Jackie Robinson’s star turn in Washington’s Griffith Stadium

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When Jackie Robinson came to Washington in the summer of 1945 for a Negro League game, people were already talking him up as a potential major leaguer, two years before he broke baseball’s color barrier.

“Sensational shortstop Jackie Robinson, [UCLA] athlete, All-American football star and tabbed as the one Negro player of major league caliber,” wrote the Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper, on the eve of the June 24 showdown between Robinson’s Kansas City Monarchs and DC’s Homestead Grays.

Later that summer, Robinson met Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey, leading to a minor league contract that paved the way for him to break baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 — an event that has been celebrated during this 75-year anniversary season.

Less remembered: Earlier in 1945, Robinson had a tryout with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park, along with two other Black players — Sam Jethroe, a future major leaguer, and Marvin Williams. The team only hosted those players under harshness; Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick, a civil rights champion, had threatened to rescind the waiver from Blue Laws that let the Red Sox and Boston Braves play on Sundays unless they gave Black players an opportunity.

After the April tryout, Boston Manager Joe Cronin, the former Washington Senators star player-manager, raved about Robinson, telling Muchnick, “If I had that guy on the club we’d be a world-beater.” The city councilman had the same take: “You never saw anyone hit the wall the way Robinson did that day. Bang, bang, bang — he rattled it.”

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In 1979, Cronin acknowledged to the Boston Globe, “It was a great mistake by us” to pass on Robinson, who recognized the tryout was a sham from the start.

“We knew we were wasting our time,” he said years later, according to a 1972 Boston Globe column. “It was April 1945. Nobody was serious then about Black players in the majors, except maybe a few politicians. … They said we’d hear from them. We knew we were getting the brushoff. We didn’t wait around to work out with the Braves. It would have been the same story.”

(The Red Sox wound up being the last team to integrate, in 1959.)

Two months after the tryout, Robinson was on his way to DC’s major league ballpark, Griffith Stadium, which the Senators rented out to the Grays.

“Outstanding newcomer to the Monarchs is shortstop Jackie Robinson,” The Washington Post reported in a preview, “six foot, 200 pound former football, basketball and baseball star at the University of California of Los Angeles, who presently is being acclaimed as the 1945 Negro baseball rookie of the year.” The article predicted that Robinson “may steal the show” from teammate Satchel Paige and Grays star Josh Gibson.

“Robinson not only is shaping up as a consistent hitter with tremendous power,” The Post reported, “but also is fitting neatly [at shortstop] despite his big frame. The big fellow is amazingly agile, is a smooth and graceful defensive man and has one of the best throwing arms in baseball.” (Robinson would play just one game at shortstop in his major league career, according to baseball-reference.com.)

The doubleheader, staged in the waning days of World War II, pitted the defending Negro national champion Grays against the star-studded Monarchs. With the Senators out of town on a 19-game road trip, 18,000 came out to see the twin bill, The Post reported. That was more than double the Senators’ average crowd of around 8,400 that year, even though the team was in a hotly contested American League pennant race, which saw Washington finish just 1½ games out of first.

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The Grays were stacked with four future Hall of Famers: Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell and 49-year-old Jud Wilson. The Monarchs had three Cooperstown-bound players: Robinson, Paige and Hilton Smith.

Robinson exceeded even the most bullish predictions. Batting third, he went 7 for 7 in the two games with a pair of doubles, although he did commit a costly error as the Grays swept the doubleheader.

“Although Jackie Robinson solved [pitcher Roy] Welmaker for a pair of doubles, two singles and a walk in four appearances, it was his poor throw to the plate with the bases filled, in the sixth inning of the first game, that brought ruin to the visitors,” the Baltimore Afro- American reported.

Robinson’s Monarchs returned for another game in Washington on Aug. 16, this time as part of a four-team doubleheader that drew 19,000. Robinson would finish the season with a team-best .375 batting average, a .449 on-base percentage and a .600 slugging percentage in what turned out to be his only Negro League season.

When Robinson helped fill the seats at Griffith Stadium, he also helped the bottom line of Senators owner Clark Griffith, who relied on rent from the Grays as a revenue stream. Robinson’s deal with the Dodgers signaled the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues. Perhaps worried about a loss of income, Griffith assailed Rickey for signing Robinson without compensating the Monarchs.

“While it is true that we have no agreement with Negro leagues — National and American — we still can’t act like outlaws in taking their stars,” said Griffith, according to the Associated Press, on Oct. 24. “If Brooklyn wanted to buy Robinson from Kansas City, that would be all right, but contracts of Negro teams should be recognized by organized baseball.”

Rickey was unmoved. “The Negro organizations in baseball are not leagues, nor, in my opinion, do they even have an organization. As at present administered they are in the nature of a racket,” he said, according to the New York Times.

In his autobiography, Robinson recalled the objections by Griffith and other owners.

“Overnight, some of the prejudiced white owners and officials became extremely concerned about the future of the Negro leagues,” he wrote. “They mourned because Mr. Rickey was destroying the defenseless black clubs.” When the Monarchs threatened to sue Rickey, some major league owners encouraged the Negro League team, Robinson added.

“These owners wanted to stop blacks from getting into the mainstream of baseball, and some were making money leasing their ball parks to the Jim Crow teams,” he wrote. “Clark Griffith, owner of the Washington Senators, said that the Dodgers should pay the Monarchs for my services.” Griffith was the only owner Robinson mentioned by name.

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Ironically, Griffith had in years past spoken about the possibility of integrating baseball. As far back as 1937, he told legendary Black sportswriter Sam Lacy of the Washington Tribune, who grew up just five blocks from Griffith Stadium: “The time is not far off when colored players will take their places beside those of other races in the major leagues. However, I am not so sure that time has arrived yet.”

Indeed, it would be another 17 years before the Senators finally put a Black player on the roster; they promoted the Cuban-born Carlos Paula in September 1954.

Lacy, who had long championed the cause of integrating baseball, said in a 1990 interview with Sports Illustrated that he was unimpressed with Griffith, who fretted that if he signed Black players he would hasten the death of the Negro leagues. “The Negro leagues were a symbol of segregation,” Lacy told the magazine. “If they had become successful, the world outside might never have known of Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. The black leagues were separate and unequal.”

Robinson spent 1946 with the Dodgers’ top minor league in Montreal, then played his entire major league career with the Dodgers in the National League, at a time when Washington played in the American League and interleague games didn’t exist. Although Robinson appeared in several exhibition games with the Dodgers at Griffith Stadium over the years, fans never got another chance to watch him play a regular season game in Washington.

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