My Father and Jackie Robinson’s First Game

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Associated Press

I’d like to believe my father’s story about attending Jackie Robinson’s historic first game. Of course, this was the game where Robinson, Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers changed the world forever. However, my father tended to embellish his past and occasionally his present. Thus, I’m never sure how much of any of his stories actually happened.

For example, he once gave me what he said was Muhammad Ali’s autograph. However, the signature looked suspiciously like his handwriting. Was it just a coincidence that he met Ali and their handwriting was so similar?

Nevertheless, I have fond memories of my father’s claim that he was at the game. I choose to believe his story.

My Father

My father was an award-winning, brilliant engineer and author. During his career, he earned masters degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering. Additionally, he received a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Applied mathematics because the school he taught at did not offer an engineering Ph.D. We all knew that he was a smart guy.

But he embellished his past. For example, he used to joke about how he fulfilled his Ph.D.’s foreign language requirement. Over a weekend he prepared by reading a French language textbook. The following Monday’s test was to translate a passage, written in French. Upon review, he realized the paragraphs contained a math problem with explanatory text. First, he solved the problem. Then he used his calculations and a cursory knowledge of French to translate the text. Since he tended to embellish the past – who knows if this story is true. However, anyone who knew him well would think it was possible.

My Father at Yale

Allan D. Kraus was born and raised in Brooklyn and loved Opera and the Dodgers. He told me that he spent his winters at the Met and summers at Ebbets Field. However, I sense that he combined his intelligence with hard work and ambition. For example, each day he would travel from Brooklyn to the Bronx High School of Science to attend one of the best high schools in America.

In December 1943, he turned 18 and hitchhiked from Antioch College to Cincinnati to join the Navy. After the war, he finished his undergraduate work at Yale and played on their baseball team. He was a pretty good catcher. Although he had some skill and the desire to play the game, he was not good enough to play professionally. He failed a tryout with the New York Giants after college.

Ebbets Field

Unfortunately, I was born the winter the Dodgers left Brooklyn and never saw Ebbets Field. However, the stories of this small, intimate, neighborhood ballpark with its odd assortment of characters, enchant me. Each makes me wish I was just a bit older or could go back in time. I’d love to sit in the stands at Ebbets Field and experience the sights and sounds.

1st Pitch of 1956 World Series at Ebbets Field

In 1994, my 96-year-old grandmother – dad’s mother, died. On the day of the burial, he wanted to drive around the old neighborhood. It was his form of mourning. Ultimately, we went in search of the Ebbets Field location. The Ebbets Field Apartments now occupy the site.

I didn’t realize the significance as we crossed the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues. However, my father remembered it as the location of the Dodgers planned replacement for Ebbets Field.

Introducing “Deceit Into Baseball”

In its heyday, people walked to Ebbets Field. However, fans were leaving Brooklyn for the suburbs. Driving to the ballpark was difficult because of the area’s limited parking. Moreover, mass transit to that part of Brooklyn was difficult. Accordingly, attendance was dropping. The Dodgers needed a new home.

We all know the story. The city denied the Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley’s proposal. Instead, the influential public works administrator, Robert Moses, offered a site on Willets Point in Queens. O’Malley, would not move the Dodgers to Queens and they landed in Los Angeles.

People still argue as to who is to blame for the loss of the Dodgers. Was it Moses or O’Malley or market forces? Maybe all three. However, my father’s opinion was clear. As we drove through the intersection he said, “that’s where Walter O’Malley introduced deceit into baseball.” The pain and loss never left him. In his mind it was Walter O’Malley’s fault.

The Mets now play on Willets Point, in Queens.

Jackie Robinson

Every once in a while, the Brooklyn Dodgers would enter my consciousness. When I was four, my father and I met Duke Snider in the lobby of a San Francisco hotel. Snider was Brooklyn’s great centerfielder. He was “the Duke” in the song “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey and the Duke)”

“They knew them all from Boston to Dubuque
Especially Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.” 1

Additionally, he told me how Roy Campanella’s tragic accident occurred near where we lived, the winter I was born. Campenella was Brooklyn’s great catcher.

