By Jon Weisman
In 2007, I wrote the following piece for SI.com on what it was like for Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947.
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For most of us who didn’t live through Jackie Robinson’s first day in the major leagues, black and white images have embedded it in our memories. A stark snapshot of Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers cap, or frames of newsreel footage showing him running the bases.
According to Jonathan Eig’s new book, Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season, when Robinson awoke early that day at Manhattan’s McAlpin Hotel, the sight before him, his wife, Rachel, and five-month-old son, Jack, Jr., was vivid and suggested anything but the historic day that was upon him.
“The room was a mess, with diapers drying on the shower rod, baby bottles sitting on the bathroom sink, and a small, electric stove perched precariously atop one of their trunks on the floor,” Eig wrote. “Silverware and dishes were often shoved under the bed, out of sight, in case a newspaper reporter dropped by. Though [Dodger general manager] Branch Rickey had tried to think of everything, it would appear he hadn’t given much consideration to the Robinsons’ living arrangements, which were growing more difficult by the day.”
Outside in the morning chill — eventually the temperature would rise to the 60s, but the low was 42 — the city’s denizens picked up their newspapers. Robinson’s debut wasn’t front- or back-page news in the New York Daily News. But The New York Times readers that day read the following by Arthur Daley, a small piece that painted a picture of pressure that lie ahead for Robinson.
“Robinson almost has to be another DiMaggio in making good from the opening whistle,” Daley wrote. “It’s not fair to him, but no one can do anything about it but himself. Pioneers never had it easy and Robinson, perforce, is a pioneer. His spectacular season in the International League is no guarantee that he’ll click just as sensationally in the Big Time. Too many minor-league phenomenons have failed for this to be a guide line. It’s his burden to carry from now on and he must carry it alone.”
Around 9 a.m., dressed in a suit and tie and camelhair coat, Robinson kissed Rachel goodbye. And then, in a moment that smacks of pure cinema, Eig wrote that he told her, “Just in case you have trouble picking me out I’ll be wearing number forty-two.” Rachel would later tell Wayne Coffey of the New York Daily News that she “felt the way a parent feels when the youngest child goes off to school: protective, wanting to give advice, wanting to go along to soften the blows.”
It was a crisp day, as Robinson’s overcoat suggested, though there were different recollections of the weather. Eig wrote that April 15 was “a perfect day for baseball, with blue skies, a soft breeze and just enough chill in the air to remind fans that a long season of baseball lay ahead.” In Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad called the weather “bitingly cold.” In Baseball: An Illustrated History, the text by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns accompanying Burns’ multipart PBS documentary, had Rachel remembering “a cold, rainy afternoon.” Maybe the world was spinning too fast for anyone to get a bead on the weather.
Robinson quietly walked into the clubhouse. “A few teammates nodded at him,” Eig wrote. “Ralph Branca and Gene Hermanski came over and shook his hand, saying they were happy to have him on the team. Robinson grinned but didn’t say anything. The rest of the Dodgers ignored him. As Robinson sat on a folding chair and began to get undressed, reporters lobbed a few easy questions. He smiled and answered briefly. The Dodgers had not yet assigned him a locker, so he found his uniform hanging on a hook attached to a bare wall. He took off his suit, hung it on the hook, and began putting on his uniform, a white undershirt and long blue socks beneath crisp white jersey and pants.”
By this time, baseball fans were on their way to Ebbets Field. Today, you could find millions of people who would pay an exorbitant price to attend such a historic event, but on April 15, 1947, the Dodgers-Boston Braves game was not a sellout.
Vendors sold “I’m for Jackie” buttons nearby, as Glenn Stout wrote in his book The Dodgers: 120 Years of Dodgers Baseball, but there were other distractions. For one thing, there was talk of a smallpox scare, and however dubious its merit, people were afraid. And Dodger fans were still dealing with the fact that six days earlier, baseball commissioner Happy Chandler had suspended Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher for the season for conduct detrimental to baseball.
Even Rachel had other things on her mind as she made her way to Ebbets Field with little Jack. According to Coffey, at about 11:30 a.m., she had difficulty hailing a cab, not anticipating or perhaps forgetting that someone might not want to pick her up because of her race. Complicating matters, the baby was under the weather. Her first task upon reaching the ballpark was to find some way to heat his formula. Finally, Rachel found someone who could help her — a hot dog vendor.
“Settling into her seat, she suddenly realized that this light coat, fine for Los Angeles, was inadequate here,” Rampersad wrote. “Then a black woman sitting next to her, whom she would remember as the mother of Ruthe Campanella, Roy’s wife, took Jackie and placed him inside her fur coat. Rachel could turn her attention to the field.”
One thing that Robinson did not need to feel was alone. In the stands, Rachel was part of a crowd that was estimated to be 60 percent or more black. Among them was a young pitcher named Don Newcombe. In the latest issue of Dodgers Magazine, Ben Platt writes that the 20-year-old future Dodgers star was heading to Nashua, N.H., for his first minor league season but had to stop in Brooklyn to meet with Rickey — and to see his friend.
“Jackie tried to be gracious, but he was really nervous,” Newcombe told Platt. “Jackie was afraid of how well he was or was not going to do and he didn’t do very well that day. But he was out there in a Dodger uniform, playing a strange position at first base, which was another worry for him. But he was the kind of man who had no fear for no man or no problem that was going to face him.”
Coffey noted that Rachel was “wary, feeling equal parts excitement and trepidation. It was the beginning of an experiment, and if you are mature and realistic, you know experiments don’t always work.”
The first pitch was imminent. Baseball’s color line was about to be broken. “Robinson trotted out to first base in the top half of the inning, a smile creasing his face,” Eig wrote. “The Braves sent their first batter, Dick Culler, to the plate. Culler hit a ground ball to third base, where Jorgensen scooped it up and threw to first. Robinson squeezed it for the out. It was a simple catch, but the crowd expressed its delight as if they’d never seen anything quite like it.”
In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson discussed his feelings on that day, in which he went 0 for 4 but scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh inning of Brooklyn’s 5-3 victory. “Less than a week after I became Number 42 on the Brooklyn club, I played my first game with the team,” Robinson wrote. “I did a miserable job. I grounded out to the third baseman, flied out to left field, bounced into a double play, was safe on an error, and, later, was removed as a defensive safeguard.
“The next four games reflected my deep slump. I went to plate twenty times without one base hit. Burt Shotton, a man I respected and liked, had replaced Durocher as manager. As my slump deepened, I appreciated Shotton’s patience and understanding. I knew the pressure was on him to take me out of the lineup. People began recalling Bob Feller’s analysis of me. I was ‘good field, no hit.’ There were others who doubted that I could field and some who hoped I would flunk out and thus establish that blacks weren’t ready for the majors.”
But despite Robinson’s play, as the sun set on April 15, 1947, it was, in fact, the dawn of a bright, new day.