Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 15, 2018

So Much To Remember, So Much More To Do

We know that seventy-one springs ago weather conditions on April 15th were considerably more hospitable than this year. Back then the eight contests that comprised the Great Game’s Opening Day schedule were all played to conclusion. In the present, with more teams and a 162-game schedule the longest season has been underway for more than two weeks. But this Sunday six of the sixteen games on the calendar were postponed thanks to a storm system that blanketed the middle of the country with either snow or heavy rain, including both ends of a twin bill between the Yankees and Tigers in Detroit.

Had there been snow in Brooklyn on that long-ago mid-April afternoon, it surely would have been the talk of the town for a few days. But after that the meteorological happenstance would almost surely have been forgotten. Had the game at Ebbets Field somehow been played despite the weather, the game itself would likely also have long since been lost to the passage of time and fading memories.

But what happened at the old stadium in the Flatbush section of Gotham’s most populous borough on April 15, 1947, was far more important, its impact vastly more profound, than a springtime snowfall. So that game is celebrated by Major League Baseball each year on its anniversary. The Dodgers began that season by hosting the Boston Braves in front of 26,623 fans, just over three-quarters of Ebbets’ capacity. When the starting nine for the home team ran out to take their positions for the top of the 1st inning, those fans saw what had never been seen before – a black man in the uniform of a major league team.

Dick Culler led off against Brooklyn’s Joe Hatten. The Boston shortstop sent a ground ball to third, which Spider Jorgensen fielded cleanly before throwing across the diamond for the game’s first out. When Jackie Robinson caught Jorgensen’s throw, he recorded the first of more than thirteen hundred putouts he made during his rookie year, the only season of his big league career that he played exclusively at first base.

In the bottom half of the frame Robinson stepped in for his first major league at-bat, a third-to-first groundout that mirrored the game’s opening play. He flew out to left in the 3rd and was robbed of his first bit league hit in the 5th on a fine play by Culler. It would not be until the Dodgers next game two days later that Robinson would record his first hit. But that Opening Day crowd still got to see just how the dynamic rookie could change the course of a game.

By the last of the 7th Boston was clinging to a 3-2 lead, when Eddie Stanky led off by working a walk off Johnny Sain. Robinson then laid down a bunt between the pitcher’s mound and first base, hoping to advance Stanky to second. He flew down the base path as Boston first baseman Earl Torgeson ran in to field the bunt. Torgeson picked up the ball, but as he straightened and turned to throw to the second baseman covering the bag, he was unnerved by the speedy Robinson, already nearing first. His hurried throw was off the mark, hitting Robinson in the back and bounding away. The error allowed Stanky to go to third and Robinson to second, sparking a three-run rally that put Brooklyn on top to stay.

The Dodgers won another ninety-three games after Opening Day in 1947. They finished atop the National League, five games ahead of the Cardinals. In that autumn’s World Series, the Dodgers rallied from deficits of two games to none and three games to two, forcing a decisive Game 7 against the Yankees. But Brooklyn came up short in that final showdown, losing to their rivals from the Bronx as they had in 1941, and as they would again during Robinson’s career in 1949, 1952, 1953, and 1956.

But amidst all the laments of “wait till next year,” in 1955 Robinson and the Dodgers turned the tables, defeating the Yankees four games to three. In Game 1 of that Series the 36-year old Robinson stole home against Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra, just one of innumerable highlight reel moments from his ten-year career with Brooklyn. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1947, and the league’s Most Valuable Player two seasons later when he led the NL in batting average and stolen bases, one of two years he was the steals leader. Modern metrics suggest he should have been the MVP perhaps twice more, based on his yearly Wins Above Replacement number. Two old-fashioned numbers that stand out are his 740 career walks against 291 strikeouts. How many other players breaking into the majors since that April day in 1947 finished their careers with more than 700 walks and fewer than 300 Ks? Not a single one.

Of course, Robinson is celebrated not for having a Hall of Fame career, but for doing so while enduring unspeakable racist vitriol and disparagement. The African-American who tore down baseball’s shameful color barrier was hated by many for doing so. And Jackie Robinson didn’t just integrate the field. He integrated the stands, and the press box, and in time the manager’s office. He did it not just by his performance on the field and his stoicism in the face of terrible abuse, but by his advocacy after his playing career ended. Just days before his death Robinson was honored before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. He seized the opportunity to call for the hiring of African-Americans as managers, something that finally happened three years after he died.

Seven decades later, the Great Game honors Robinson every April 15th, when all players wear his number 42. It is a fine tribute, but this is also a time when outspoken African-American athletes are admonished by some to “shut up and dribble.” That modern form of racist vitriol and disparagement is a reminder that Jackie Robinson’s task is not yet done, and that it falls to all of us to continue the work. While the job may seem daunting, we can take comfort in the idea first formulated by the 19th century abolitionist minister Theodore Parker and later popularized by Dr. King – the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

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Responses

  1. …the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

    Hear, hear, Mike. This is a great look back. I used to work with a guy who poured over the Sports page in the daily newspaper and skimmed through the front page. He said that everything you needed to know about tomorrow’s news is in today’s Sports section.
    Ω

    • Thanks very much Allan. I agree with your old co-worker, as the name I chose for my site suggests. True for you and that guy, true in Jackie’s time, and still true today.

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com

      • Live and learn, if we’re lucky.
        Ω

  2. Excellent piece. The wheels of justice turn slowly.


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