And Then The Barrier Broke: Remembering Jackie Robinson's first 10 days as a big leaguer
- How Jackie Robinson survived a torrent of pressure and prejudice in his first ten days as Major League Baseball's first black player.
April 15 marks the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's major league debut, an event that’s recognized throughout Major League Baseball and one that’s become an annual part of our coverage at SI.com. This time around, we examine Robinson’s first 10 days in the majors, during which he not only broke the color barrier but flashed the skills that would keep him in the majors, open the door for other African-Americans to follow and make him one of the game’s greatest players over the next decade.
April 15: Boston Braves at Brooklyn Dodgers, Ebbets Field
The front page of the morning’s New York Times contained stories on U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall’s plan to keep Germany disarmed, Soviet Prime minister Joseph Stalin’s conversation with presidential candidate Harold Stassen, talks to end a week-long national strike of telephone workers, and news of a local smallpox outbreak. It did not, however, report that history was about to be made at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The only time baseball had broken through to the front page of the Gray Lady that month was on April 10, when commissioner Happy Chandler suspended Brooklyn Dodgers manger Leo Durocher for one year due for “the accumulation of unpleasant incidents detrimental to baseball.”
It was amid the fallout of that front page story that Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey chose to announce the purchase of Jackie Robinson’s contract from the Montreal Royals, on the heels of a spring training spent in Havana and the eve of what was effectively a dress rehearsal. From April 11-13, the Dodgers played a three-game exhibition series against the Yankees at Ebbets Field, during which Robinson drove in five runs and handled everything cleanly at first base, his new position. In the April 15 sports section, Times columnist Arthur Daley praised Rickey's timing of the promotion amid the Durocher-related chaos: "He practically smuggled him in… merely an attempt to lighten the pressure on Robinson's shoulders."
On a cool Tuesday at Ebbets Field, 26,623 fans—an estimated 14,000 of whom were black — came out for the Opening Day festivities, around 5,000 fewer than the team's home opener the year before. The Brooklyn Eagle's Harold C. Burr cited the smallpox scare and the absence of Durocher as reasons that attendance was down, "but everyone knew the real reason," wrote Jonathan Eig, author of Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. "White Brooklynites were not accustomed to being surrounded by black Brooklynites, and they were not eager to discover how it felt."
Brooklyn borough president John Cashmore threw out the game's first pitch; a photograph (similar to this one) of him greeting Robinson ran in the Eagle, near one of the Dodgers infield that featured second baseman Eddie Stanky with his left arm on Robinson's right shoulder (similar to this)—a sign of acceptance that was hardly universal among the Dodgers. Though teammates such as Ralph Branca and Gene Hermanski shook Robinson's hand upon his arrival in the clubhouse, Georgia-born Dixie Walker, who had spearheaded a petition to keep Robinson off the team, conspicuously turned his head away from the newcomer in the team photo.
Acting manager Clyde Sukeforth, who had scouted Robinson and summoned him to Brooklyn to meet with Rickey and sign his first professional contract on August 28, 1945, wrote Robinson into the lineup's second spot. He would face lefty Johnny Sain, renowned for one of the league’s nastiest curveballs and coming off a 20-14, 2.21 ERA season. Asked by an Associated Press reporter before the game whether he had any butterflies in his stomach, Robinson replied, "Not a one. I wish I could say I did because then maybe I'd have an alibi if I don't do so good." In the stands, an underdressed Rachel Robinson and son Jackie Jr. tried to keep warm, with an assist from the mother-in-law of future Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, who placed the boy inside her fur coat.
"Jackie is very definitely brunette," said Mississippi-born radio announcer Red Barber as Robinson and the rest of the Dodgers took the field behind lefty starter Joe Hatten, who quickly induced Braves leadoff hitter Dick Culler to ground to third baseman Spider Jorgenson, who was also making his big league debut. Jorgenson fired to Robinson at first base, "a simple catch, but the crowd expressed its delight as if they'd never seen anything quite like it," wrote Eig. After a scoreless half-inning and a groundout by Stanky, Robinson came to bat, greeted by a loud cheer, but the result of his historic first plate appearance was unremarkable: he slapped a sharp but nonetheless routine grounder to third baseman Bob Elliot, an easy out that nonetheless provoked more cheers. In the third inning, Robinson flew out to left field, and in the fifth, with the score tied 1-1 and runners on the corners, he hit a grounder on which Culler, the shortstop, made a sprawling stop, then while still on the ground flipped to second baseman Connie Ryan to start a 6-4-3 double play.
