By Bennett Liebman Government Lawyer in Residence Albany Law School
April 15th has become the major celebratory day in modern baseball. It's Jackie Robinson Day, the day that Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball on opening day in 1947, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. It has become a seminal event, the day where American sports transformed broader American society. There are regular calls to turn April 15th into a national holiday.
However, despite our current view of Robinson's baseball baptism, a look at the actual media coverage of the event in 1947 shows a secondary or even tertiary story. The sportswriters and newspaper editors of 1947 did not see Robinson's breakthrough as the major story we think of today.
There were no front-page stories on Robinson integrating baseball. There were no banner headlines on the sports pages about Robinson.
In the New York papers, the Robinson story played third fiddle to 2 other stories at the Dodgers- Braves game. The focus was on the year-long suspension of Dodger manager Leo Durocher for gambling by baseball commissioner Happy Chandler. This was followed by the exploits of Dodger centerfielder "Pistol Pete" Reiser, who accounted for all the runs in the Dodgers 5-3 victory. Reiser went 2 for 2, drove in 2 runs and scored the other 3 runs. The Robinson debut finished third.
The main New York papers assigned a beat writer to cover the Dodger game plus a columnist.
At the hometown Brooklyn Eagle, the game story by Harold Burr did not mention Robinson until the ninth paragraph. Similarly, columnist Tommy Holmes, writing "Clinical Notes on Opening Day" first referred to Robinson in the eighth paragraph.
At the Daily News, beat reporter Dick Young mentioned Robinson only once, and that was in the fifth paragraph of his story. Columnist Jimmy Powers split his column between his views and the voice of the Brooklyn fans. He failed to mention Robinson in his views, but in the back half of his columns, 5 of the 17 fans referred to Robinson.
At The New York Times, beat writer Roscoe McGowen referred to Robinson only in passing in the sixth and fifteenth paragraph of his story. Future Pulitzer Prize Arthur Daley in his Sports of the Times column first acknowledged Robinson in the tenth paragraph of his column by noting that his debut was "quite uneventful."
Bob Cooke's beat story for the Herald Tribune mentioned Robinson 3 times in his story. The first mention, in the fifth paragraph of the story, noted that while many observers had come to the ballpark to see Robinson, "as the innings passed it was all any one could do to keep their eyes on Reiser." The Tribune's legendary columnist Red Smith wrote about Durocher's absence and its effect on attendance. Robinson did not make it into the column until the twelfth paragraph, after mentions of Spider Jorgenson and Earl Torgeson. Robinson was described as a "dark and anxious young man" as well as "able, nervous and uncertain of his fielding chores."
Nor was Robinson a presence in the articles written by the major sports columnists outside New York City. The most renown sportswriter of that era, Grantland Rice, wrote 2 columns on baseball in the days after Robinson's debut. One was on the comeback of pitcher Schoolboy Rowe; the other was on the fact that none of the most accomplished managers in baseball were managing in 1947. The other A list sports columnists, Arch Ward in the Chicago Tribune, Shirley Povich in the Washington Post, Braven Dyer in the Los Angeles Times, Hy Hurwitz in the Boston Globe, and Al Abrams in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did not write about the Robinson debut. Robinson was mentioned in the Boston Globe story in its game story with reporter Melville Webb stating, "Jack Robinson came nowhere near connecting for a hit, his longest blow being a pop fly to Litwhiler. The boy has a 'spread eagle" stance at the plate and handles his bat with no particular style."
The newspapers outside New York and Boston did not run their own articles on Robinson. The ones that did mention Robinson's play simply used wire service stories. The AP ran a 2-paragraph summary of the Dodger game with Robinson mentioned in the second paragraph. That was all that ran in Robinson's hometown Los Angeles Times as well as in many other papers. The United Press ran a summary of all the baseball games played on opening day, with the Robinson story making the seventh paragraph. The AP also did a separate sidebar on Robinson by Gayle Talbot, which featured Robinson saying that he wasn't nervous before the game. This ran in a very limited number of papers.
Even the Daily Worker, which had championed the integration of Major League Baseball, gave the Robinson story short shrift. The Worker's Lester Rodney mentioned Robinson in passing in the fourth paragraph and in the eleventh and final paragraph of his article. At the Daily Worker, the success of the masses played second fiddle to "Petey Reiser, the erstwhile cripple and favorite of the Flatbush fans."
On opening day in 1975, a reporter asked the Daily News' Dick Young about Robinson's 1947 debut at Ebbets Field. Young told the reporter he honestly couldn't remember it. It was not a surprising answer because to the media of the time, April 15, 1947 in Brooklyn was "Leo Durocher Day" or "Pete Reiser Day." It was certainly not "Jackie Robinson Day."