However, there were only occasional stories and chance meetings. My father didn’t talk about his childhood that much. As such, his comments about Jackie Robinson or the Dodgers were few and far between. He’d see a clip of Jackie on TV and wistfully say something like, “Christ, he was beautiful.”

Consequently, I didn’t acquire my love and admiration for Jackie Robinson from my dad. Instead, as I grew older, I learned about and understood Jackie’s accomplishments and contributions on my own.

Moreover, I fell in love with Jackie’s style of play. For example, the way Jackie held his bat and slashed at the pitched ball. After contact, how he ran with his arms pumping, almost as if they were pulling him down the line. His loose, wool uniform flapping in the breeze and hat almost flying off as he ran. Moreover, his grace as he danced off a base, ready to steal another. Finally, Jackie stealing home against the Yankees and calmly walking off, leaving Yogi to argue the call.

The Poster

Over time, I started collecting photos and posters of Jackie. In my office, I have three framed posters.

One of them is of Jackie stealing home against the Cubs in 1952. Jackie is sliding with his hat suspended in air. The catcher, Johnny Pramesa is stretching to make the tag. Preacher Rowe, the hitter, watching as Augie Guglielmo concentrates on making the call.2

Bettman Archive/ Getty Images

Then there is the famous picture of Jackie stealing home in the World Series. Yogi Berra in the foreground trying to make the tag. Jackie, with a look of determination, is deftly sliding into the plate.

Mark Kauffman

Finally, there is my sentimental favorite, “Jackie Robinson Leaving Ebbets Field, 1947.” In this photo, Jackie is walking away from the stadium on Sullivan Place. He is younger, no white hair, and walking with his memorable pigeon-toed stride. As always, he is elegantly dressed, wearing a light colored, camel coat. It’s a fabulous photo.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The picture reminded my father of times long gone. When he saw it, he told me about Sullivan Place and Ebbets Field’s surroundings. He remarked that it must have been around opening day since banners and pennants were hanging from the stadium. He was right, it was the day after opening day in 1947.

I realized then, that he loved Jackie as much as I did.

Opening Day

My father was associated with the Navy for most of his life. In 1947, he was on another tour of duty after he graduated from Yale. Learning that he would return to port in time for opening day, he wired his father, Raymond (my namesake) to get tickets. I don’t believe he realized Robinson would be playing that day. Jackie was not added to the roster until six days before the season started 3, I assume, after the tickets were purchased. Moreover, I doubt Jackie’s possible involvement was an incentive to go. Baseball runs in our blood. In those days – you went to opening day if you could.

In The Navy

If you believe my father, that is how he was able to be at Ebbets Field that memorable April day. He was there, with my grandfather, the day Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey and the Dodgers changed the world.

April 15, 1947

If my father read the Brooklyn Daily Eagle that Tuesday morning he would have seen the page one headline “Hatton on Hill as Dodgers Open Here.” Only the editorial on page eleven ”‘Play Ball’ at Ebbets Field Again” mentioned Jackie’s historic appearance. It was juxtaposed with Leo Durocher’s recent suspension:

Opening Day Infield
Associated Press

“One of baseball’s most capable and popular managers was suddenly suspended for one year by the sport’s highest authority and, while a storm of controversy engulfed the entire baseball world regarding the judiciousness of this action, a young negro became the first member of his race to don a major league uniform.