The Dodgers trailed 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh when Robinson got one more crack. Following a walk by Stanky, Robinson laid a perfectly placed sacrifice bunt down the first base line. Sain, catcher Phil Masi and first baseman Earl Torgeson converged; the latter, who was also making his debut, picked up the ball, but his rushed throw bounced off Robinson's right shoulder and into foul territory in rightfield. Stanky advanced to third and Robinson sped to second; both scored on Pete Reiser's double into the rightfield corner, giving the Dodgers a 4-3 lead in what became a 5-3 win.
While Robinson's debut was front-page news in black newspapers — Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American provided his readers with an inning-by-inning account of Robinson's play and even his seating choices in the dugouts (mostly next to Sukeforth) — it was Reiser's hit that took up headline space in the Times and Eagle. Robinson's role in the victory was acknowledged within the game stories, though both papers devoted about as much space to noting Durocher's absence. In his column, Daley called Robinson's debut "quite uneventful" while noting the positive impression he made as well as the impact of his speed in the fateful rally. He quoted an unnamed veteran Dodger as saying, "Having Jackie on the team is still a little strange, just like anything else that's new … Other sports have had Negroes. Why not baseball? I'm for him if he can win games. That's the only test I ask."
In the New York Post, Arch Murray noted Robinson in his third paragraph, writing, "Jackie Robinson, the first colored boy ever to don major-league flannels, started at first base and batted second for the Dodgers.” In the New York Daily News, Dick Young didn't mention Robinson until the final paragraph of his story, where he called him "the majors' most discussed rookie" without mentioning the history-making nature of his debut. “I wondered how I could have been so blind to the meaning of it all,” Young wrote later. “And then I remembered Robinson had not been a factor in the ballgame,”—apparently, using his speed and smarts to get on base and score the go-ahead run apparently did not count as factoring in Young’s eyes, even in hindsight—“and in those days we wrote what happened on the field. Period.” The Associated Press' Joe Reichler was more generous, noting in his daily roundup that Robinson "the first of his race to reach the majors since 1884, failed to get a hit in three official trips to the plate, but his sacrifice-error play in the seventh inning set up the subsequent tying and winning runs.”
For his part, Robinson told the New York Sun's Ward Morehouse, "I did all my thinking last night… I didn't want too much pressure. It was just another ball game and that's the way they're all going to be. If I make good—well, that will be perfectly wonderful. If I don't, my life won't be ruined." Robinson cited the support of his teammates and the Brooklyn crowd, and expressed confidence in his ability. "Will I hit? I hope I'll hit. I believe I'll hit. I'm sure I'll hit."
April 17: Braves at Dodgers, Ebbets Field
Rain postponed the follow-up to Robinson's debut for a day, and only 10,252 "shivered through 2 hours, 45 minutes of play" in the chilly weather, according to the Times. Robinson, again batting second, served as a bystander during the Dodgers’ three-run first-inning rally against starter Mort Cooper, flying out to centerfield in his first plate appearance. He walked in the second inning, his first official time on base, and came around to score on a sacrifice fly amid a four-run outburst. In the third inning, with the Dodgers up 7-2 and pitcher Kirby Higbe—another petitioner, and one who would soon be traded—on third base after a double and a sacrifice bunt, Robinson popped deep into foul territory, where Torgeson caught the ball; Higbe inexplicably tagged up and was out at the plate.
In the fifth inning, with the Dodgers now ahead 10-2, Robinson laid a perfect bunt down the third base line. Elliot, who would win NL MVP honors that year, tried in vain to barehand the ball, but it skidded away from him—still a clean hit, Robinson's first. He ended up being stranded on base then, and again in eighth after drawing a leadoff walk, but the Dodgers won going away, 12-6. The papers put Jorgenson in the spotlight for his three-hit, six-RBI day, with Robinson's hit getting a mention. "The Negro isn't exactly wearing the ball out," wrote Burr, "but he's still under heavy pressure."
