How hard was it, to be Jack Roosevelt Robinson in 1947?
Here, according to various printed sources, is how one afternoon started that year, on May 9, when the Brooklyn Dodgers took the field for warmups before their series-opening game with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Hey … I need a shoeshine!”
“Hey … why don’t you go back to the cotton fields, where you belong?”
“They’re waiting for you in the jungles, black boy!”
“Hey, snowflake, which one of the white boys’ wives are you dating tonight?”
Expressionless, Robinson warmed up, pretending not to hear the taunts coming from the Phillies’ dugout. And he knew it would go on that way on his journeys through the National League that year.
And he endured. He never answered in kind.
He had promised Dodger owner Branch Rickey that he would not fight back, no matter what the provocation. He played, expressionless, and kept a tight lid on the anger that boiled up inside, which is exactly why Jackie Robinson was the first black man this century to wear a major league baseball uniform.
Robinson’s promotion to the major leagues was not based solely on his baseball talent, which was considerable. He had been handpicked. His ability to play baseball, Rickey believed, was exceeded by his strength of character.
Of all the black players good enough to play in the big leagues, Robinson, Rickey believed, had the temperament to best endure the unendurable.
A clear indication of that is that not once did Robinson charge the mound that season, despite uncountable brushback and knockdown pitches. He was hit by pitches nine times in 1947.
He was a Dodger, but he was made to feel like a pariah.
On that first 1947 Philadelphia visit, when the Dodgers arrived with Robinson at their normal hotel, they were told, “All the rooms are taken.”
Later, in St. Louis, instead of staying at the Chase Hotel with his teammates, Robinson had to stay with private black families or at black-only hotels. In Cincinnati, management of the Netherlands Plaza hotel told the Dodgers that Robinson could stay, provided he ate his meals in his room and stayed out of the swimming pool. Death threats compelled the Cincinnati police to search buildings near the ballpark for snipers.
One of the strongest elements in the 1947 season was that while Robinson was enduring the foulest kind of racial epithets on the field, he was also the sport’s biggest drawing card since Babe Ruth.
Several teams set attendance records when the Dodgers came to town. The first Saturday the Dodgers played the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds, 52,000 watched - then the largest Saturday afternoon crowd in league history. Brooklyn drew 1.8 million fans, another league record, and it launched a streak of 10 years of million-plus attendance seasons.
New York, Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis also set records when they played the Dodgers at home.
And blacks were going to Dodger games like never before.
Another Robinson biographer, Barry Denenberg, quoted one baseball writer: “Jackie’s nimble, Jackie’s quick … Jackie’s making turnstiles click.”
Owners, then, were making big money. And Robinson?
The Dodgers paid him $5,000 that year.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.