with Reiser healthy enough to pair with Walker, but for Robinson and more ballplayers like him. Who knows how many great ones are still out there waiting to get their chance?