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A new era dawns

Tensions mounted for Robinson on historic day

Posted: Friday April 13, 2007 2:35PM; Updated: Friday April 13, 2007 4:05PM
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Teammates (from left) John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese and Ed Stanky line up with Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947.
Teammates (from left) John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese and Ed Stanky line up with Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947.
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For most of us who didn't live through Jackie Robinson's first day in the major leagues, black and white images have embedded it in our memories. A stark snapshot of Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers cap, or frames of newsreel footage showing him running the bases.

According to Jonathan Eig's new book, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season, when Robinson awoke early that day at Manhattan's McAlpin Hotel, the sight before him, his wife, [Rachel], and five-month-old son, Jack, Jr., was vivid and suggested anything but the historic day that was upon him.

"The room was a mess, with diapers drying on the shower rod, baby bottles sitting on the bathroom sink, and a small, electric stove perched precariously atop one of their trunks on the floor," Eig wrote. "Silverware and dishes were often shoved under the bed, out of sight, in case a newspaper reporter dropped by. Though [Dodger general manager] Branch Rickey had tried to think of everything, it would appear he hadn't given much consideration to the Robinsons' living arrangements, which were growing more difficult by the day."

Outside in the morning chill -- eventually the temperature would rise to the 60s, but the low was 42 -- the city's denizens picked up their newspapers. Robinson's debut wasn't front- or back-page news in the New York Daily News. But The New York Times readers that day read the following by Arthur Daley, a small piece that painted a picture of pressure that lie ahead for Robinson.

"Robinson almost has to be another DiMaggio in making good from the opening whistle," Daley wrote. "It's not fair to him, but no one can do anything about it but himself. Pioneers never had it easy and Robinson, perforce, is a pioneer. His spectacular season in the International League is no guarantee that he'll click just as sensationally in the Big Time. Too many minor-league phenomenons have failed for this to be a guide line. It's his burden to carry from now on and he must carry it alone."

Around 9 a.m., dressed in a suit and tie and camelhair coat, Robinson kissed Rachel goodbye. And then, in a moment that smacks of pure cinema, Eig wrote that he told her, "Just in case you have trouble picking me out I'll be wearing number forty-two." Rachel would later tell Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News that she "felt the way a parent feels when the youngest child goes off to school: protective, wanting to give advice, wanting to go along to soften the blows."

It was a crisp day, as Robinson's overcoat suggested, though there were different recollections of the weather. Eig wrote that April 15 was "a perfect day for baseball, with blue skies, a soft breeze and just enough chill in the air to remind fans that a long season of baseball lay ahead." In Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad called the weather "bitingly cold." In Baseball: An Illustrated History, the text by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns accompanying Burns' multipart PBS documentary, had Rachel remembering "a cold, rainy afternoon." Maybe the world was spinning too fast for anyone to get a bead on the weather.

Robinson quietly walked into the clubhouse. "A few teammates nodded at him," Eig wrote. "Ralph Branca and Gene Hermanski came over and shook his hand, saying they were happy to have him on the team. Robinson grinned but didn't say anything. The rest of the Dodgers ignored him. As Robinson sat on a folding chair and began to get undressed, reporters lobbed a few easy questions. He smiled and answered briefly. The Dodgers had not yet assigned him a locker, so he found his uniform hanging on a hook attached to a bare wall. He took off his suit, hung it on the hook, and began putting on his uniform, a white undershirt and long blue socks beneath crisp white jersey and pants."

By this time, baseball fans were on their way to Ebbets Field. Today, you could find millions of people who would pay an exorbitant price to attend such a historic event, but on April 15, 1947, the Dodgers-Boston Braves game was not a sellout.

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