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Robinson's Debut Is Still Memorable After Half a Century

Baseball: He had four hits, including a home run, in his first game, launching a career that helped to permanently erase the National Pastime's color line.

April 21, 1996|JOE GERGEN | NEWSDAY

Fifty years ago last week, a minor league team departed the McAlpin Hotel in Manhattan, boarded a train for Jersey City and rode into history.

Among the passengers was Jackie Robinson, who had been signed to a contract six months earlier by Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey. On April 18, 1946, in a game between the Montreal Royals and the Jersey City Giants, he became the first African-American to participate in organized baseball in the 20th century.

Not until the following year was Robinson's quest recognized as a story of national significance. Despite taunts, threats and attempts at physical intimidation, the man earned National League Rookie of the Year honors with the Dodgers in 1947 and permanently erased the color line that had prevented members of his race from competing in the major leagues. But that would have been impossible had he not demonstrated both skill and discipline in the International League.

A remarkable college athlete, Robinson had little experience in professional baseball. After serving three years in the Army, rising to the rank of first lieutenant, he was playing his first season at shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues when Dodgers scouts decided he was best suited to fill the demanding role of pioneer envisioned by Rickey. The renowned baseball executive concurred, passing over many more prominent veterans of the Negro Leagues.

"I was fishing in Peterborough, Ontario, in October, 1945, when I heard a flash that Montreal had signed a black player," recalled George Shuba, an outfielder in the Dodgers' organization. "I knew he had to be good to be the first. When I heard he was an infielder, I felt better."

It was difficult enough to advance in the stocked Dodgers farm system. Now the organization was mining a new source of talent. But Robinson was 26, would be playing a new position, second base, and would be under unprecedented scrutiny. "We figured," Shuba said last week, ".280 would be a hell of a year."

Robinson wasted no time convincing teammates, skeptics and fans he was bound for nothing less than greatness. His debut in Roosevelt Stadium was the stuff of legend, so much so that when the ballpark was torn down 39 years later, a handful of eyewitnesses felt the need to watch a bulldozer attempt to obliterate their memories. Among them was Thomas F.X. Smith, a former mayor of Jersey City, who was 19 at the time of Robinson's debut.

"He went 4 for 5 that day and hit a home run," Smith remembered clearly while standing at the scene in 1985. "He scored four runs, knocked in four runs and stole two bases. He did everything but take the stadium with him. The guy was fantastic."

A townhouse developmenmt, Society Hill, now occupies much of the land where Roosevelt Stadium stood. In a small ceremony Wednesday, a plaque commemorating Robinson's triumph against "segregation, hostility, belittlement and disbelief" was erected by the builder, K. Hovnanian Companies. And Thursday Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow and the founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, will give an anniversary address at the Beneficial Center in the western New Jersey town of Peapack.

Shuba, nicknamed Shotgun, has a personal reminder in his Youngstown, Ohio, home, a framed picture of himself shaking a smiling Robinson's hand as the latter crosses home plate. Robinson batted second for the Royals on opening day, Shuba third. When the infielder hit a three-run homer in the third inning off left-hander Warren Sandell, the outfielder was the first to offer congratulations.

"When he hit that home run," recalled Shuba, who would become a valuable reserve with the Dodgers during the 1950s, "everyone was wondering whether a white player would shake his hand. He was on our side. What else were we going to do?"

In his autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," Robinson contended that homer broke down the barrier between him and his teammates. "Northerners and Southerners alike," he wrote, "they let me know how much they appreciated the way I had come through for them."

The New York Times reported that 51,872 tickets were purchased for the game although that was not an unusual occurrence for an opener during the reign of Boss Hague, who judged it a matter of political loyalty. All 25,000 seats in the stadium were occupied on a day when the Dodgers staged their home opener against the Giants at Ebbets Field before 31,825. The Royals pummeled their rivals, 14-1, and Robinson was hailed by the crowd at the end.

"I knew what it was that day to hear the ear-shattering roar of the crowd and know it was for me," he wrote later. "I began to really believe one of Mr. Rickey's predictions. Color didn't matter to fans if the black man was a winner."

In his first game at the Triple-A level, Shuba paled by comparison. The young outfielder took the collar. "But the next day I hit three home runs," he said with a laugh. "Now I tell people it was very gracious of me not to steal the spotlight on Jackie's day." He decided it was fitting that Robinson's middle name and the name of the stadium were one and the same.

Robinson went on to lead the International League in batting (.349) and runs scored (113). He also stole 40 bases. Not coincidentally, the Royals won the pennant by 19 1/2 games and defeated the American Association's Louisville Colonels in the Little World Series.

That long-ago afternoon in Jersey City not only was the first day in a Hall of Fame career but the beginning of the modern history of baseball. "For us," Shuba said, "it was hard to comprehend he could play so magnificently under such pressure. They sure picked the right guy."

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