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The Breakthrough
William Nack
May 05, 1997
Fifty years ago, over fourteen games in may, Jackie Robinson erased any doubt that he belonged in the majors, clearing the path for other black players
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May 05, 1997

The Breakthrough

Fifty years ago, over fourteen games in may, Jackie Robinson erased any doubt that he belonged in the majors, clearing the path for other black players

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On May 11 the Dodgers dropped both ends of a Sunday doubleheader at Shibe, but Robinson's single in the opener ran his hitting streak to seven games, and another single in the second game gave him eight in a row. By then the Phillies' dugout was no longer riding Robinson with racially abusive language—Frick and baseball commissioner Happy Chandler had warned sternly against it, telling the players to keep their jibes "above the belt"—and Dodgers second baseman Eddie Stanky, unable to resist, was needling the Phillies for the tameness of their taunts.

"That's right," Stanky yelled from the dugout. "Talk to him nice, you guys!"

Robinson tried to ignore the black cat that a spectator turned loose on the field before the first game, and at Rickey's urging he had reluctantly posed for the cameras with his chief tormentor, Chapman. The Philly manager had come under widespread criticism for the vulgar, biting slurs with which he and his men had attacked Robinson in April, and his job was in jeopardy.

For Chapman's pitchers, however, Robinson remained a target. Ken Raffensberger, a Philly starter at the time, remembers a pitchers' meeting that Chapman called early in the '47 season. "He told us that if we got two strikes on [Robinson] early [in the count] and didn't throw at him or knock him down, it's a $50 fine. That was just for Robinson. I told Chapman, 'I've never thrown at anybody in my life, and I'm not starting now.' I avoided the fine by not throwing strikes to him on my first pitches."

Robinson was a source of controversy everywhere. Chapman got the thumb in the second game of the May 11 double-header over an incident involving the rookie. Robinson, attempting to bunt, got hit in the stomach with the ball, and umpire George Barr waved him to first. Chapman came hurtling out of the dugout in protest, arguing that Robinson had left the box and had been hit as he crossed the plate. "Barr refused to concur," wrote Young in the Daily News, "and many fans shouted accusations from the stands to the effect that the ump might be a little short on the courage necessary to make such a decision."

Robinson was at the center of a maelstrom in the national pastime, performing under burdens never carried by another ballplayer, but he had promised Rickey that he would not fight back for at least two years. He endured the most humiliating treatment with a poised and gentlemanly grace. Throughout the season he wrote a column for The Pittsburgh Courier, a black weekly, and while he was seething within, those columns read like the letters that soldiers at the front send home to their anxious mothers, avoiding any hint of the conflict in their midst.

"I've been a pretty busy fellow the past week," began one column in mid-May. "Between trying to play big league baseball and answering all kinds of questions about alleged strikes and threatening letters, I haven't had much time to do anything else. However, as things are going now, I guess I haven't anything to worry about." Oh, yes, there was that heckling he took from Chapman and his boys at Ebbets Field, but he and Chapman had smiled together for the cameras. "Chapman impressed me as a nice fellow," Robinson wrote, "and I don't think he really meant the things he was shouting at me the first time we played Philadelphia." And, gee, those threatening letters? "I admit that I've received some, but by the way they were written I would say they're from scatterbrained people who just want something to yelp about."

Back home on May 12, in an 8-3 win over the Boston Braves, Robinson was all over the box score, and writers began to note the number of games in which he had hit safely. Wrote Goren, "He singled in the second to run his hitting streak to nine games. He was hit by a pitched ball, walked and sacrificed. He stole two bases. It was the first real exhibition of his speed. Robinson now has scored 20 runs. He leads the league."

Robinson would steal 29 bases in 1947, tops in the National League, but he was hesitant on the base paths at first, taking short leads off the bag, and he did not really start galloping until mid-May. But even before that, his skill and quickness made him a disruptive force when he got on base. Against the Braves on May 12, according to Roscoe McGowen of The New York Times, "Robinson's skill on the bases helped set up the first two runs of the game. Jackie came so far off third on [Dixie] Walker's grounder to [first baseman Earl] Torgeson that he drew the throw, with the result that everybody was safe."

"In all my 53 years in baseball, Jackie was the best base runner I've ever seen," says King, the Dodgers pitcher who went on to manage in the big leagues and is now a New York Yankees scout. "I'm not talking about base stealing or speed on the bases but instinct. It was there that first spring training. I'll never forget how he would be on first base, and there would be a base hit to leftfield, and he'd take a big turn around second, and the leftfielder would throw behind him into second. He'd keep going and trot into third. It took time around the league before the leftfielders realized that Jackie was suckering them. We'd sit on the bench and just laugh."

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