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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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In the middle of the cool, drizzly afternoon of Sunday, May 25, 1947, as the Brooklyn Dodgers led the Philadelphia Phillies 4-3 in the eighth inning, Jackie Robinson ground his spikes into the rain-softened dirt of the batter's box at Ebbets Field, turned to face Phillies reliever Tommy Hughes and waited for Hughes's 3-and-1 cripple.

Forty days had passed since Robinson donned a Dodgers uniform and became the first black man in this century to play in the majors, going 0 for 3 in his debut at Ebbets on April 15. In recent games the 28-year-old rookie had begun to evince signs of settling down and playing the crisp, commanding brand of ball that Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' president, had predicted of him. "You haven't seen the real Robinson yet," Rickey had been telling writers all spring. "Just wait."

Through his first 30 big league games, played in six National League cities, the rookie had alternately struggled and soared, at times performing brilliantly at first base (a position new to him that year) but often pressing at the plate. Of course, Robinson had also been the target of racial epithets and flying cleats, of hate letters and death threats, of pitchers throwing at his head and legs, and catchers spitting on his shoes. In the midst of all this bristling animus, there was a circuslike quality to Dodgers games, with Robinson on display like a freak; with large crowds, including many blacks, lustily cheering even his dinkiest pop-ups; and with the daily papers singling him out as the "black meteor," the "sepia speedster," the "stellar Negro," the "muscular Negro," the "lithe Negro" and "dusky Robbie."

"More eyes were on Jackie than on any rookie who ever played," recalls Rex Barney, a Brooklyn reliever that year. It was a wonder, as he endured the mounting pressure of his first weeks in the bigs, that Robinson could perform at all. Yet perform he did, putting together a 14-game hitting streak in the first 2½ weeks of May. By May 25, with the first extended road trip behind him and the novelty of his presence on the wane, Robinson was sensing what he later called a "new confidence" in his game. As he took the field that day against the Phillies—who, led by their Southern-born manager, Ben Chapman, had lacerated him with taunts of "nigger" and "black boy" from the dugout during their first series in April—Robinson had begun to feel, as he would put it, "some of the old power returning."

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.

"Right now Jackie Robinson doesn't shape up as a first baseman," wrote Pat Lynch of the New York Journal American. "His weak hitting is something the shrewd assayers of baseball talent have been on to all along."

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