Say what you will about the dramatic home runs hit by Babe Ruth, Bobby Thomson and Bill Mazeroski. Praise the thrilling shots hit by Carlton Fisk, Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter. But perhaps the most significant home run in baseball history was struck 50 years ago, on April 18, 1946, by Jackie Robinson, when he made his regular-season debut in organized baseball and served notice that he was the right man to break the sport's color barrier.
Six months earlier the International League's Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers' top farm club, had called a press conference, promising an announcement that would affect baseball "from coast to coast." There was speculation that Ruth might be named the Royals manager or perhaps Montreal was going to get a big league franchise. Instead there was this stunning development: Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey had signed Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a 26-year-old shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League and assigned him to the Royals.
A grandson of a slave and a son of a sharecropper, Robinson was a multisport star at UCLA and was touted as the best all-around athlete on the West Coast. He was a two-time conference scoring champion in basketball and averaged 11 yards per carry as a junior running back. He won the conference golf championship and reached the semifinals of the national Negro tennis tournament. In 1940 he won the NCAA broad jump title. One writer, Vincent X. Flaherty, called Robinson "the Jim Thorpe of his race."
After he spent three years in the Army, during which he attained the rank of first lieutenant, Robinson batted .387 in 47 games with the Monarchs and drew raves from Dodgers scouts not only for his outstanding play on the field but also for his poise and mature demeanor off it. All of which persuaded Rickey to choose Robinson as the standard-bearer for African-American ballplayers.
The pressure on Robinson to succeed was enormous from the start. Many observers expected Robinson to fail miserably. Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News, an outspoken proponent for the integration of baseball, nevertheless called Robinson "a 1,000:1 shot to make the grade." The Sporting News predicted that "the waters of competition in the International League will flood far over his head." Some blacks, including some Negro leagues players, expressed the fear that Rickey had chosen Robinson because he lacked the talent to prevail, thereby proving black players didn't belong in the major leagues.
But Robinson did not consider failure an option. As African-American sportswriter Wendell Smith wrote on Dec. 29, 1945, in the Pittsburgh Courier, Robinson had "the hopes, aspirations and ambitions of 13 million black Americans heaped upon his broad, sturdy shoulders."
Rickey had picked Montreal, a city largely free of racial discrimination, as Robinson's home base. But Robinson still had to endure Jim Crow behavior during spring training in Florida, where city ordinances prohibiting the mixing of races were cited as reasons to cancel games involving the Royals. This was eight years before Brown v. Board of Education and nearly two decades before the first Civil Rights Act.
When Robinson, who had been moved to second base, had a poor spring training, it provided more ammunition for his detractors. "Jackie couldn't perform well that spring because the pressure was unbearable," his wife, Rachel, later recalled. He was trying too hard. He was overswinging, he couldn't sleep, and he had difficulty concentrating. But he still won a spot in the starting lineup, as did John Wright, a 27-year-old African-American pitcher who had been signed in February to room with Robinson.
On Opening Day in 1946, at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, a sellout crowd of 52,000 came to witness what one sportswriter described as "another Emancipation Day." Montreal versus the Jersey Giants. Rachel roamed the stands, too nervous to sit still, while her husband avoided looking at the crowd, as he explained later, "for fear I would see only Negroes applauding."
Robinson was the second batter of the game. He looked at lefthander Warren Sandell's first five pitches for a full count, and then grounded out to the shortstop. But in his second at bat, with Sandell still pitching and two runners on base in the third inning, Robinson ripped a letter-high fastball and sent it soaring into the leftfield stands. He circled the bases with a wide smile, passing his Mississippi-born manager, Clay Hopper, as he rounded third. Just weeks earlier Hopper had begged for Robinson to be sent to another team, reportedly asking Rickey, "Do you really think a nigger's a human being?" As Robinson ran by, Hopper gave him a pat on the back.
The on-deck hitter, 21-year-old leftfielder George Shuba, shook Robinson's hand as he crossed home plate. Shuba, who now lives in Youngstown, Ohio, remembers the moment vividly. "You could see it in his face, how happy he was," says Shuba, who went on to become a Dodger teammate of Robinson's. "You could see he was just overwhelmed with joy."
Robinson did not hit another home run until July 21, and he connected for only three all season. But in that opening game he showed the many ways he could beat you. In the fifth inning Robinson got a bunt single, stole second, went to third on a groundout and scored after causing the pitcher to balk. In the seventh he singled, stole second again and scored on a triple. In the eighth he bunted his way on, raced all the way to third on an infield hit and drew another balk to score. Robinson had four hits, scored four runs, drove in three and had two steals in Montreal's 14-1 victory. "I couldn't have dreamed up a better start," he said.
"He did everything but help the ushers seat the crowd," wrote Joe Bostic of the Amsterdam News. Another newspaper captured the event simply but eloquently in a headline: JIM CROW DIES AT SECOND.
Four other black players got their start in organized baseball that season. Catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe starred for the Dodgers' Class B team in Nashua, N.H. Campanella led the team with 14 home runs and 96 RBIs, Newcombe had a 14-4 record with a 2.21 ERA, and both players went on to become National League MVPs with the Dodgers. In addition, Wright and another pitcher, Roy Partlow, saw limited action with Montreal before settling in at the Class C level.
But all eyes were on Robinson, who went on to lead the International League in batting (.349), runs scored (113) and fielding percentage (.985). Robinson also stole 40 bases and drove in 66 runs. The numbers were even more impressive considering that Robinson missed 30 games due to injuries, the result, in part, of being hit frequently by pitches and getting spiked at second base. Montreal set a league attendance mark, won the pennant by 19 1/2 games and coasted to a victory over the American Association's Louisville Colonels in the Little World Series.
After the final victory, in Montreal, Robinson was surrounded by adoring French-Canadian fans, who lifted him to their shoulders. The fans pursued him even as he tried to leave the ballpark, inspiring one writer's oft-quoted observation that it was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob because the crowd had love, instead of lynching, on its mind.
The next season, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his first appearance in the major leagues, going hitless at Ebbets Field. But he wound up hitting .297 with 125 runs and a league-leading 29 stolen bases; had a .989 fielding percentage; and The Sporting News named him Rookie of the Year. Two seasons later the Baseball Writers Association of America voted him National League MVP, and in 1962 the writers voted him into the Hall of Fame.
But it all started with that three-run clout 50 years ago. "It was the exclamation point, that home run," says Shuba. "It was the knockout punch."