April 18: Dodgers at Giants, Polo Grounds
Again, the Dodgers' managerial machinations overshadowed Robinson. After failing to persuade former Yankees pilot Joe McCarthy—who had won seven titles with the Bronx Bombers—to come out of retirement, Rickey settled on 62-year-old Burt Shotton, a longtime big league outfielder who had spent six years managing the Phillies, the last in 1933. Soft-spoken and insistent upon doing the job in civilian clothes, à la Connie Mack, Shotton was the antithesis of Durocher, but he would prove to be such an ally that Robinson later said, “I sure do like to play for that man.”
Shotton accepted the job just an hour before the Dodgers' game against the Giants in the Polo Grounds, and, in a lineup that was most likely made out by Sukeforth, kept Robinson at first abase and in the number two spot.
In front of 37,546 fans—many of them blacks from Harlem, some wearing "I'm for Jackie" lapel pins sold outside the ballpark—Robinson stepped to the plate in the first inning to thunderous applause. In a pregame interview with Eagle columnist Milt Smith that wouldn't be published until the following week, he had conceded some nerves: "When I step up to the plate my arms get tense and I don't swing freely. I'm so anxious I swing at bad balls and miss. I'm just too anxious to please." Robinson knew how to quell his anxiety: "I could get some hits. All I need is a good one to start me."
He soon got a good one. Though he flew out to centerfield against lefty Dave Koslo in the first inning, Robinson lined a shot off the upper deck scoreboard in leftfield for a third-inning solo home run, just the second by a Dodger in the young season. Power was not a major facet of Robinson’s game, but impeccable timing was; he had homered just three times with the Montreal Royals in 1946, but the first of those came in his organized baseball debut at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium—exactly a year to the day before his first big league homer.
The blow gave the Dodgers a 2-1 lead. While his fans cheered and hugged, Robinson rounded the bases quickly, neither smiling nor tipping his cap. He was greeted with a handshake at home plate by Tommy Tatum, a photograph of which ran on the back page of the Daily News the next day.
Robinson lined into a double play in the fifth inning and in the eighth he collected his second hit of the day, blooping a Koslo fastball into rightfield. Taking a wide turn at first base—soon to be a trademark—he drew an errant throw from rightfielder Willard Marshall, allowing him to take second, and came around the score but the Giants, who clubbed six home runs themselves, including two apiece by Bobby Thomson and Bill Rigney, went onto an easy 10-4 win.
April 19: Dodgers at Giants, Polo Grounds
Fueled by a strong turnout from Harlem, 52,355 fans—the largest Saturday afternoon crowd in NL history—packed into the Polo Grounds to see Robinson, who responded with another big day. In the first inning, he lined a single off the leg of pitcher Monte Kennedy, who had to walk it off in order to stay in the game (Robinson inquired about his wellbeing at the end of the inning), and in the third, he followed a Stanky walk by beating out an infield single to Mize, with both runners coming around to score.
Robinson's one-out, fourth-inning double off reliever Bill Voiselle gave him his first three-hit game, his first back-to-back multi-hit games, and five hits over his last six plate appearances—suddenly, he had become the team’s hottest hitter. Voiselle struck Robinson out looking in the sixth (his first time going down on strikes), and walked him with two outs in the eighth. He represented the go-ahead run, but Marshall hauled in Reiser’s long drive, and the Giants prevailed, 4-3.
After the game, Jackie and Rachel—who were living out of Manhattan's McAlpin Hotel, having not yet settled enough to find an apartment—dined near the Polo Grounds at the popular Bowman's Café and Grill in Sugar Hill. There, “cameras flashed, guests approached for autographs, and the proprietor pulled up a chair," according to Eig.
April 22: Phillies at Dodgers, Ebbets Field
After their two-game set in the Polo Grounds, the Dodgers traveled to Boston to play the Braves, but both games were snowed out, and Robinson spent most of his time cooped up in the Kenmore Hotel, briefly cheered up by a local baseball writer who found him sitting on the bed in a darkened room, “a lonely guy... it’s no fun to see a man fighting against odds that seem almost insurmountable.”
