Say what you will about the dramatic home runs hit by Babe Ruth, Bobby Thomson and Bill Mazeroski. Praise the thrilling shots hit by Carlton Fisk, Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter. But perhaps the most significant home run in baseball history was struck 50 years ago, on April 18, 1946, by Jackie Robinson, when he made his regular-season debut in organized baseball and served notice that he was the right man to break the sport's color barrier.
Six months earlier the International League's Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers' top farm club, had called a press conference, promising an announcement that would affect baseball "from coast to coast." There was speculation that Ruth might be named the Royals manager or perhaps Montreal was going to get a big league franchise. Instead there was this stunning development: Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey had signed Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a 26-year-old shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League and assigned him to the Royals.
A grandson of a slave and a son of a sharecropper, Robinson was a multisport star at UCLA and was touted as the best all-around athlete on the West Coast. He was a two-time conference scoring champion in basketball and averaged 11 yards per carry as a junior running back. He won the conference golf championship and reached the semifinals of the national Negro tennis tournament. In 1940 he won the NCAA broad jump title. One writer, Vincent X. Flaherty, called Robinson "the Jim Thorpe of his race."
After he spent three years in the Army, during which he attained the rank of first lieutenant, Robinson batted .387 in 47 games with the Monarchs and drew raves from Dodgers scouts not only for his outstanding play on the field but also for his poise and mature demeanor off it. All of which persuaded Rickey to choose Robinson as the standard-bearer for African-American ballplayers.
The pressure on Robinson to succeed was enormous from the start. Many observers expected Robinson to fail miserably. Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News, an outspoken proponent for the integration of baseball, nevertheless called Robinson "a 1,000:1 shot to make the grade." The Sporting News predicted that "the waters of competition in the International League will flood far over his head." Some blacks, including some Negro leagues players, expressed the fear that Rickey had chosen Robinson because he lacked the talent to prevail, thereby proving black players didn't belong in the major leagues.
But Robinson did not consider failure an option. As African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith wrote on Dec. 29, 1945, in the Pittsburgh Courier, Robinson had "the hopes, aspirations and ambitions of 13 million black Americans heaped upon his broad, sturdy shoulders."
Rickey had picked Montreal, a city largely free of racial discrimination, as Robinson's home base. But Robinson still had to endure Jim Crow behavior during spring training in Florida, where city ordinances prohibiting the mixing of races were cited as reasons to cancel games involving the Royals. This was eight years before Brown v. Board of Education and nearly two decades before the first Civil Rights Act.
When Robinson, who had been moved to second base, had a poor spring training, it provided more ammunition for his detractors. "Jackie couldn't perform well that spring because the pressure was unbearable," his wife, Rachel, later recalled. He was trying too hard. He was overswinging, he couldn't sleep, and he had difficulty concentrating. But he still won a spot in the starting lineup, as did John Wright, a 27-year-old African-American pitcher who had been signed in February to room with Robinson.
On Opening Day in 1946, at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, a sellout crowd of 52,000 came to witness what one sportswriter described as "another Emancipation Day." Montreal versus the Jersey Giants. Rachel roamed the stands, too nervous to sit still, while her husband avoided looking at the crowd, as he explained later, "for fear I would see only Negroes applauding."
Robinson was the second batter of the game. He looked at lefthander Warren Sandell's first five pitches for a full count, and then grounded out to the shortstop. But in his second at bat, with Sandell still pitching and two runners on base in the third inning, Robinson ripped a letter-high fastball and sent it soaring into the leftfield stands. He circled the bases with a wide smile, passing his Mississippi-born manager, Clay Hopper, as he rounded third. Just weeks earlier Hopper had begged for Robinson to be sent to another team, reportedly asking Rickey, "Do you really think a nigger's a human being?" As Robinson ran by, Hopper gave him a pat on the back.