- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

Rarely has a major league team opened a season with as much unrest swirling about its collective head as the Brooklyn Dodgers did on April 15, 1947.

Six days earlier, commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler suspended manager Leo Durocher for the season because of “conduct detrimental to baseball.” The volatile skipper had consorted with gamblers and had divorced his wife to marry actress Laraine Day, the latter prompting many Catholic churches in Brooklyn to ostracize him.

Now the Dodgers would be led by Burt Shotton, an elderly gentleman who managed while wearing street clothes in the dugout rather than a uniform. And their first baseman was Jackie Robinson, the first black man to appear in the majors since 1884.

Robinson’s achievement in surmounting baseball’s unwritten color barrier would prove the far more important story, signaling as it did the start of an era in which America’s national pastime would become open to all. But at the time, Durocher’s disappearance seemed more important.

Leo the Lip, baseball’s most famous manager, rescued the Dodgers from years of mediocrity upon taking over in 1939, won a pennant in ‘41 and tied for another in ‘46 before losing a playoff series to the St. Louis Cardinals. Love him or hate him, you always knew Durocher was around — except suddenly he wasn’t.

Fifty years after that Opening Day, Robinson would be hailed posthumously in ballparks across the land and his No.42 retired by all teams, with the minor provision that players already wearing it could continue to do so. But in the spring of 1947, he was just another rookie with a doubtful future — and one who was making his debut at the advanced age of 28, playing an unfamiliar position and bearing perhaps the greatest burden of any player ever.

When Robinson broke into Organized Baseball with the Class AAA Montreal Royals a year earlier, not one of seven mainstream New York City newspapers sent a reporter across the river to Jersey City to cover the event. Nor, in that more socially restrictive time, was his major league debut considered a major news event.

The New York Herald Tribune led its sports section the morning of the opener by noting that former New York Yankees manager Joe McCarthy had turned down an offer to manage the Dodgers. Robinson’s historic bow was mentioned in a preview story only after the revelation that Ebbets Field fixture Gladys Gooding would accompany herself on the stadium organ as she sang the national anthem.

In his story the following day on the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory over the Boston Braves, New York Daily News beat writer Dick Young made no mention of Robinson. Re-reading his piece decades later, Young was shocked that he had paid no heed to this epochal event.

“But then I realized that Jackie wasn’t a factor in the game that day, so I didn’t mention him.” Young said. “That’s how things were done back then.”

True. Robinson went 0-for-3 officially at the plate before a crowd of 25,623, some 6,000 below Ebbets’ capacity, on a chilly day, Many of the fans were more concerned with Durocher than Robinson; Shorty Laurice, a member of the team’s brassy “Dodger Sym-Phony” band, carried a sign reading, “Open the Door, Chandler, and Let Our Leo In!”

For many black fans in the stands, however, Robinson was the man of the hour. Every time he came up, cries like “come on, Jackie — we’re with you, boy!” could be heard.

Robinson’s wife, Rachel, arrived with infant Jackie Jr., later than intended because she had trouble getting a cab from the hotel where they lived to the ballpark. She wore only a light coat, but the mother-in-law of future Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella cuddled the baby inside her fur coat and demanded that his formula be heated by a hot dog vendor.

On his first three trips, Jackie grounded to third, flied to left and grounded into a double play. In the seventh inning, he sacrificed toward Braves first baseman Earl Torgeson, and Robinson’s speed down the line so rattled Torgeson that he made a bad throw to the second baseman covering, which led to a two-run double by Pete Reiser. Defensively, Robinson, normally a middle infielder, handled 11 chances perfectly at first base.

In the ninth, Shotton replaced Robinson in the field with a natural first baseman, Howie Schultz. But the first blow for true justice in baseball had been struck.

Yet Robinson, a perfectionist, was hardly satisfied. Years after the fact, he described his first game this way: “I did a miserable job. I was in a slump. … In the next four games, I went to the plate 20 times without getting one single hit. I felt tortured.”

Not for long, though.

Ignoring taunts and slurs from many opponents, most ignominiously the Philadelphia Phillies and Southern-born manager Ben Chapman, Robinson batted .297 that season and drove opposing teams crazy on the basepaths, was named National League Rookie of the Year and helped “The Boys of Summer” Dodgers win the first of their six pennants in his 10 seasons.

Fifteen years later, in 1962, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame — and nobody ever deserved it more.

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