Robinson’s days darkened even further when the Dodgers returned to Brooklyn for a three-game set against the Phillies. On a cold day, Robinson was subjected to a torrent of racist taunts from Alabama-born Phillies manager Ben Chapman—who had built a long reputation as a troublemaker, particularly for anti-Semitic remarks—and the Phillies bench from the time he first stepped into the batter’s box. “At no time in my life have I heard racial venom and dugout abuse to match the abuse that Ben sprayed on Robinson,” wrote Dodgers traveling secretary Harold Parrot in his 1976 memoir, The Lords of Baseball. That day, “of all the unpleasant days in my life,” Robinson later wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had it Made, “brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been ... For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought, 'To hell with Mr. Rickey's noble experiment.'"
After flying out in his first two plate appearances, Robinson singled in the sixth and again to lead off the eighth, having just made an impressive backhand stab of a hot grounder in the top of the frame. Amid the abuse, Robinson again showed a knack for perfect timing, poking a fastball just past second base that both middle infielders watched drop, then taking second when catcher Andy Seminick couldn’t hold onto strike three to Reiser. The catcher’s late throw sailed into centerfield, and Robinson took third; officially, it was his first stolen base, plus an error. Two batters later, Robinson scored the game’s only run via a Hermanski single.
In the top of the ninth, Robinson was charged with his first error for his failure to glove a sharp grounder that moved the tying run to third base with two outs. Fortunately, a diving stop by shortstop Pee Wee Reese on on a ball just over second base—“Greatest play I ever saw,” said pitcher Hal Gregg, who had held the Phillies to one hit—took him off the hook. A relieved Robinson dashed across the infield to slap Reese on the back.
April 23: Phillies at Dodgers, Ebbets Field
The Phillies’ harsh treatment of Robinson didn’t make the daily newspapers, but it didn’t escape notice. Fans seated near the Phillies dugout wrote letters to commissioner Chandler, who would soon be driven to action, but in the meantime, the abuse from Chapman and the bench continued.
This time, it drew a response from Robinson’s teammates. Stanky shouted at Chapman from across the field, “Listen, you yellow-bellied cowards, why don’t you yell at somebody who can answer back?” Even Walker, an Alabama resident who was good friends with Chapman, was upset enough to tell his pal he had gone too far.
The Dodgers beat the Phillies, 5-2. Robinson figured in a pair of rallies that accounted for all of Brooklyn’s scoring, walking and coming around amid a three-run first inning, then bunting safely and scoring again in a two-run fourth.
April 24: Phillies at Dodgers, Ebbets Field
Chapman called in sick, leaving managerial duties to coach Benny Bengough. The Dodgers completed the three-game sweep by winning 2-0, with both runs driven in by Walker in the first inning. Robinson was one of them, reaching on an error when first baseman Frank McCormick bobbled the ball and pitcher Tommy Hughes failed to cover the bag. Still, Robinson went 0-for-4, his first hitless game since Opening Day. While he was hitting .346/.433/.500 and had scored four of the Dodgers’ seven runs in the three-game sweep, he had begun an 0-for-20 slump that would carry through the end of the month.
The race-baiting of Chapman and the Phillies soon came to light, as teammates told the press what had transpired. In the New York Daily Mirror, Dan Parker reminded readers of Chapman’s reputation for anti-Semitism and reported the abuse to which Robinson had been subjected. “Jackie, with admirable restraint, ignored the guttersnipe language coming form the Phils dugout, thus stamping himself as the only gentleman among those involved in the incident.”
Chapman defended the treatment that Robinson received by equating it with the bench jockeying to which players of various ethnicities and religions were routinely subjected, saying, “We will treat Robinson the same as we do Hank Greenberg of the Pirates, Clint Hartung of the Giants, Joe Garagiola of the Cardinals [and] Connie Ryan of the Braves.” Nonetheless, the team drew a reprimand from Chandler and Chapman was the subject of Walter Winchell’s Sunday night radio broadcast. Said Winchell, “Ballplayers who don’t want to be in the same ballpark with Robinson don’t belong in the same country!”
The series galvanized the Dodgers. As Rickey later recounted, Chapman "solidified and unified thirty men, not one of whom was wiling to sit by and see someone kick around a man who had his hands tied behind his back—Chapman made Jackie a real member of the Dodgers."
Sources: New York Times, Brooklyn Eagle, The Sporting News, Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, Harold Parrot’s The Lords of Baseball, Arnold Rampersand’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Jackie Robinson’s I Never Had it Made and Jules Tygiel’s Baseball's Great Experiment.