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Ending Jim Crow in the Preseason:
The Heroic Spring Struggles of Jackie Robinson,
Roy Campanella, and Others

In the second part of his series of integrating baseball’s spring training, Dickson discusses the obstacles of a segregated Florida.

By Paul Dickson, February 9, 2018
Jackie Robinson receiving the MVP award from Ford Frick in 1950. He won the award for the 1949 season. Robinson made himself the most exciting player to watch on the field.

In the spring of 1946 Jackie Robinson was trying to become the first black player in the twentieth century to make the roster of a Major League baseball team. He had signed with the Montreal Royals the previous fall, and over the winter the Royals had also signed 27-year-old Johnny Wright, a right-hander with the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues. Both men were invited to Florida to train with the Royals and play in exhibition games against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Royals were a Brooklyn Dodgers AAA team, as of 1946 a designation reserved for a team’s top minor league club or clubs.

During the trip from Los Angeles to Florida the Robinsons were denied entry to segregated restaurants and hotels and were twice bumped from planes only to be replaced with white passengers. At one point, Robinson was ordered to the back of a Greyhound bus by the driver who called him “boy.”

By the time Robinson reached Sanford, Florida, the spring training site of the Montreal club, on March 4, 1946, he considered walking away from the challenge that lay in waiting, but two journalists, Wendell Smith and Billy Rowe, working for the black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, convinced him that he had to endure certain indignities so other African-Americans could have opportunities that were now closed to them.

The courage to go on was significant. As Chris Lamb, author of Blackout—The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s first Spring Training, put it: “Never before — and never since — in American sports has so much been riding on an athlete, in surroundings so hostile as Robinson found himself in Florida, where segregation was legal and brutally enforced, and where blacks who challenged discrimination were often jailed, beaten or murdered. At least nine blacks were lynched in 1946 and more than 20 others were rescued from angry mobs.”[1]

Wendell Smith had been hired by Rickey to find appropriate housing with a black family for the Robinsons, Wright, and the black reporters following them.

Robinson and Wright joined their teammates at the Sanford ballpark for the first two days of spring training. But, on the evening of the second day, a white man drove to the home in which Robinson and Wright were staying and warned Smith, who was sitting on the porch, that a white mob was ready to run the black players out of town.[2]

At this point Rickey moved the Robinsons, Wright, and the black newspapermen to Daytona Beach where the Dodgers were located and where they boarded with another African-American family.

Johnny Wright was hired by the Dodgers so Robinson wouldn’t be the only black player on the team.

On March 17, Robinson was penciled into the Montreal starting lineup for an afternoon game against the Dodgers in downtown Daytona Beach. As was the custom, black journalists were denied press credentials and were forced into a special section down the right-field line more than 100 feet from home plate. Photographer Rowe was therefore at a disadvantage in trying to document this special day. Leo Durocher spotted him, and so all could hear, he invited him down to the dugout to get a proper picture of Robinson. As Rowe began to walk across the field, someone in the white section of the segregated bleachers yelled, “Get that n---r out of there!”

Rowe froze, but Durocher motioned for him to keep walking. Rowe got his pictures, and Durocher went to the ballpark officials and demanded the removal of the spectator. Moments later, a man was escorted from the ballpark. “I don’t know if it was the right guy or not, but they made somebody leave,” Rowe remembered with a smile some years later.[3]

Robinson failed at the plate that first day, but Durocher was the first to come to his defense. “Although Robinson didn’t get a hit today, he looked like a real ballplayer out there,” he told Wendell Smith of the Courier. “Don’t forget he was under terrific pressure. He was cast in the middle of a situation that neither he nor the fans had ever experienced before. But he came through it like a champion. He’s a ballplayer.”[4]

Although Daytona Beach was strictly segregated, Robinson and Wright had no other issues in that town, but that was not true on the road. Robinson and Wright were excluded from play elsewhere in Florida. When the Royals arrived for a game in Jacksonville the stadium was padlocked. Deland, Florida, canceled a game because it said the park’s lights were out of order— even though the game was to be played in the early afternoon. When the Montreal team later returned for a game in Sanford, Robinson was escorted off the field by the police chief.

