Jackie Robinson, Jersey City, and the Day That Changed It All
We’ve all seen the grainy video: Jackie Robinson dressed in his crisp Dodger uniform on Opening Day in 1947, standing on the top step of the visitor’s dugout before charging into the sunlight, and taking his rightful place in history. It was an exhilarating moment, one that was both celebrated and scorned in almost equal measure. That day, Robinson faced the kind of pressure that would debilitate a normal man but he was ready for it because this wasn’t the first time he played a game against white ballplayers. It wasn’t the first time he stood on a field and occupied the center of the American sports world. No, he’d done all that a year before when he broke the color barrier for American professional sports – at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City.
Don’t worry. Most people have forgotten that day, even the most diehard baseball fans (like myself). So here’s the full story…
In October of 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey announced that he signed 26-year-old Jackie Robinson to a minor league deal. This was not an expected move. In fact, when Rickey told the media he had a big announcement to make, most reporters assumed that Babe Ruth had been hired to manage the Dodgers. When Rickey told the nation that he’d just signed a black man, it was stunning. Robinson’s signing instantly became the biggest story in sports, if not the entire country. For the first time, a black man would play alongside whites in a professional sporting event. And not only that, in a baseball game, which was by far the most popular sport at the time.
Robinson would not start out with the Dodgers, however. Like any other ballplayer, he would have to play – and prove himself – in the minor leagues first. For the Dodgers, that meant joining their Triple-A affiliate, the Montreal Royals, of the International League. And where would the Royals play on opening day the following year? Roosevelt Stadium, on the corner of Route 440 and Danforth Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey, against the Jersey City Giants.
Most people forget how big that first game in Jersey City actually was. It was the most anticipated sporting event of the entire year by all media accounts. You have to remember, serious baseball people still doubted whether Robinson was good enough to play at this level, and many wondered if he would be overwhelmed by minor league competition. Sure, he’d been a multi-sport standout at UCLA, setting NCAA records in both track and football, but baseball was never his strongest sport. He’d only played a year of professional baseball, in 1945, with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues – a league that most of white America considered to be significantly inferior.
So that winter, Jackie was put under a microscope like no other prospect in the history of baseball. Everyone from grizzled sportswriters to high-society housewives had an opinion on Robinson’s chances. And most of them were dim. The Sporting News declared that, “The waters of competition in the International League would flood far over his head.” Jimmy Powers, a writer for the New York Daily News, and actually one of the biggest champions of integrating baseball, took a similar view, handicapping Robinson’s chance of success at a mere “thousand to one.”
Even Jackie’s former teammates in the Negro Leagues were wary. There was a rumor going around that Branch Rickey had chosen Robinson because he knew Jackie would fail, and thus end, once and for all, the debate about whether black players could play in the major leagues.
And to make matters worse, Robinson didn’t play well during Spring Training in 1946. This all helped create a great cloud of uncertainty around his first game. As Opening Day in Jersey City approached, there was a growing concern that Robinson simply wasn’t cut out to be play at the next level. And if he failed, if he was overmatched and outplayed, he wouldn’t just blow his own chance in white baseball, he could blow the chances of every black player that stood behind him.
Of course, you didn’t need to tell Jackie that. On April 17, 1946, on the eve of that fateful first game in Jersey City, Robinson went to bed early to prepare for what he told his wife (per his autobiography) would be “the biggest day of my life.”
For those not old enough to remember, Roosevelt Stadium was big but not enormous. Whereas most major league stadiums held around 50,000 people, Roosevelt only held 26,000. But on April 18, 1946, it would hold a lot more than that. It was the hottest ticket in the country. Fans from up and down the east coast – from Boston, Baltimore, even Charleston, South Carolina – descended on Jersey City. Businessmen from Manhattan left work early and came out on the Hudson Tubes. Jersey City’s mayor Frank Hague even cancelled school for the day. Years later, in his autobiography, Jackie recalled the hysteria, writing, “We all sensed that history was in the making that day in Jersey City.”
In total, 52,000 people crammed into the ballpark with thousands more holding an impromptu festival outside. The press box was packed with reporters from nearly every sports and lifestyle publication in the country. Almost a decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, you had white reporters rubbing shoulders with their black counterparts – and not everyone was okay with it.
The mood in the ballpark itself was tense. Many had come to see their hope of integration finally fulfilled, while others came to see those hopes dashed. When Robinson emerged from the dugout for pregame warm-ups, a low roar let out across the stands but Jackie was too nervous to look up. He was afraid that he “would only see Negroes applauding,” and that the white faces would be stern in their disapproval.
As ‘The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Robinson had a sudden bout of nerves, as if the enormity of the situation was suddenly hitting him. He stood with teammates “with a lump in my throat and my heart beating rapidly, my stomach feeling as if it were full of feverish fireflies.”
Mayor Frank Hague threw out the first pitch. And then finally, after months of anticipation, the game began.
