When Jackie Robinson Played in Cleveland
Bob Toth | On 15, Apr 2018
While weather played havoc with the annual celebration of the life of Jackie Robinson, the lighter MLB schedule does not prohibit us at Did The Tribe Win Last Night from looking back at the time Robinson’s playing career brought him through the city of Cleveland.
On April 15th of every year, Major League Baseball takes pause to recognize the contributions of Jackie Robinson to the advancement of African-Americans and minorities as a whole in professional sports and, in a much larger construct, in the society as we know it today.
Teams honor the life and legacy of Robinson by removing their traditional names and numbers from the backs of their jerseys, instead wearing a nameless #42, which returns to diamonds across the country on the anniversary of his breaking of the color barrier. While inclement weather at stops all across the country led to the cancellation of a half dozen games on Sunday, it will lead to an extended commemoration of Robinson as those 42 jerseys will be “unretired” again during make-up games in May and June for the ten affected clubs.
The career arch of Robinson is now well known. He had been playing for the Kansas City Monarchs when he was signed by Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers in August of 1945. He played minor league ball in Montreal with the Royals in 1946 preceding his Major League debut on April 15, 1947. In a hitless 0-for-3 at the plate, Robinson shook the world as it was known and doors began to open, including one less than three months later in Cleveland when owner Bill Veeck acquired Larry Doby from the Newark Eagles in a cash exchange. The legacies of Robinson and Doby would forever be entwined when Doby put on an Indians uniform and took the field for the first time on July 5, 1947.
Robinson was 28 when he reached the biggest stage of all and played first base, not the second base for which he was much better known. He hit .297, had an on-base percentage of .383, and led the league with 29 stolen bases and the MLB with 28 sacrifices and earned the Rookie of the Year award after appearing in 151 games for the Dodgers.
Playing in an era devoid of the Interleague series of the last two decades, Robinson faced just eight different teams during the regular season and postseason portions of his playing days, including the other seven National League squads and the New York Yankees, which he would see in the World Series six different times (1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956). He and his Dodgers teammates took home the crown just once – in 1955.
Because the Dodgers finished third at 84-70 in 1948 and second with a 92-62 record in 1954, five games in back of the New York Giants, Brooklyn and Cleveland had been limited to just one series against one another – the 1920 World Series, played when Robinson was just 21 months old. Even now with Interleague play, the clubs have met just four times in the regular season (2003, 2008, 2014, and 2017). The Dodgers hold a 7-5 advantage in the regular season, but the Indians have the more important 5-2 advantage and a World Championship against them.
But in 1948, Robinson came back to Cleveland as the Indians and Dodgers each hosted a pair of charity exhibition contests for local sandlot teams during small breaks in the regular season schedule. It was not his first trip to the city; he had visited in 1945 while playing with the Monarchs against the Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League. The Buckeyes resided at League Park, with occasional games under the lights at Cleveland Stadium.
The Indians took to the road first on June 14, 1948, visiting Ebbets Field for the first time since that 1920 series. They had just concluded a four-city east coast trip through Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York and were due to play a lengthy homestand against the same clubs in Cleveland beginning the 15th.
A crowd of 12,622 took in the exhibition in Brooklyn and witnessed the first time that two African-American players were on opposite sides of the same Major League playing fields. Robinson’s teammate, Roy Campanella, had become the third African-American to play in a Major League game, but after three games in late April, he was sent to the minors, returning in July.
The game raised $15,000 for sandlot ball players of Flatbush, helping the Brooklyn Amateur Baseball Federation. Robinson was one of the stars of the game, hitting a two-run homer in the third inning as the Dodgers defeated the Indians, 6-2.
The teams met again on July 14th in Cleveland on the annual “Amateur Day”, with both clubs off for the final day of the All-Star break. A pregame foot race between Doby and Robinson was one of the events scheduled, but instead, Satchel Paige became the focal point of the day.
The new Indians right-hander and ageless wonder had signed the week prior. He made his Major League debut in a relief effort on July 9th at home against the St. Louis Browns, allowing two hits and striking out one in a 5-3 loss. After years of barnstorming and playing in the Negro Leagues, Paige and his potential contributions to the Indians pitching staff and the Major League game were both unknowns. What he was not, according to Veeck, was a publicity stunt, despite claims of such from The Sporting News in their July 14, 1948, publication.
Prior to the game, the Cleveland Baseball Federation had increased estimates for the attendance to 40,000, which would enable the sandlots to make at least $20,000-$25,000. A Class A contest between amateur teams started at 5:30 PM and no inning would start after 7:30, with play between the Dodgers and Indians set to start after the completion of brief ceremonies between the two clubs at 8:15 PM. It was broadcast on air by WJW and WJW-FM and telecast by WEWS-TV in Cleveland.
A total of 65,922 people showed to the exhibition.
It took eleven innings for the game to play out and Paige, who was the fourth to cross the color lines and the second in the junior circuit, blew through the Dodgers in a relief outing. He struck out the side in the seventh inning on just 12 pitches. He followed with a scoreless eighth, recorded a hit in his only at bat, and left to a robust ovation from the large crowd present.
Robinson was not nearly as productive as in his first game against the Indians, as he was 0-for-2 at the plate.
There were boos from the crowd at times, some directed at Robinson. Estimates of nearly 26,000 of the nearly 66,000 fans in attendance were black, or roughly one out of every six blacks in Cleveland at that time [“Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947-1959”; Larry Moffi, Jonathan Kronstadt, pg. 8].
The Dodgers would return to prominence the next season. Robinson, Campanella, Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, and Doby would all be All-Stars in 1949, with Doby becoming the first black All-Star in American League history.
Robinson would be named to six consecutive All-Star teams through the 1954 season before his career began to wind down. The 1956 season would be his tenth and final, and in December of that year, he was traded to the New York Giants. He wrote a letter to Giants owner Horace Stoneham, informing him of his intentions to be placed on the voluntarily retired list to “devote [his] full time to the business opportunities that have been presented.” He later formally filed his retirement paperwork, bringing an end to his career.
On August 24, 1962, Robinson returned to Cleveland Stadium and was joined by Indians legend Bob Feller, former Indians coach Bill McKechnie, and Edd Roush for “Hall of Fame Night” in Cleveland. The four newest members of the Hall of Fame were in attendance and were set to be introduced to the crowd present in a simple pregame ceremony.
Robinson had been elected to the Hall on his first ballot, as was Feller.
Said Robinson in a quote from Hal Lebovitz of The Plain Dealer the following day, “Every day, it seems the honor gets greater. Right now I’m floating. Even my wife Rachel, who usually takes things in stride, has come to feel it.”
Now, Robinson is honored every year as players around the league wear his famed number 42, retired league-wide on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of the day that he broke the color barrier in the MLB.
Photo: Bettman via Getty Images