“Time will tell the consequences of the two incidents involving Leo Durocher, the manager, and Jackie Robinson, the ballplayer. And well it might for baseball fandom has a peculiar way of forgetting everything bit the respective fortunes of its favorite teams once actual league play commences. 4

It’s very odd to read the piece now. The article doesn’t speak to the fact that fifteen of the sixteen MLB owners were against the move. There is no discussion of the petition some of the Dodgers signed to exclude Robinson.5 No mention of Clay Hooper’s (his Montreal manager) question “Mr. Rickey do you really think a n*****’s a human being?” 6 Nothing regarding the upcoming on-field confrontations and fan belligerence that I assume the writer expected. Nor is there the acknowledgment that the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” kept blacks out of baseball for decades. It does not speak to Josh Gibson, Satchel Page, and all the other players denied a chance to play in the major leagues. The normalcy of the piece is jarring.

I don’t know if my father understood the significance of the day – although I assume he did. I certainly hope he did.

The Game

I assume the game started at 1:00 that Tuesday afternoon. Knowing my father, I’m sure he and his father saw the entire game. By today’s standards, it was a rather quick game; the Dodgers won in 2 hours and 26 minutes.

Although the Dodgers would break attendance records in 1947 7, a quarter of the seats were empty. Only another 26,621 attendees watched the event along with my father and grandfather. In comparison, the previous year’s home opener against their hometown rivals, the New York Giants attracted 31,825.8 It seems to have been a good crowd, but not overwhelming. Possibly most notable was that an estimated 14,000 attendees were black. 9

Johnny Sain, a borderline hall of fame member and last man to pitch to Babe Ruth 10 started for the Braves against Brooklyn’s Joe Hatton. The rookie named Robinson started at first for Brooklyn.

Robinson’s Opening Day Performance

Jackie’s first three trips to the plate were inauspicious. He grounded to third in the bottom of the first. In the third, he flew out to left. And he ended the fifth inning when he grounded into double play, with the score tied.

His day improved in his last at bat. In the seventh, Eddie Stanky walked to lead off, and Robinson bunted to move him to second. However, he reached base due to an error by the first baseman, Earl Torgenson. The error allowed him to advance to second, Stanky made it to third. With Stanky on third and Robinson on second, Pete Reiser promptly doubled to left. Stanky scored the tying run, Robinson the go ahead and ultimately, the winning run. The first, but not the last unearned run Robinson would cause. 11

It would seem that my father and grandfather enjoyed an exciting yet normal opening day. Typical, except that Robinson was in the lineup, and the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” broken forever.

Reaction to the Game

Wednesday’s headline on the Eagles sports page was “‘Old” Reiser, ‘New’ Hermanski Stars of Dodgers’ Opening Day Triumph”. Robinson appeared in a picture with the caption “New Dodger Infield” under the headline. Tommy Holmes column “Clinical Notes on Opening Day” mentioned his play under the subheading “Robinson and Sain:”

“In the clubhouse, while receiving congratulations upon his launching in the majors, Robbie was asked if Johnny Sain, the competent Boston righthander, was the best pitcher he ever faced.

‘Well, er-r-r,’ Robinson hesitated and then his white teeth showed in a flashing grin, ‘I’ve hit against Feller you know.’ 12

Was this the first mention of a player’s “white teeth” in a baseball column?

Sporting News via Getty Images

Lyle Spatz wrote this about the game (my emphasis added):

“Roscoe McGowen’s game account mentioned Robinson only in relation to his play, leaving columnist Arthur Daley to take note of his debut, which he called uneventful. In retrospect, it would be easy, and fashionable, to attribute the writers’ casual treatment of this history-making game to racism. However, I prefer to think that they handled it in this way because it took place at a time when baseball reporters believed that that’s what they were: baseball reporters, men who felt their sole duty was to report what took place on the field. Red Barber and Connie Desmond, the Dodgers’ radio broadcasters did the same. The mind boggles to think how the media would cover such an event today. 13

Dad’s First Visit to Cooperstown in 1998

April 15, 2012

My father died on April 15th, 2012. Exactly, sixty-five years after he and the grandfather I never met, saw what should have been, an uneventful opening day. However, that was the day they saw Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers change the world.

Every April 15th, I think about my father, Jackie Robinson, baseball and how one can effect positive change.

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