At the end of spring training, the issue of returning to Daytona Beach the following spring was broached. In a clear allusion to his inability to house and feed black and white players under the same hotel roof, Durocher told the Daytona Beach Evening News that he was opposed to a return to the city because he did not like having his players spread all over the place. “I like to keep my eye on my players at night,” he said. “They’re down here to train and it’s my business to see that they behave themselves and stay in shape.”[5]

So, the following spring when the Dodgers and the Royals went to Cuba (where they had also trained in 1941 and 1942) for spring training 1947, Robinson expected, as he later wrote, that a “country of non-whites” would not replicate Florida’s “racist atmosphere.” But he was furious to discover that while white Dodgers stayed in the luxurious waterfront Hotel Nacional and while white Royals stayed at a new military school, he and his black teammates—Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Roy Partlow—would bunk at what the New York Sun called the “musty, third-rated” Hotel Boston. Rickey later confessed to Robinson that he had asked for the segregated rooms, explaining, “I can’t afford to take a chance and have a single incident occur.”

But there was still a final indignity facing Robinson. All but invisible at this point, Robinson got into his first game in a Montreal uniform against the Brooklyn “B” squad on March 13, in Cuba, and then it was off to Panama for a series of exhibitions with locals and then with the Dodgers. Initially, the plan had been to take Robinson to Panama where he would play for the Panama national team against the Dodgers, but this plan was abandoned. Then it was decided to keep the Montreal team in Havana while the Dodgers—with Robinson in tow—were in Panama. The reason the Dodgers went to Panama was to play a series of 14 exhibition games against army teams, local teams, and their Montreal farm club, which would come over to Panama a few days later—and get a chance to see Robinson in action.

All of the Dodgers and Royals were housed inside the Canal Zone, which was then still part of the United States and as such was administered under an ad hoc Jim Crow umbrella. Robinson and Campanella had to sleep outside the zone in Panama City, where there was no segregation to speak of. After Robinson arrived in Panama, all of the games were played in the Canal Zone. As Tommy Holmes of the Eagle put it, Robinson had gotten a far better break in Florida than he was getting in a territory under control of the U.S. federal government. In Florida, he at least knew the rules and got to bed and board with local families. Here he was exiled—literally forced to leave the United States—to find a bed. This put added pressure on him and fueled the anger he had already expressed over his living conditions in Havana.

By 1948, with Robinson now a full-fledged Brooklyn Dodger, Rickey and fellow part-owner Walter O’Malley opted to confront the spring training problem head-on by taking over a decommissioned naval air station in Vero Beach, which soon became a national baseball landmark called Dodgertown and was from the outset totally integrated.

The struggle to integrate the Grapefruit League was long and arduous with many setbacks to come, but by the time President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated public accommodations throughout the United States, every Major League squad that trained in Florida was allowed to take the field and lodge its black and white players under the same roof.

Source: Thomas Hawk on Flickr
https://creativecommons.org/license/by/2.0/



[1] Chris Lamb, “Robinson Made History in Florida Before He Made History in Brooklyn,” Huffington Post, April 14, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-lamb/jackie-robinson_b_3077873....
[2]This incident was accurately depicted in the film 42, where the man making the threats said: “Other fellas is comin’. They ain’t too happy about him stayin’ here in Sanford. Playin’ ball with white boys. Skedaddle, that’s what I’d do. If’n they get here, and he’s still here, there’s gonna be trouble.”
[3] Chris Lamb, Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 107–8. Lamb interviewed Rowe on March 10, 1993.
[4] Pittsburgh Courier, March 23, 1946.
[5] Daytona Beach Evening News, April 4, 1944. 

 

 

 

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