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History in the Making

By Phil Pepe, March 4, 2015

The game I wish I saw is one of those shoulda, coulda, woulda things, of which I have had many in more than a half century of covering baseball. For instance, why didn’t I ask Frank Crosetti, whom I saw almost every day during the baseball seasons of 1961 through 1968, if Babe Ruth really did point to where he hit that pitch off the Chicago Cubs’ Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series? Or why didn’t I ask Pete Sheehy, the legendary longtime Yankees clubhouse manager, more about Lou Gehrig and how it went down when the “Iron Horse” removed himself from the lineup after playing in 2,130 consecutive games? Or why didn’t I question Harry Craft, a genial man I knew when he served as a scout for the Yankees, how it felt to be the center fielder in both of Johnny Vander Meer’s 1938 back-to-back no-hitters?

The baseball game I wish I could have attended—my shoulda, coulda, woulda—came on Thursday, April 18, 1946, the day Jackie Robinson, playing for the Montreal Royals of the International League against the Jersey City Giants in Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium, broke organized baseball’s color line.

Jackie Robinson playing for the International League Montreal Royals in 1946.

I shoulda been there to witness not only a critical chapter in baseball history, but also a significant event in American history.

I coulda been there because according to Map Quest my home in Brooklyn was a mere 11.3 miles from Jersey City, just a hop, skip, and a jump through the Holland Tunnel.

I woulda been there if I knew then what I know now, that this was a seminal moment in our National Pastime and in America’s race relations, as big a baseball moment . . . no, a bigger baseball moment . . . than Abner Doubleday (or whomever) laying out the first diamond; George Herman Ruth stepping for the first time on the greensward of Yankee Stadium; or Marvin Miller assuming leadership of the Major League Baseball Players Association. I woulda been there if my mom had allowed me to play hooky from the fifth grade for a day (she wouldn’t) or if I was old enough to drive to Jersey City (I wasn’t) or if I was able to talk someone who was old enough (and had wheels) to take me there.

Eventually, I made frequent visits to Ebbets Field, and I saw Jackie (and Duke, Campy, Gil, Carl, and Pee Wee) play dozens of times. I watched these heroes of my youth perform their magic on a ball field, but I could never assuage my guilt for my faux pas, the failure to take advantage of baseball history being made practically in my backyard.

Dodger sluggers Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and Carl Furillo at Ebbets Field in 1950.

Fortunately, I have Baseball-reference.com to inform me what I missed on that historic day and other source material to help me recreate that memorable event.

It is important to understand the mania for baseball in post-World War II New York. With New York City housing three Major League teams (the Giants in Manhattan, the Yankees in the Bronx, the Dodgers in Brooklyn), there still was enough interest to support two teams in the Class AAA International League, the Newark Bears (the top farm team of the Yankees and a team so powerful it was said to be more formidable than the St. Louis Browns and Washington Senators of the American League) and the Jersey City Giants (the top farm team of the New York Giants).

Frank Hague was a towering figure in Jersey City at the time. He served as mayor of the city from 1917 to 1947, had a not-undeserved reputation for corruption, and was regarded as “the granddaddy of Jersey bosses.” He somehow managed to enjoy palatial homes, European vacations, a private suite at New York’s plush Plaza Hotel, and a Park Avenue duplex all on an annual city salary of $8,500. Upon his death, his worth was more than $10 million.

If Hague was a rogue, he was a charming and benevolent rogue who was adored by his constituency.

Hague conceived of and built Roosevelt Stadium as a home for the New York Giants’ top farm team, and every year on the opening of the baseball season he rose to the occasion. He closed the public schools, strong-armed local businesses into buying tickets for the game, and made it clear he expected city workers to attend.

The 1946 opener was no exception. Mayor Hague not only welcomed the arrival of Jackie Robinson, but he seemed to understand the significance of Robinson’s appearance and did his best to make the visiting player welcome. The game drew an overflow crowd of 51,873 in the 24,500-seat stadium, and the mayor himself threw out the first ball.

Mayor Frank Hague throwing out the first ball of the 1946 season at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City.
Credit:  Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey’s choice of Montreal, one of three AAA farm teams operated by the Dodgers, to launch Robinson’s career was clearly well-thought out. Rickey recognized Montreal as one of the most liberal and tolerant cities in North America.

What Rickey failed to take into account was that the manager of the Royals was Clay Hopper, a good ol’ boy from Porterville, Mississippi, whose views on race relations were consistent with men his age, his background, and from his part of the country. One day during spring training Hopper was speaking informally with Rickey, who inquired about how Robinson was interacting with his teammates. He got this comment from Hopper: “Do you really think that a n…..r is a human being, Mr. Rickey?”

Rickey’s response was to offer Hopper one of two options: spend the next few months managing the Montreal Royals with Jackie Robinson as one of his players, or spend it on the unemployment line. Hopper wisely chose the former.

Under orders from Rickey, Hopper’s opening day lineup for the Montreal Royals against the Jersey City Giants in Roosevelt Stadium on April 18, 1946, had Jackie Robinson playing second base and batting second behind center fielder Marv Rackley and ahead of left fielder George “Shotgun” Shuba (third baseman Spider Jorgensen batted sixth, and catcher Herman Franks batted seventh).

The center fielder for the Giants was a promising 22-year-old kid from Staten Island named Bobby Thomson, who batted third.

“My first game in Jersey City was an historic one, which had nothing to do with me,” Thomson once told me. “It happened to be Jackie Robinson’s first game in organized baseball. . . . I remember getting a couple of hits and that a ball was hit to me that I should have caught, but I couldn’t get my legs to move, I was so nervous.

“As far as what Jackie did in that game, I don’t remember. I just remember he was in all the headlines and nobody even noticed a scared kid playing center field for the Giants, me.

“I was too nervous and scared to understand or appreciate the significance of that game, the first game in which a black man played in organized baseball.” 

Bobby Thomson debuted with the Jersey City Giants on the same day that Jackie Robinson made his first appearance in organized baseball.

In Robinson’s historic first at-bat against left-hander Warren Sandel, he grounded weakly to shortstop. Thereafter, he had four hits, including a three-run home run in the third inning. When Robinson crossed home plate, Shuba, the next batter, was waiting for him with his hand extended in congratulations. As he did, an Associated Press photographer snapped the picture and sent it around the world with the caption, “A Handshake for the Century.”

While I was wrestling with fifth-grade English, geography, or arithmetic, Robinson was capping his debut with three singles, two stolen bases, and two runs scored when he danced off third base and caused the pitcher to balk, and errorless ball in the field in a 14–1 win.

Robinson would lead the International League in batting with a .349 average, and his manager, Hopper, would be moved to say he was “a player who must go to the Majors. He’s a big league ballplayer, a good team hustler, and a real gentleman.”

Nearly one year later, on April 15, Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut against the Boston Braves in Ebbets Field. He batted second and played first base. He was hitless in three official at-bats but contributed a sacrifice bunt to help build a run in a 5–3 victory.

The first pitcher Robinson faced in the Major Leagues was Johnny Sain, who had won 20 games the previous season, would win 21 that season, and 24 the next.

I was fortunate to know Sain, a fine Southern gentleman from Havana, Arkansas. I spent a good deal of time with him listening to his theories on pitching when he served as Ralph Houk’s pitching coach with the Yankees, and I might have asked him about being the first pitcher to face Jackie Robinson in a Major League game.

I shoulda, coulda, woulda.

But I never did.

 

 

 

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