On this Day in 1946: Jackie Robinson’s Minor League Debut

Seventy-eight years ago today, Jackie Robinson sat in the visitor’s locker room of Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium. Suiting up with his Montréal Royals teammates, Robinson was about to do what no Black man had done since 1899 – play in a minor league baseball game. Johnny Wright, another Black ballplayer was on the roster that day, too, but Wright was a pitcher and was not scheduled to play. Robinson would be the one and only Black player in the game that day.

Opening Day in Jersey City was a big deal back then, a city-wide holiday. Mayor Frank Hague and his political machine that ran the city since 1917 expected every single municipal employee to purchase a ticket to give Jersey City bragging rights as the largest opening day crowd every year. Although 25,000 fans streamed through the turnstiles that afternoon, twice that number of tickets were sold to the game. And, as Hague demanded, that 25,000 allowed Jersey City to easily lead the International League in attendance that day. But, more importantly, those 25,000 got to witness history being made.

Once the bands stopped and Mayor Hague threw out the first ball, Jackie Robinson was on his own.

Robinson’s fame as a college athlete, his university education, and experience as an army officer made him the perfect man for a very difficult job. Many Negro League ballplayers expressed disappointment that he was to be the first to integrate the game. His manager with Montréal silently questioned whether or not a Black man was even human. Bob Feller, who pitched against Robinson in 1945, thought so little of his talent said “If he were a white man, I doubt if they would even consider him big league material, except perhaps as a bat boy.”

Yet Robinson faced it all with quiet dignity and strength.

In that first game in Jersey City he went 4 for 5, including a three-run homer, scored 4 runs, drove in 3, and stole 2 bases. Overcoming immense racial pressure, Jackie won over his teammates and fans with his natural physical ability and intense drive to win.

Sparked by his play, Montréal won the Little World Series of 1946, and the next year he was playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, forever shattering the major leagues’ color barrier.

I know April 15 is now celebrated in the major leagues as “Jackie Robinson Day” and all the teams wear his number “42.” But for me, I look at April 18 78 years ago as the more important date to remember. Had Robinson failed to perform well in the minor leagues in 1946, he would not have been promoted to Brooklyn the next season.

History as we know it might have been completely different. But Robinson did succeed. He was promoted to Brooklyn the following year.

And, through his sheer determination, Jackie Robinson not only paved the way for the desegregation of the major leagues, but also the modern civil rights movement.

And it all began with that game in Jersey City on April 18, 1946.

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