Robinson was due up second in the first inning. When his name was announced, the crowd cheered. “Although I was wearing the colors of the enemy,” Jackie recalled in his memoir, “the Jersey City fans gave me a fine ovation.” Flashbulbs popped from the sea of photographers gathered around the field. His teammates cheered him on, too, even those who had previously swore never to play with or against a black man. Jackie took the first five pitches he saw – three balls, two strikes. On the sixth pitch, he took a huge cut but got on top of the ball, hitting a weak grounder to shortstop for the second out of the inning.
For all the build-up, it was an ordinary, almost disappointing start. But as the story goes, the rest of the game would be anything but ordinary.
Jackie Robinson would go on to win the MVP of the International League in 1946 with a .349 batting average, 60 stolen bases and 113 runs scored. But he only hit three home runs. Three home runs all season, in 124 games. It’s not a knock against him, he just wasn’t a home run hitter. But like all the truly great players have proven throughout the years, it’s not how many you hit. It’s when you hit them.
Back to April 18, 1946.
Jackie’s next at-bat was in the third. There were two runners on and nobody out. Just like the first at-bat, Jackie took the first five pitches and went to a full count. The crowd was getting on him. This great star of the Negro Leagues had been up twice, had seen eleven pitches, and had only swung at one of them. Was he nervous? Was he scared? Was he just not that good?
Jackie dug in for the pay-off pitch. It was a fastball on the inside corner. Just like the first at-bat, Jackie took a mighty cut. But this time, he didn’t get on top of it. He didn’t ground it weakly to short. Instead, he hit a rocket to left field that brought the crowd to its feet. The ball sailed high through the air against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline – a picture if there ever was any – before disappearing beyond the left field wall.
Baseball had just been integrated with a bang.
A thunderous ovation spread through the crowd. In the press box, black and white reporters let out a cheer while others, who’d been hoping for a different result, simply clenched their jaws. As Jackie rounded third base, his manager, a white southerner who months before had publicly wondered if a black man was entirely human, gave Jackie a hearty pat on the back. When he touched home, the usually stoic Robinson had a huge smile on his face. Having dealt with unimaginable pressure for months, he had proven with one swing that he did, in fact, belong.
Years later, Sports Illustrated would call Jackie’s shot “perhaps the most significant homerun in baseball history.” Teammate George Shuba, who watched the homerun from the on-deck circle and was the first to greet Robinson at home, described it as “the knockout punch” against segregation in sports.
But here’s the thing: Jackie wasn’t done. He went on to go 4-5 that day, with a homerun, three RBIs, two stolen bases, and four runs scored, leading Montreal to a 14-1 win over the Jersey City Giants.
In the biggest game of his life to that point, Jackie Robinson delivered the best performance of his young career.
The next day, the media went nuts. The New York Times called it “a tremendous feat.” The Montreal Daily Star described the game as “another Emancipation Day.” One newspaper even ran as its headline, “JIM CROW DIES AT SECOND.”
But perhaps the most eloquent description was offered by Robinson himself, years later, in his autobiography. “I believe everyone in Roosevelt Stadium that day,” he wrote, “realized that he was witnessing a significant collapse in the ancient wall of prejudice.”
On June 19, 1846 – almost exactly one hundred years before Jackie Robinson’s first game in Jersey City – two groups of working class men played the first organized baseball game on Elysian Fields in Hoboken. Pretty amazing that two seminal moments in the game’s history happened in neighboring cities who never hosted a major league team.
Neither ballpark stands today. Elysian Fields was paved over more than a hundred years ago, although there are still markers on the spots where the bases once stood. (Look for these memorials at 11th and Washington Streets, or at 11th by the waterfront.) Roosevelt Stadium fell into disrepair in the 1970s and was eventually demolished in 1985, replaced by townhouses and condominiums that offer little hint to the location.
Around town, there are subtle reminders of what happened here in 1946. There’s a plaque in a gazebo at Droyers Point, and a statue of Jackie at the Journal Square PATH. Still, most residents are unaware of their city’s unique place in baseball history. It seems the memory of that day started to fade when Roosevelt Stadium was torn down. Those who are old enough to remember high school football games under the lights or concerts in the summertime are likely to know about Jackie’s connection to it all, but for the city’s younger residents, or those who moved here in the decades since, Droyers Point is just a neighborhood in Society Hill, and Jackie Robinson is a great man who did wonderful things in Brooklyn, but not here.
And that’s too bad.
So this spring, as Major League Baseball once again honors Jackie Robinson, as every player on every team dons the number 42 for a day, remind yourself where it all began. Remember what happened in your own backyard. And if you get the opportunity, tell somebody else, too. And if that person happens to be from Hoboken, tell them that their town may be where baseball was born, but that Jersey City is where it came into its own.
Photos by Steve Gold, Jackie Robinson Statue: JCI File Photo, historic photos courtesy the New Jersey Room