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Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary Commemorative: Breaking
Barriers

1947: The Breakthrough Year

Not Only Did Robinson Not Fight Back at Insults, He Began a Dodger Tradition by Becoming First Rookie of the Year

March 31, 1997|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 in his journeys through the National League that year.

And he endured. He never answered in kind.

He had promised Dodger President Branch Rickey that he would not fight back for three years, no matter what the provocation.

He played and kept a tight lid on the anger that boiled up inside, which is exactly why Jackie Robinson was the first black man 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 hand-picked. 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.

Reading today of all he endured 50 years ago magnifies the numbers he put up that season.

Despite racial insults, and knowing that in at least one city, Cincinnati, death threats compelled police to search buildings near the ballpark for snipers, Robinson had a remarkable 1947 season.

Playing in 151 games at first base, he batted .297--19th in the league--with 175 hits and 12 home runs. He was named the National League rookie of the year.

He led the league with 29 steals--he stole home three times--and drove in 48 runs.

He was second in the league in runs with 125.

One of the great bunters, Robinson, according to his friend and biographer, Wendell Smith, bunted successfully 42 times through Sept. 9 of that season. He beat out 14 of them, the others going for sacrifices.

His month-by-month averages reflect the strain of the early trips, when receptions were at their most hostile.

In the first month, he had a 0-for-20 slump. He hit .225 in April, .284 in May, then had a 21-game hitting streak in June and hit .377. He dipped to .253 in July but had a .311 August.

In the 1947 Dodger-Yankee World Series, Robinson hit .259, stole two bases and scored three times.

That Series still stands as one of the great ones, primarily because of two plays.

In Game 4, the Dodgers' Cookie Lavagetto broke Yankee pitcher Bill Bevens' heart. With two out in the ninth, and Bevens working on a no-hitter, Lavagetto hit a game-winning double.

In Game 6, Dodger center fielder Al Gionfriddo's catch of a deep drive by Joe DiMaggio remains one of baseball's great outfield plays.

Gionfriddo, who lives today in Solvang, Calif., extended the hand of friendship to Robinson early in the '47 season, often encouraging him to feel he was part of the team in every way.

"My locker was next to Jackie's that year," Gionfriddo recalled.

"I noticed he'd bring a newspaper to the games and put it in his locker. After the games, he'd take his shirt and shoes off, then just sit on his stool and read every bit of that paper.

"When everyone was gone, he'd take his shower. It occurred to me maybe he felt like the other guys wouldn't want him showering with them. I asked him about it one day and he indicated that was it.

"I said to him, 'Hey, you're just as much a member of this team as anyone. You get your butt in there and take a shower whenever you want.' "

In his New York Times column a week after Robinson joined the Dodgers, Arthur Daley quoted an unnamed "Dodger veteran" as saying:

"Having Jackie on the team is still a little strange, just like anything else that's new. We just don't know how to act with him. But he'll be accepted in time. You can be sure of that. Other sports have had Negroes. Why not baseball?"

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