SI Flashback: The Breakthrough (cont.)
Posted: Wednesday April 11, 2007 4:25PM; Updated: Thursday April 12, 2007 11:51AM
In the fourth inning, with the Dodgers down 2-0 and their shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, on first, Robinson lashed a single to right center off Phillies starter Dick Mauney. Moments later Reese and Robinson raced home when Dodgers centerfielder Pistol Pete Reiser crashed a double off the left-centerfield wall. Two innings after that, with Reese again on first and Hughes now pitching, Robinson reached for a fastball and lined a single to left. Reese later scored when Hughes balked him home from third.
Having been at the center of the rallies that gave Brooklyn that tenuous one-run lead in the eighth, Robinson now dug in against Hughes and worked the count to 3 and 1. Hughes delivered a fastball high in the strike zone, fat as a melon, and Robinson turned all his 195 pounds into it, striking the ball harder than he had struck one all spring. Dick Young, the Dodgers' beat reporter for the New York Daily News, mixed jazz with golf in search of a simile to describe the blast, rhapsodizing that the ball left home plate "like something out of Louis Armstrong's trumpet. It started on a low line, took off suddenly like a golf drive and zoomed far back into the lower leftfield deck."
The Dodgers won 5-3, and contemporary accounts viewed the game as Robinson's breakthrough in that young season, fulfilling Rickey's prophesy that when the real Robinson at last arrived, he would be worth all the waiting. No one on that afternoon in May appeared more relieved than Burt Shotton, the Dodgers' manager. "He has finally become relaxed and is playing the kind of ball that earned him his major league chance," Shotton said. "Until today we just couldn't get him to take a normal cut at the cripples they were getting him out on. Time after time we gave him signals to hit the 3-and-1 pitch, but very often he didn't even swing. Guess he had too much on his mind."
Despite all he had on his mind, despite all he had endured during the early days of that long season, it had grown clear by mid-May that Robinson, even a struggling Robinson, was in the Brooklyn lineup to stay. "The guy just had too much talent," says Reese, "and too much guts." Indeed, Robinson had won over teammates and opponents alike during his 14-game hitting streak, which was all the more impressive because it was a direct response to a horrible slump that would have finished lesser men in his situation.
As Robinson nursed an old college football injury to his right shoulder, he went 0 for 20 between April 23 and April 30, which dropped his average from .444 to .225 and prompted talk that he ought to be benched. "He should be given a rest in view of his ailing right arm and slump-pressing at the plate," Young wrote in the May 1 Daily News, "but the Dodger powers appear reluctant to bench him for attendance and possible public relations reasons." Young was not sympathetic to Robinson in those days, and he wasn't the only doubter among baseball writers.
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