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Mudville: July 23, 2024 2:45 pm PDT

The Great Experiment

Bill Donahue didn’t have to pay too often to get into Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, NJ to see the local minor league team play. His uncle was a police officer, who would often let him and his friends in for free, and if his relative wasn’t working he knew of places at the park where they could sneak in.

On April 18th, 1946 – Opening Day – Donahue doesn’t remember how he got in to see the game, but 75 years later, he clearly recalls what happened: Jackie Robinson made his debut in baseball’s “white” world, breaking the game’s color barrier.

Branch Rickey’s “Great Experiment” to integrate baseball had started in October 1945 when he signed Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color barrier or “gentleman’s agreement” among MLB owners to keep the game white.

In spring training in 1946, Robinson had shown he could play at a high level, and Rickey assigned him to the Dodgers’ AAA team, the Montreal Royals. Robinson’s first game would be against Jersey City, a farm team of the New York Giants.

Opening Day was a holiday in Jersey City, as the mayor arranged for schools to let out early so as to let students see the game.

A packed house of 25,000 fans saw Robinson come to bat in the top of the first inning.

Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, NJ - 1946.

Donahue remembers a “murmur,” when Robinson walked to the batter’s box. He grounded out, but he collected four hits in his next four at-bats, including a home run. Depending on the source, Robinson either stole home or so unnerved the pitcher that a balk was committed. Robinson’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, wrote it was a balk: while on third, Robinson feinted twice towards home while Giants hurler Phil Oates was on the mound.

Oates, according to Rampersad, threw to third twice, and the Giants’ catcher also tried to pick off Robinson. Robinson feinted towards home again – rattling Oates and stopping his windup – the umpire called a balk, and Robinson jogged to home plate.

The Royals won the game 14-1.

The New York Times placed the game story on page one (Jersey City’s newspaper did not place the event on the first page).

The Times wrote that Robinson “converted his opportunity into a brilliant personal triumph.”

It was the start of a brilliant season for Robinson, who wound up leading the International League in hitting with a .349 average. If Robinson had not been successful in 1946, the game’s color barrier would still have been in place for at least one more year, and probably longer.

“I remember how he just dominated that game. It was like he was a college kid playing against high school kids,” said Donahue. “I remember saying to myself, ‘I wish we had this guy on our team. ‘”

Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ legendary General Manager, had decided to integrate baseball. He had Clyde Sukeforth scout the Negro Leagues to find the right player: a good ballplayer, of course, but also one who had talent but the temperament to endure what was to come. That’s how Robinson came to be Rickey’s choice. It also helped that Robinson had attended UCLA, had played college sports with and against white athletes, and was “articulate”. Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues, but he was the best “candidate” to break the color barrier in Rickey’s mind.

Jackie Robinson, right, Montreal Royals' shortstop and first black player to be signed to a professional league contract in baseball history, crosses the plate in Roosevelt Stadium, Jersey City, N.J. April 18, 1946, after hitting a home run in the third inning against the Jersey City Giants. He's congratulated by Montreal outfielder George Shuba. The umpire is Art Gore. Montreal beat Jersey City 14-1. (AP Photo)

In October of 1945, Robinson signed a contract with Brooklyn. The news was not greeted with unanimous enthusiasm. In retrospect, one writer referred to it as “The Great Experiment.”

In 1946, Robinson was invited to the Dodgers’ spring training camp in Vero Beach, FL, in the deep south with strict segregation laws: blacks had to drink from separate fountains, stay at separate hotels, eat at separate restaurants – one town in Alabama had a restaurant put a wooden barrier between where blacks and whites sat.

Robinson and his wife Rachel lived separately from his white teammates.

That spring, Robinson impressed everyone in the organizational hierarchy, and was assigned to the Dodgers’ AAA team the Montreal Royals of the International League (the Dodgers had two AAA teams at the time, but Rickey wanted Robinson to play in the less volatile Canada).

Rickey’s grandson, Branch Rickey III, says he recalls a “dinner table” story in which his grandfather at the Dodger offices in Brooklyn called Roosevelt Stadium every hour asking, “How’s he doing?”

One of Robinson’s teammates with the Royals was Herman Franks, who later became manager of the Chicago Cubs. Was he aware of the significance of that opening day 1946?

“No” he said, “we were back from the war and glad to be playing baseball again”. However, later that summer he said to his roommate, “I guess we’re making some history here.”

Sculptor Marc Mellon works on his statue of George Shuba and Jackie Robinson depicting the ``Handshake of the Century``. (Photo: CBS News)

For spring training in 1947, Rickey took the team to Cuba, where the South’s Jim Crow laws wouldn’t apply. Unfortunately, they did. While the white Dodgers stayed in Havana’s luxurious Nacional Hotel, Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella stayed in a fleabag with cockroaches and mattresses where the springs were coming through the material.

Cuba had its own racial inequities. “White” Cubans, descended from Spanish settlers, controlled the money and property on the island. The descendants of Cuban natives or African slaves were relegated to second class citizenship. The black Dodgers were not allowed to dine in the Nacional’s restaurant. Robinson was angry, but he kept his cool, not wanting to give any excuse for Rickey and others to keep him off the major league roster.

Opening day 75 years ago was the start of a legendary career for Robinson –  and that year, nine members of the Royals were called up to Brooklyn, but Robinson was not one of them. Rickey counseled patience. Yet the first step in “The Great Experiment” was successful.

“(Robinson) became my idol,” said Donahue, and even though Jersey City was a Giants farm team, he became a life-long Dodgers fan.

Jon Caroulis has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years. Many of his articles have been about "unusual" events or players. He is a graduate of Temple University.

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