The on-deck hitter, 21-year-old leftfielder George Shuba, shook Robinson's hand as he crossed home plate. Shuba, who now lives in Youngstown, Ohio, remembers the moment vividly. "You could see it in his face, how happy he was," says Shuba, who went on to become a Dodger teammate of Robinson's. "You could see he was just overwhelmed with joy."
Robinson did not hit another home run until July 21, and he connected for only three all season. But in that opening game he showed the many ways he could beat you. In the fifth inning Robinson got a bunt single, stole second, went to third on a groundout and scored after causing the pitcher to balk. In the seventh he singled, stole second again and scored on a triple. In the eighth he bunted his way on, raced all the way to third on an infield hit and drew another balk to score. Robinson had four hits, scored four runs, drove in three and had two steals in Montreal's 14-1 victory. "I couldn't have dreamed up a better start," he said.
"He did everything but help the ushers seat the crowd," wrote Joe Bostic of the Amsterdam News. Another newspaper captured the event simply but eloquently in a headline: JIM CROW DIES AT SECOND.
Four other black players got their start in organized baseball that season. Catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe starred for the Dodgers' Class B team in Nashua, N.H. Campanella led the team with 14 home runs and 96 RBIs, Newcombe had a 14-4 record with a 2.21 ERA, and both players went on to become National League MVPs with the Dodgers. In addition, Wright and another pitcher, Roy Partlow, saw limited action with Montreal before settling in at the Class C level.
But all eyes were on Robinson, who went on to lead the International League in batting (.349), runs scored (113) and fielding percentage (.985). Robinson also stole 40 bases and drove in 66 runs. The numbers were even more impressive considering that Robinson missed 30 games due to injuries, the result, in part, of being hit frequently by pitches and getting spiked at second base. Montreal set a league attendance mark, won the pennant by 19½ games and coasted to a victory over the American Association's Louisville Colonels in the Little World Series.
After the final victory, in Montreal, Robinson was surrounded by adoring French-Canadian fans, who lifted him to their shoulders. The fans pursued him even as he tried to leave the ballpark, inspiring one writer's oft-quoted observation that it was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob because the crowd had love, instead of lynching, on its mind.
The next season, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his first appearance in the major leagues, going hitless at Ebbets Field. But he wound up hitting .297 with 125 runs and a league-leading 29 stolen bases; had a .989 fielding percentage; and The Sporting News named him Rookie of the Year. Two seasons later the Baseball Writers Association of America voted him National League MVP, and in 1962 the writers voted him into the Hall of Fame.
But it all started with that three-run clout 50 years ago. "It was the exclamation point, that home run," says Shuba. "It was the knockout punch."