SI Vault
Jules Tygiel
June 20, 1983
When he signed Jackie Robinson in 1945 and set him on the path to Ebbets Field, Branch Rickey had changed the game forever
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June 20, 1983

Beyond The Point Of No Return

When he signed Jackie Robinson in 1945 and set him on the path to Ebbets Field, Branch Rickey had changed the game forever

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During the 1920s, '30s and '40s the opening day of the baseball season was a festive occasion in Jersey City, on the banks of the Passaic River in New Jersey. Each year Mayor Frank Hague closed the schools and municipal offices and required all city employees to purchase tickets, guaranteeing a sellout—and then some—at 25,000-seat Roosevelt Stadium for the hometown Giants of the International League.

On April 18, 1946 the air crackled with a special electricity. That day marked the start of the first minor league baseball season since the end of the war. But this didn't fully account for the added tension and excitement. Nor could it explain why people from nearby New York City had arrived via the Hudson tubes for the event. Others had come from Philadelphia, Baltimore and beyond. Most striking was the large number of blacks in the crowd, many undoubtedly attending a minor league game for the first time. The focus of their attention was a handsome, broad-shouldered athlete in the uniform of the visiting Montreal Royals. When he batted in the first inning, he would be the first black man in the 20th century to play in Organized Baseball. Jackie Robinson was about to shatter the color barrier.

"This in a way is another Emancipation Day for the Negro race," wrote Baz O'Meara of The Montreal Daily Star. "A day that Abe Lincoln would like." Wendell Smith, the black sportswriter for The Pittsburgh Courier who had recommended Robinson to Brooklyn Dodger President Branch Rickey, reported, "And everyone sensed the significance of the occasion as Robinson...marched with the Montreal team to deep centerfield for the raising of the Stars and Stripes and the [playing of the] Star-Spangled Banner.... We sang lustily and freely, for this was a great day." Robinson participated in the ceremonies "with a lump in my throat, and my heart beating rapidly, my stomach feeling as if it were full of feverish fireflies with claws on their feet."

Six months had passed since Rickey had surprised the nation by signing Robinson to play for the Dodgers' top farm club. It had been a period of intense speculation about the wisdom of Rickey's action. Many observers predicted that the effort to integrate baseball would prove abortive, would be undermined by opposition from players and fans or by Robinson's own inadequacies as a player. Renowned as a four sport star at UCLA, Robinson had played only one season in professional baseball, with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Upon Robinson's husky, inexperienced shoulders rested the fate of the game's desegregation.

And the 27-year-old Robinson's performance in spring training didn't bode well. Compelled to endure the indignities of the Jim Crow South, barred by racism from many ball parks and plagued by a sore arm, Robinson had done poorly in exhibition games. One reporter suggested that had Robinson been white the Royals would have dropped him immediately. And whites weren't the only doubters. Jim Semler, owner of the New York Black Yankees, commented before the opener, "[The] pace in the International League is very fast.... I doubt that [Robinson] will hit the kind of pitching they'll be dishing up to him." And Negro league veteran Willie Wells predicted, "It's going to take him a couple of months to get used to the International League pitching."

Robinson, the second Montreal batter, waited anxiously as Boss Hague threw out the first ball and leadoff hitter Marvin Rackley advanced to the plate. Rackley, a speedy centerfielder from South Carolina, grounded out to the shortstop. Robinson then strode to the batter's box, his pigeon-toed gait making him seem all the more nervous.

There had been speculation about what the crowd's reaction to Robinson would be. William Nunn of the Courier watched from the press box to see "whether the fears [that perhaps Robinson wasn't good enough] which had been so often expressed...were real or imagined." Robinson's wife, Rachel, wandered through the aisles, too nervous to remain in her seat. "You worry more when you're not participating than when you are participating," she later explained. "So I carried the anxiety for Jack." Standing at home plate, Robinson avoided looking at the spectators, "for fear I would see only Negroes applauding—that the white fans would be sitting stony-faced or yelling epithets." The crowd responded with a polite welcome.

For five pitches Robinson did not swing, and the count ran to 3 and 2. On the next pitch he hit a bouncing ball to Shortstop Jaime Almendro, who easily retired him at first base. Robinson returned to the dugout, accompanied by another round of applause. He had broken the ice.

Robinson, who was playing second base, came to bat again in the third inning. With two men on base and nobody out, the Giants expected Robinson, already recognized as a master bunter, to sacrifice, but he didn't. According to Smith, the crowd heard "an explosive 'crack' as bat and ball met.... The ball glistened brilliantly in the afternoon sun as it went hurtling high and far over the leftfield fence," 330 feet away. In his second at bat in the International League, Robinson had hit a three-run homer.

Robinson trotted around the bases with a broad smile on his face. As he rounded third. Manager Clay Hopper, the Mississippian who reportedly had begged Rickey not to put Robinson on his team, gave him a pat on the back. All the players in the dugout rose to greet him, and John Wright, the black pitcher who was recruited to room with Robinson, laughed in delight. In the crowded press box Smith turned to Joe Bostic of The People's Voice, and the two black reporters, according to Smith, "laughed and smiled.... Our hearts beat just a little faster, and the thrill ran through us like champagne bubbles."

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