April 18, 1946
The term “clutch” is often ascribed to professional athletes who raise the level of their performance at the most crucial, pressure-packed moments in order to positively sway the outcome of a competition, series or season. But rarely, if ever, has a player in any sport come through with a clutch performance in the face of greater scrutiny, adversity and pure hatred than did Jackie Robinson, when he made his Minor League debut with the International League’s Montreal Royals at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium. Nor is it likely that there have been many sporting events that have had a greater impact on an entire society.
While the whole country followed Branch Rickey’s “great experiment” from afar, approximately 50,000 fans — more than double the stadium’s capacity — watched in person that Thursday afternoon in New Jersey as the 27-year-old Robinson starred in an event that would prove emblematic of the rest of his 1946 season. “Although I was wearing the colors of the enemy,” recalled Robinson in his autobiography, My Own Story, “the Jersey City fans gave me a fine ovation. And my teammates were shouting, ‘Come on, Jackie, start it off. This guy can’t pitch. Get a-hold of one!’Batting second in the Royals lineup, Robinson grounded out to shortstop on a full-count pitch in the top of the first inning. It was the only out he would make all day. In the third inning, with Montreal leading by a run, Tom Tatum and George Shuba reached base in front of Robinson, who again worked the count to 3-and-2. “I swung at the next pitch with everything I had,” he recounted. “There was a crack like a rifle shot in my ears. The ball sailed some 340 feet and disappeared over the left-field fence. Tatum and Shuba trotted home ahead of me. Once again those Jersey City fans cheered and applauded, and when I crossed home plate, George Shuba was waiting for me. ‘That’s the way to hit that ball, Jackie,’ Shuba said. ‘That’s the old ball game right there.’ He shook my hand.” ( Listen to Shuba recall the event.)
In the fifth, Jackie laid down one of what would become his patented bunts for a single. He stole second and advanced to third on a groundout by Tatum. Robinson then further endeared himself to the crowd when, dancing off the bag and bluffing for home, he rattled Giants pitcher Phil Oates to the point that he stopped in mid-windup, sending Robinson home on a balk call. The crowd went wild, clearly in Jackie’s corner. He singled and stole second again in the seventh, and then, in the eighth, laid down another perfect bunt. “I finally got as far as third base and once again started dancing menacingly up and down the base line,” Jackie recalled in My Own Story. “Herb Andrews was pitching for Jersey City now and he also got flustered and committed a balk. Once again the umpire waved me home.”
When all was said and done, Robinson had gone 4-for-5 with four runs scored, a home run, four RBIs, two stolen bases and two forced balk calls in Montreal’s 14-1 pasting of the Giants. Jackie’s linescore and the Royals’ rout were indicative the success they would have throughout the season. But more importantly, the turnout and response of the fans, as well as the support of his teammates, was a sign of things to come.
“We all sensed that history was in the making,” Robinson said about that day, “that the long ban against Negro players was about to come crashing down, setting up reverberations that would echo across a continent and perhaps around the world. I believe everyone in Roosevelt Stadium that day realized that he was witnessing a significant collapse in the ancient wall of prejudice.”
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In the embedded frame below, you’ll find the first 3 chapters of Baseball’s Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel. The first chapter, “The Crucible of White-Hot Competition,” discusses Robinson’s debut game at length.