Jackie Robinson vs. Orioles Minor-league series helped make history

April 28, 1996|By Fred B. Shoken

THIS WEEKEND marks the 50th anniversary of a milestone in baseball and civil rights history in Baltimore.

In near-40-degree temperature, 3,415 fans experienced integrated baseball a full season before Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the majors.

On the evening of April 27, 1946, blacks and whites played professional baseball together for the first time in a regular season game here. Two African-Americans, Robinson and John Wright, played for the Montreal Royals against the Baltimore Orioles in an International League contest at the old Municipal Stadium.

When the Brooklyn Dodgers' owner, Branch Rickey, signed Robinson to a contract in the fall of 1945, the plan was for him to attend spring training with the team and then to play for their highest minor league team, the Royals of Montreal, for a year of seasoning.

The choice of Montreal was no accident: It was part of a triple-A league with all but one team situated north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Robinson played his first games in Jersey City, Newark and Syracuse before a four-game stand in Baltimore beginning April 27. The series included a Saturday night game, a Sunday double-header, and a concluding game on Monday night.

Before the season began, Rickey was warned by International League President Frank Shaughnessy not to play Robinson in Baltimore.

Rickey was undeterred. He knew that if his great experiment was to succeed, Robinson would have to play all opponents and accept whatever abuse came his way.

The Baltimore Afro-American welcomed Robinson's arrival with headlines on the sports page, proclaiming: "Fans Await Jackie Robinson's Initial Appearance." They featured two articles and a column on Robinson's first week in the minor leagues, as well as a box detailing his batting and fielding record for each game.

In the club standings for the International League, the paper highlighted Montreal in capital letters, not Baltimore. It called the upcoming games between the Royals and the Orioles "a history-making series," and predicted that the scheduled Sunday double-headers would draw 35,000 fans. In his column, "Looking 'Em Over," Sam Lacy called Robinson's first game in the league "a modern Emancipation Day."

The other local papers made little note of the historic series. In an article on the morning of the opener, The Sun merely included Robinson's name in a listing of the Montreal players, calling him "the Negro star at second."

The News-Post gave more play to the Orioles' Robinson, Eddie, a power-hitting first baseman who would average .318 and hit 34 home runs that year and be voted the league's most valuable player. It gave a single paragraph to Jackie Robinson, "the highly publicized colored second baseman." The Evening Sun was a bit more enthusiastic, describing him as "the Negro who is pioneering the cause of his race in modern organized baseball."

The small crowd for the first night game had more to do with the weather than with a boycott.

But the Baltimore crowd which attended this series was abusive. Rachel Robinson, Jackie's wife, attended the games and considered the racial taunts worse than those they had heard in Florida during spring training. The Afro-American printed some of the disparaging remarks in a toned-down manner:

"When Jackie went to bat yells came from the stands: "Here comes the midnight express," and "Look at the ink spot." And when he went out to his position, one fan yelled, "What's that on second base?"

Robinson continued to play. In the first game, he got on base because of an error, singled, walked and stole second base, officially going one for three in a losing effort. Both teams were affected by the weather in the 12-7 Oriole victory. In an interview the following day, Robinson was quoted in The Sun:

"You know, they told me this was the southernmost city in the league, but last night I felt like I was playing in Alaska. Man, was it cold. It sure was tough playing baseball in that weather," he said.

In the Sunday double-header, Robinson had his worst day so far that season. He had only one hit in four at-bats in the opener, which the Royals won, 6-5. In the nightcap, he went hitless and committed an error which cost a run. The Orioles won, 6-3. The Sun said Robinson appeared relaxed and undisturbed before the game, which attracted 25,306 fans. Among these were the league president, Shaughnessy, and an estimated 10,000 black fans.

The Afro-American praised them:

"Many whites feared trouble because there were so many colored people among the 25,000 spectators Sunday afternoon for the double-header. Hats off to you colored fans for while the cops took out three white drunks (and were they drunk) and two white youths for rowdyism, the colored fans seemed to have everything under control."

After the first three games, Hugh Taylor Jr. of the News-Post praised Robinson for his speed but stated:

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