Sports

Karl Lindholm: Jackie Robinson’s barrier-breaking opening days

AT THE ENTRANCE of Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Fla., is this statue of Jackie and kids by Montreal sculptor Jules LaSalle. Independent photo/Karl Lindholm

It’s a good thing the baseball bigwigs ended their bickering this spring when they did.

Otherwise Major League Baseball might have had to forgo this year’s celebration of Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, the 75th anniversary of his integration of the MLB back on Opening Day, 1947. That would have been unfortunate indeed.

I am just back from Florida, having decided on the spur of the moment to shake off some pandemic rust and offset the doldrums of March in Vermont to watch some baseball and visit old pals there in a warm clime.

I happily took in five Middlebury College games on the team’s spring trip to central Florida, and then caught a couple of Major League games, including a 4-3 Red Sox win at Jet Blue Stadium in Fort Myers.

On this trip, I had my own Jackie Robinson Day: I visited the site in Daytona Beach where Jackie integrated organized baseball a year before the baseball holiday we celebrate now each April 15th.

On Sunday, March 17, 1946, Jackie stepped to the plate for the Montreal Royals in a spring training game at Daytona Beach’s City Island Park against the big club, the Dodgers, the first time a Black player had worn the uniform of an organized professional (white) baseball team in a game in nearly 60 years, since the color line had been drawn in 1887.

BROOKLYN DODGER GAMES in Jackie Robinson’s first spring training for the Dodgers in 1946 were played in Daytona Beach, Fl., at City Island Park, pictured in this 1940s photo. Renovated many times, the ballpark was named Jackie Robinson Memorial Park in 1990 and was added to the National Register of Historical places in 1998.

Over 4,000 people came to that intra-squad game, overwhelming the small park’s capacity.  The Jim Crow section overflowed with Black spectators, who paraded from church to the park that Sunday.

For years, the baseball establishment had feared that Black players would chase away white fans, or that there would be racial violence in the stands. This early test belied those fears, as both white and Black fans applauded when Jackie came to the plate or made a play at second base in the field (Black fans did so with enormous gusto!).

City Island Park was built in 1914 and has been renovated many times, most recently in 1999. It’s a beautiful small park, now called “Jackie Robinson Ballpark,” and is home to the Daytona Tortugas, an A team of the Cincinnati Reds. Jackie’s life and career are well represented by images and displays throughout the park and grounds.

On my side trip to Daytona Beach, a game was being played at Jackie Robinson Ballpark (“the Jack”) between two Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Bethune-Cookman and Alabama State universities. This was fitting, as the leading Black citizen of Daytona Beach when the Dodgers trained there in 1946 was Mary McLeod Bethune, an eminent Black educator (friend of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt), women’s rights advocate, founder of Bethune-Cookman.

The Dodgers were training in Daytona Beach in 1946 because of its reputation as a relatively tolerant place in solidly segregated Florida. That relative tolerance was largely borne out there, but was hardly so in other Florida cities in Jackie’s first spring training. (The next year they trained in more racially mixed Cuba.)

JACKIE ROBINSON BALLPARK is on the site of Jackie’s first spring training game in Daytona Beach, Fla., in March of 1946. Renovated many times, the ballpark was named Jackie Robinson Memorial Park in 1990 and was added to the National Register of Historical places in 1998.

Jackie had a coterie of immediate Black supporters: Rachel, his wife of just a few weeks, journalists Wendell Smith (Pittsburgh Courier), Sam Lacy and Billy Rowe (Baltimore Afro-American), and fellow player, pitcher John Wright, who lived and dined in the homes of Black residents, while the scores of white players in camp had the run of Daytona Beach’s hotels, restaurants, and other public venues.

Johnny Wright deserves better than just footnote status in the baseball integration drama. When he is mentioned at all, it is as a companion to Jackie, a black teammate. In fact, Wright was a solid Negro League pitcher for the Homestead Grays. He did not pitch well for Montreal in ’46, was released, and played for several more years in the declining Negro Leagues and Latin America. Because of his position, pitcher, the pressure on him was enormous.

Because of the glut of ballplayers returning from the war in 1946, the Dodgers AAA teams, Montreal and St. Paul (Minn.), were training in Sanford, 40 miles from Daytona Beach. Jackie and Rachel and friends did not spend even a night there because of credible threats to their safety: Wendell Smith was told by a white townsman to “get those n——s out of town by nightfall,” or there would be “trouble.”

Spring training games in City Island Park went off without a hitch. However, games scheduled in Jacksonville against the Jersey City Giants and Deland against the Indianapolis Indians were canceled as Jim Crow prevailed. In a Montreal-St. Paul game in Sanford on April 7, Jackie singled and later scored in the first inning. On his way to the dugout, a police officer appeared to escort him and Johnny Wright off the premises, citing the “law” prohibiting whites and Blacks playing on the same field.

JACKIE ROBINSON BALLPARK in Daytona Beach is the home now of the Daytona Tortugas, a single A farm team of the Cincinnati Reds. It is also a Jackie Robinson Museum as his life and career are documented by images and displays throughout the grounds.
Independent photo/Karl Lindholm

As Chris Lamb wrote in his excellent study, “Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training,” “For Robinson and Wright, their second visit to Sanford was as humiliating as their first.”

Later that spring, on April 18, 1946, Jackie crossed the color line in an official minor league game when his Montreal Royals routed the Jersey City Giants, 14-1, before 52,000 fans in Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium.

In that game, Jackie went 4-5 with a three-run homer, scored four runs, had four RBIs, and stole two bases. For the season he batted .349 and the Royals finished in first place in the International League by 18½ games and Jackie was the toast of the town.

Baseball’s integration story has many chapters, many heroes, and all too many victims. Jackie represents, individually, the cumulative struggles of all those stalwarts who went before him, and indeed followed him, as the game, and American society, tentatively opened up to the idea of an integrated world.

So baseball fans, enjoy Jackie Robinson Day tomorrow when all Major League players wear Jackie’s number 42. Tip your cap, raise a glass, or say a prayer for the brave man Martin Luther King Jr. celebrated with these words in 1962:

“He underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes from being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

————

Karl Lindholm, Ph.D., is the Emeritus Dean of Advising at Middlebury College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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