Jack Roosevelt Robinson of the Montreal Royals, the top minor league team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, became the first Black in what was called “organized professional baseball” in the 20th century when he took the field during a game against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey, on April 18, 1946.
Minutes before the game started, Robinson stood with his teammates on one of the base lines during the National Anthem “with a lump in my throat and my heart beating rapidly," he said, "my stomach feeling as if it were full of feverish fireflies with claws on their feet.”
He remembered the hot sun beating on him and the burning pressure of shouldering the burden for millions of Blacks who had hooked their dreams to him. If Robinson succeeded in the white man’s world, then maybe they could. If Robinson won the respect of whites, then maybe they could too.
But Robinson would have to succeed. He struggled during spring training in Florida. He couldn’t hit and he injured his arm and could barely throw. He faced unceasing bigotry on and off the field. His teammates ignored him and he wondered how long he would stay with that team if he didn’t perform.
Robinson hit a weak grounder to the Jersey City shortstop in his first at-bat and was easily thrown out.
When Robinson batted again with two runners on base and none out in the third inning, he hit a fastball over the left field stands for a home run. Watching from the press box, Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith, Robinson’s friend and confidante, broke into laughter. “Our hearts beat just a little faster,” Smith wrote in his newspaper column, “and the thrill ran through us like champagne bubbles.
Robinson trotted around the bases. When he passed third, his manager Clay Hopper, a Mississippian who had refused to shake Robinson’s hand when they had been introduced at the beginning of spring training, warmly patted him on the back.
When Robinson got to home plate, a smiling George Shuba, who followed Robinson in the batting order, reached out his hand and gave his teammate a congratulatory handshake.
A photo appeared in newspapers throughout the country, as I write in my book "Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson's First Spring Training," recording the towering magnitude of a simple gesture. This was the first time many Americans – there’s no telling how many – saw a Black and white man exchanging a handshake, whether in person or in a photograph.
Though April 15 is the anniversary of Robinson's first MLB game, and deserves its special place in history, there were actually other important events involving Robinson that have faded into history, such as this handshake.
Sculptor Marc Mellon has captured what has been called “the handshake of the century” in a seven-foot statue in Shuba’s hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. A ceremony to dedicate the statue on the 75th anniversary of the handshake was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"If you look at the photograph you can see the pure joy of the moment,” Mellon told "CBS Sunday Morning." “Shuba didn’t care whether Robinson was black or white," he said, adding: “As George was known to say in later life, 'I would’ve shaken his hand if he was Technicolor!'"
Shuba’s son Mike said his father, who died in 2014, didn’t shake Robinson’s hand to make a statement about racism; he did it because it was the right thing to do. “He always taught me as a young kid, if you're ever put on the spot, just do the right thing and everything'll work out fine,” Mike said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Robinson finished the games with four hits, four runs scored, and two stolen bases as Montreal won, 14-1.
When the game ended, Robinson was swarmed by cheering Montreal fans, many of them children, who wanted an autograph or simply to touch their hero. Robinson showered and changed into his street clothes before leaving the dressing room, where his wife Rachel was waiting for him.
“You’ve had quite a day, little man,” she said, smiling.
The New York Times reported that Robinson, whose confidence had been wounded during spring training, converted “his opportunity into a brilliant triumph.”
The photo of Shuba shaking Robinson’s hand ran in newspapers throughout the country. Mike Shuba said the photo remained in his father’s living room for decades. ‘Look at that photo,” his father would say. “I want you to remember what that photo stands for. … You treat all people equally.'"
The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson the next April and he played his first game for them on April 15, 1947. Shuba joined the Dodgers in 1948.
There is another statue of Robinson and a white teammate in Brooklyn, N.Y. It depicts Dodgers’ shortstop Pee Wee Reese putting his hand on the shoulder of Robinson to express his support for his teammate as he was being heckled by bigots during a game with the Cincinnati Reds on May 13, 1947.
There is no photograph to document this moment.
The coronavirus pandemic has – temporarily at least — replaced congratulatory handshakes with fist pumps, which are perhaps more sanitary but lack the intimacy of a handshake, particularly one between a white man and a black man in 1946, before the civil rights movement had a name and when racial equality was a fleck on the conscience in most of white America.
Chris Lamb, who is chair of the department of journalism and public relations at Indiana University-Indianapolis, is the author of Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography. He can be reached at [email protected]
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