A sporting event of historic sociological significance took place here 48 years ago today when Jackie Robinson officially integrated major league baseball in a spring training exhibition at City Island ballpark.
When Robinson played five innings at second base for the Montreal Royals against the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was the first time a black player had participated in professional baseball on the same field with white players, but except for the black press the incident went relatively unnoticed.
Today, the tidy little ballpark on the banks of the Halifax River has been renamed Jackie Robinson Stadium and is the home of the Daytona Cubs of the Class-A Florida State League. In front of the stadium stands a life-sized statue of Robinson--in the road uniform of the Royals--with two small children.
A plaque below, dedicated Sept. 15, 1990 by Robinson’s widow, Rachel, tells the story better than it was told in 1946:
“Formerly known as City Island Ball Park, this is the site of the first racially integrated spring training game which was played on March 17, 1946, between the Brooklyn Dodgers and Montreal Royals. Hall of Fame legend Jackie Robinson played for Montreal, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team, thus marking an historic event in the struggle to achieve equality of opportunity in modern major league baseball.
“The Daytona Beach community was proud to have hosted that legendary game and spring training, both of which were viewed as milestones in the history of sports and civil rights.”
In 1946, Florida had strict segregation laws for travel, lodging, eating places and recreational facilities. The game was held at Daytona Beach after earlier attempts by Montreal to play Robinson led to games being canceled at Jacksonville and DeLand. The one in DeLand was called off because the stadium lights were out of order--although it was a day game.
At the time, most of the baseball community hoped that Robinson and Branch Rickey’s Great Experiment with segregation would simply go away. No one knew then that in a few years Robinson would be the National League’s most valuable player, lead the Dodgers to the World Series and become a Hall of Fame performer.
He had been an all-Southern California high school catcher at Pasadena Muir Tech and an all-junior college shortstop at Pasadena JC, but when he hit below .200 in his senior year at UCLA and was unimpressive in early spring training with Montreal, his future--and the future of black athletes in all team sports--was far from assured.
The Daytona Evening News thought so little of the game that the story appeared on page 10 and Bernard Kahn’s story did not mention Robinson until the fifth paragraph. The story focused on Dixie Walker, who hit a triple after having ended a holdout that saw him become the Dodgers’ highest-paid player.
Kahn, the longtime sports editor for whom the press box is named at Daytona International Raceway, wrote of Robinson:
“A house of 3,000 filled the Island Park, and all eyes were focused upon Jackie Robinson, hefty Montreal second sacker and the first negro to appear in an organized baseball game. Playing under terrific pressure, Robinson conducted himself well afield during his five-inning stint. He handled two chances aptly.
“At bat, Robinson popped out in the second and fourth frames. The ex-Army lieutenant slammed a hard hit grounder in the sixth and was safe when Howie Schultz was forced at second. Robinson stole second, drawing a wide round of applause from the audience. Catcher Ferrell Anderson singled to short center, and Robinson, running like a scared rabbit, breezed across the plate with the Royals’ second and final run of the afternoon.”
Brooklyn won the game, 7-2.
(In Los Angeles, where Robinson had made his reputation as a four-sport letterman at UCLA, The Times made no mention of the game, except for a linescore among the exhibition baseball results. The big story that Sunday was Sam Hanks winning a midget auto race before 35,000 in the Coliseum.)
Even though this game broke the race barrier, it was not the end of Robinson’s problems in Florida.
A few days later, in Sanford, the chief of police arrived in the second inning and told Royal Manager Clay Hopper that Robinson and John Wright, a black pitcher who had been signed with Robinson, had to be removed from the ballpark or the game would be stopped.
The spring of 1946 had marked the return of major league teams to Florida for training after they had to remain in the north for several years because of World War II travel restrictions.
Rickey choose Daytona Beach for the Dodgers’ training site after being assured that his two black players would be permitted to play.
Jim Titus, Daytona city manager, issued a warning, however, when he told Rickey: “Robinson will run into some strict segregation laws if he arrives with the Montreal team. He will not be allowed to stay in the same hotel with the white players and will be forced to use other services set aside for Negroes only.”
When Robinson and his wife wanted to watch the Dodgers against other major league teams in spring games, they had to sit in the right-field bleachers where, by law, all black fans were segregated in the Jim Crow Section.
The Daytona ballpark, freshly scrubbed and painted in blue and white Cub colors, is a throwback to an earlier era with its wooden outfield fence plastered with local advertising. It was originally built in 1936 when the Daytona Beach Islanders became a charter member of the Florida State League.
A number of major league teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City A’s, Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers, supported the Daytona team before the Cubs took control in 1993. The city’s 46th season will begin April 12 against Sarasota. Daytona has won five pennants during that span.
Stan Musial was a left-handed pitcher for the Islanders in 1940 and won 18 games before a fall in the sandy outfield injured his shoulder late in the season and caused him to be shifted to the outfield for his hitting.
The Cubs, with a seating capacity of 4,067, attracted 95,089 fans in 65 games last season, one of the league’s highest averages. A municipal facility, Jackie Robinson Stadium is also home to teams from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and Bethune-Cookman College, a mostly-black school where Robinson spent many of his off-hours in 1946.