1947: The Most Important Year in Baseball History?

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On April 15, 1947, the sports world stood still.  History was made at Ebbets Field as a player emerged from the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout that not only changed sports, but changed history.

“You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” ~ Peewee Reese, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1947

Welcome back to Peculiar Side of Sports.  Every so often something in sports perplexes me, and I just hate not knowing something.  So, I do what any normal, sane sports fan does – I search ad nausea for the answer by any means necessary.  The good news is that I take all my hard work and relay the results to you.

Last week I presented the first two installments in my three-part series looking at the most important years in baseball history.  If you missed it, the first two are; 1869 and 1920.  I won’t spoil the surprise, but take a read – interesting history.  Anyway, on to today’s article, which will wrap-up the three-parter.

Was 1947 the Most Important Year in Baseball History?

Sports is not what it was.  Seems like a simple sentence, but consider how loaded it is.  Is it better or worse? What makes sports of yesteryear either more enjoyable or less so?  What has changed, and how have those changes impacted sports?  Have those changes transcended sports?

One thing I truly respect about baseball today is the mosaic of different types of players representing leagues from around the globe, not just MLB in the USA and Canada.  A quick look at the strong talent at the World Baseball Classic is evidence enough.  But in sticking to my theme during this three part series, I want to specifically focus on Major League Baseball, and there was not a single event as impacting as the day Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Boston in 1947.

Make no mistake about, Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers did not change baseball – They changed sports.  All sports; baseball, football, basketball, hell, even golf, from that single moment in time until today have never been the same.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the impact Jesse Owens had in winning the Olympic Gold a decade before, but I am separating amateur athletics from professional leagues – to that end, no disrespect to Owens’ legacy.

At a time in history where the civil rights movement was on the horizon, sports were still completely segregated.  Baseball had a separate league for African Americans – the Negro League.   His first (and only) contract was with the Kansas City Monarchs for a whopping $400 (approx $5000 today) per month.

After a disappointing year with the Monarchs, he sought a tryout with the Majors.  He found an open tryout for black players held by the Boston Red Sox, though it was just designed to appease pro-integration sentiments in Boston at the time.   In fact, Boston was the last team to integrate players (1959).  During the try-out, he later said that he was just insulted and belittled the entire time.

In 1945, a significant breakthrough occurred – the first real conversations were underway between a professional club and a black player.  The President and GM for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, signed Jackie to a contract worth $600 per month (almost $8000 today) so long as Robinson agreed to dismiss what he was assured would be a high level of racial discrimination.  The deal was agreed upon, and Jackie Robinson was sent to the Dodgers farm team – the Montreal Royals.

Not everyone was happy with the decision as you can imagine, but not just for the reasons that make this transaction so memorable.  In fact, many players in the negro league were upset because they felt Jackie was not the best player in the Negro League.  Many felt Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were more deserving.  More deserving or not, Robinson was not only chosen for his baseball skills.

Robinson’s poise was tested immediately in 1946 at the Royals’ spring training in Florida, which was very racially charged at that time.  He didn’t stay in the same hotel as his team mates (stayed with a local black politician), and in fact the team was hard-pressed to even find a field to play on as many cities either out-right refused or found a way to sabotage their practices.

Later that year, Jackie became the first black player to play on a minor league team against another minor league team in a game between Montreal and Jersey City.  He had four hits, four runs, a home run, 3 RBI’s and 2 stolen bases – quite a first game.

While on the road he was the recipient of much ridicule, but at home was a different story.  The city of Montreal, Canada, must feel pride as it fully embraced Jackie Robinson.  The city were behind him, and they showed up in droves to watch him play.  Unfortunately for them, it was short-lived as he was set to move on at season’s end.

Less than a week before the start of the 1947 Major League season, the Brooklyn Dodgers called up Robinson to play for the ‘big club’.  On April 15, 1947, the sporting world stood still.  Out of the dug-out came a man who forever changed sports.  Jackie Robinson assumed his position at first base.  Over 26.000 people showed up that day, and 16,000 of them were black.

There are many unsung heroes who made this all happen.  From the aforementioned city of Montreal and the Dodgers’ General Manager, to the team’s on-field manager who diffused hostility amongst the team’s white players who were unhappy with the situation.  He poignantly and strictly told them,  “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f****n’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”

The intolerance extended to other teams.  The St. Louis Cardinals, for instance, threatened to strike if Robinson played (they removed the threat when told they would be suspended).   Others, such as Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman, threw every obscenity at him they could muster.  Rather than backing down, he stayed level-headed and it actually worked to his advantage as his own teammates rallied to his support.  From ignorance came a united Brooklyn Dodgers.  Team mate Peewee Reese came to his defense –  “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.”

Jackie’s first regular season ended with some impressive stats:

In 151 games, he had a .297 batting average, .383 OBP, .427 slugging, 175 hits, 31 doubles, 5 triples, 12 home runs and 29 stolen bases.  

But what was perhaps most memorable that year for many fans, was that 1947 also marked the first time in history that the World Series was shown on television.  While it was limited in its reach, with much of the audience in the New York area, the fact that Jackie Robinson was playing professional sports for the game’s biggest prize placed the issue right in people’s faces – literally.

As I mentioned before, this was a time where the civil rights movement was brewing.  In fact, in many ways this one event was so influential that some of the movement’s greatest champions cite Jackie’s position in the public eye as groundbreaking.  Consider Martin Luther King Jr, perhaps the most well known of all those who fought for civil rights, in his comments: “A legend and a symbol in his own time, who challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.”  To have inspired the man who inspired millions is quite the accomplishment.

Lost in the shuffle are the other black players who played in that same season – Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby, two St. Louis Browns’ players – Willard Brown and Hank Thompson, and Dan Bankhead, who signed with the Dodgers after Robinson.  Though they weren’t the first, they were very much a part of a growing movement at its core.

I’d like to finish with a short quote from Jackie Robinson that sums up exactly what he, and others like him, stood for.  It still resonates today as we still battle racism, albeit to a lesser extent, but today it’s other issues such as one’s sexual orientation.  Jackie said:

Robinson said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me … all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.

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While Robinson, the color barrier, and the first televised World Series are clearly the biggest stories of 1947, two other events merit a small mention as well.  1947 saw the first College World Series, which was won by California; and the first Little League World Series won by Williamsport, PA.  These events are now annual traditions on the baseball calendar.

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