Jackie Robinson’s MLB Debut, April 15, 1947

How Did Jackie Robinson's debut play out in the Baseball Press?

Jackie Robinson hit the field on April 15, 1947, as the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers as they started the season at home against the Boston Braves. A sellout was expected, but only 25,623 fans attend the Dodgers’ Opening Day, quite short of the 34,200 capacity of Ebbets Field.


On the Field


As debuts go, Jackie had an okay one: 0-3, including a groundout, a flyout, and hitting into a double play. In his last at-bat in the seventh inning with Eddie Stanky on first base and the Dodgers down 3-2, he laid down a sacrifice bunt. As Robinson hustled to first, an errant throw hit him in the back, allow Stanky to get to third and Robinson to get to second base. Peter Reiser then hit a double to right field, plating Stanky for the tying run and Robinson scoring the run to put the Dodgers in the lead. The Dodgers would prevail 5-3.

Robinson was at first base, a position that he had played sparingly during the exhibition season. Second baseman Stanky repositioned him a bit during the game and he did well at first, recording 11 putouts and no errors. Robinson was pulled for defensive reasons in the ninth inning, replaced by Howard Schultz.

A fairly good outing for a 28-year-old rookie who was the first black player to take the field in a major league game since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884.


How Did the Media Report Jackie’s Debut?


How did this historical event play out in the newspapers at the time? Was it as significant then as we see it now?

By all accounts, the Dodgers’ radio announcers, Red Barber and Connie Desmond make little commentary on the significance of Robinson’s debut. Instead, they merely commented on his play on the field as it related to the game.

The New York Times reporter Rosco McGowen focused on the play of centerfielder Pistol Pete Reiser, who was returning from another injury. Reiser was the star of the game, going 2-for-2, with two walks and two game-changing RBIs on his double. McGowen only mentions Robinson in the play-by-play in the sixth and 16th paragraphs.

Arthur Daley in his New York Times article did focus on Robinson in the latter half of his article. A few quips from his article:

The debut of Jackie Robinson was quite uneventful, even though he had the unenviable distinction of snuffing out a rally by hitting into a remarkable double play. His dribbler through the box in the fifth should have gone for a safety, but Dick Culler, playing in on the grass, made a diving stop, threw to second for a force while prostrate on the ground, and Connie Ryan nailed the fleet Robbie at first for a dazzling twin killing.

Commenting on Robinson on the field, Daley wrote:

The muscular Negro minds his own business and shrewdly makes no effort to push himself. He speaks quietly and intelligently when spoken to and already has made a strong impression. “I was nervous in the first play of my first game at Ebbets Field,” he said with his ready grin, “but nothing has bothered me since.”

Also in the article is a quote from an unnamed player:

“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? I’m for him, if he can win games. That’s the only test I ask.”

Red Smith at the New York Herald Times wrote late in his description of the game:

However, Hatten, helped himself with a skillful play on a grounder by Danny Litwhiler when the Braves were threatening in the fourth, and he might have got through all the way if Jackie Robinson could have aided him in the fifth innings.

That dark and anxious young man had grounded out the first time he faced Johnny Sain and flied out the second. Now he came up for the third time, with two runners on and one out. He seemed frantic with eagerness, restless as a can of worms.

He fouled off the first pitch. Phil Masi, the Boston catcher, caught it but knocked himself goggle-eyed against the Braves dugout and dropped the ball. Robinson took a called strike on the outside corner, then rapped a bleeder toward second which looked like a sure hit for a man of his speed.

Cutler, however, dived on the ball, scooped it to Connie Ryan, who tagged second, and beat Robbie with a throw to first for a double play. Robinson kicked up dirt with his spikes but made no protest.

Let’s go to the Chicago Daily Tribune, which included a one-column header on page 33 that read, “ROBINSON FAILS AT PLATE, BUT DODGERS WIN, 5-3”. The two-paragraph Associated Press article above the box score focuses on Pete Reiser in the first paragraph. In the second, it does comment on Jackie Robinson.

Although he did not get a hit in three official times at bat, Jackie Robinson, first Negro to play in modern big league ball, signalized his official debut as a Dodger by sprinting home with the deciding run on Reiser’s smash and playing perfect ball at first base.


“The Bible of Baseball” Before the Debut


Lastly, let’s see what the “Bible of Baseball”, The Sporting News, had to say about Jackie Robinson. As a weekly publication, their articles on April 16, 1947 preceded his debut. The next week, their April 23, 1947 edition has articles on his debut.

Michael Gavin has an article on page 1, “Jackie Robinson Gets Change With the Flatbush Troupe.” The article mentions that “for the first time in its 72 years, the National League will have a Negro player within its ranks this season.”

The article details that Branch Rickey officially purchased the contract of Jackie Robinson on April 10, 1947, at 3:15 PM. What it doesn’t mention is that the reason Rickey waited so long was that when he initially wanted to purchase the contract in January, the owners held a summit and voted 15-1 to not allow the Commissioner to approve the contract, with Brooklyn being the only vote in favor of the contract. Yes, they said the silent part out loud. Major League Baseball was unofficially segregated, and it took a team offering a contract to Robinson to have the owners actually put it on paper.

MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler would wait until April 10, 1947 to approve the contract, contrary to the owner’s wishes. The owners would hold a grudge against Chandler for this decision, leading them in part not renew Chandler’s contract in 1951.

Still on page 1, the article comments that Jackie’s skill at the “initial sack” was not up to major league level but that Rickey forced the Dodgers’ coaching staff to play Jackie at first during the exhibition season and not evaluate other candidates at the position.

We continue to Page 18, where the title is now “Jackie’s Trial Costliest Ever Given a Player”.

While mentioning that Robinson played second base well, committing only 10 errors in the minors, Eddie Stanky was blocking him at the major league level. Gavin predicted that Jackie would toil as a utility player and pinch-runner until he improved at first base.

The costly trial? Since there were segregation laws in the south, the Dodgers were forced to have most of their spring training in Havana, Cuba. To play the Yankees in an exhibition series, they have to fly to Venezuela. Spring Training cost the Dodgers an estimated $50,000 in 1947 money — or about $600,000 in 2021 — extra. The rest of the article continues to discuss the extra costs and imply Rickey forced Robinson on the coaching staff and the team. Despite Robinson’s stellar International League play in 1946, the article displays little faith in his abilities to handle first base in the big leagues.

One thing Branch Rickey did have to worry about was segregation. While New York had recently enacted laws about equal worker rights, there still was segregation. My mother, born in 1944 and living just east of St. Louis in Illinois, remembers “Colored Only” water fountains. St. Louis was the southernmost city in MLB at the time, with Cincinnati being a close second. Not only did the Dodgers have to worry about the reaction of fans to Jackie Robinson or if opposing teams would play, but they also had to worry if he could play. Jackie’s presence would also come with additional costs.


“The Bible of Baseball” on Robinson’s Debut


On April 23, page 3 of The Sporting News was dedicated to Jackie Robinson. Included were highlights from Arthur Daley’s column from the New York Times and a interview by Ward Morehouse with Robinson, conducted in the Hotel MacAlpin where the Robinsons were living in New York. Nowadays, we’d consider this a publicity piece, includes this small piece of humanity: ” .. [he] lifted his gurgling infant from the big into the crib beside the closed windows (crib courtesy of the MacAlpin).”

On page 4, there is an article by Lester Bromberg that quotes Eddie Stanky giving a positive view of Jackie’s play and mentions that the fans seem to accept Jackie on the field. It also discusses his plate appearance and his fielding stats.

There is also an article that Jackie Robinson didn’t have a locker for the opener. Apparently, given Jackie’s late “official” addition to the team, he hadn’t been assigned a locker and was forced to hang his clothes on hooks in the wall until they cleared a locker for him.


The Significance of Jackie


Finally, one will find an article related to the significance of Jackie Robinson’s debut. In an editorial on page 12 with the heading “A Negro in the Major Leagues”. Pointing out in the 72 years of the National League that “…a Negro has made his appearance on the player rolls for the first time.” The editorial remarks that it is quite odd that it hasn’t happened before. We have seen this in professional football, college gridiron, and boxing. Noted is Jackie admitting his promotion “involved certain peculiar responsibilities, for both Jackie, as an individual, for the Negroes as a race new to the Big Time, and for the exclusively Negro baseball as a possible feeder to the National and American Leagues.” Note: When I read “quite odd that it hasn’t happened before”, I did a double-take and spend time making sure I had the text right.

Included in the editorial are complaints about the irregularities in Negro League Baseball, the players and their behavior, and how neither would be accepted in the majors. “It is up to Negro baseball to recognize the elevation of Robinson to the majors by cleaning house, and establishing itself as a clean, well-conducted feeder of the higher company.”

“Negro fans, ” it mentions, “must approach the new situation with understanding and patience.”

While praising Robinson for being “well-behaved”, it also warns him that “on him rests the burden of persuading Organized Baseball to engage more players of his race.” He must continue his behavior, despite his opponents testing his gameness and creating incidents to anger him and his supporters.

“Jackie Robinson’s presence among the Brooklyn personnel marks a vast forward stride for Organized Baseball in the social revolution which as gained a tremendous impetus through the world war,” it ends.


One Side of the Story


This research is not exhaustive. I admit to looking exclusively at how white people wrote and discussed Jackie Robinson. Black newspapers at the time certainly had many things to say. Some of it is quite interesting and uplifting. Searching those papers, which were also segregated, makes the research more complicated. As a white male starting a second half-century of life, I’m not sure I’m the best person to present and weigh in on those accounts. I do know that I certainly appreciate the hindsight that history has given us on Jackie’s accomplishment. It is interesting to see not only how things have changed, but also how much remains unchanged.

I do wonder how the narrative and accounting would be different if the media, including social media, that is present today would have been around in 1947.

In reality, I shudder at that thought.

(Photo credit: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

Mat Kovach

Despite being an Indians fan in the late 70's I grew to love baseball. I started throwing spitballs when I was 10 and have been fascinated with competitive shenanigans in baseball ever since.

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