A Jackie Robinson story you haven’t heard

On this date in 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African- American player in Major League Baseball since the late 19th cehtury.

Jackie’s story is quite well-known, but there’s an aspect of his debut that’s never been brought up until, well, right now. It may seem like worthless piffle to some, but I promise you it made an impression on Robinson himself.

For the past 100 years or so, big league ballclubs have worn brand new uniforms on opening day. It’s a rite of spring in baseball, that your opening day duds are bright and white for the hometown crowd.

The Brooklyn Dodgers opened the ‘47 season at home against the Boston Braves. They took the field in spanking new button-up uniforms. The buttons were the only real change from the 1946 Dodger unis, which zipped up. Those ‘46 ensembles were worn during spring training, so when the club came north to Ebbets Field, everyone was issued a brand-new set of home uniforms.

Everyone, that is, except Jackie Robinson.

There’s a ton of photographic evidence to back this up: Jackie Robinson was issued a 1946 - or earlier - zipper-front Dodger uniform, not one of the new button-up ones.

In Arnold Rampersad’s excellent biography of Robinson, he writes that on April 10 Jackie “was handed a uniform bearing the number 42 and promised a locker as soon as one was free; meanwhile, a nail on the wall would suffice.”

Robinson had spent spring training with the Montreal Royals, where he had excelled in 1946. His ascension to the big leagues had contained an element of mystery to it: there were a number of players on the ballclub who had signed a petition saying they didn’t want a black teammate, and there was some question as to whether GM Branch Rickey would delay Robinson’s arrival. Rickey handed the ball to manager Leo Durocher, who reminded the players that he had the last word as to who would play and who wouldn’t, and that Robinson could help make money for everyone.

Apparently the Brooklyn clubhouse man missed Durocher’s memo.

I should point out here that number 42 had last been worn by a Dodger in 1939: pitcher George Jeffcoat, who appeared in one game. If you study the Brooklyn rosters from the 1940’s, you’ll notice immediately that the numbers over 30 seem to all be issued to what you might call “extra” players, late season call-ups, cup-of-coffee guys. The Brooklyn regulars all seemed to get much lower numbers.

One person I mentioned this to said it was likely that all Dodger rookies got high numbers, but the facts don’t bear that out. Also a rookie in 1947 was Edwin “Duke” Snider, who went on to a Hall of Fame career himself. Duke was issued #4 on day one, and he had a new button-up uniform. Same thing for fellow rookie, #14 Gil Hodges.

Robinson didn’t make an issue out of the uniform slight; he didn’t make an issue out of anything in 1947. By the second half of the season, he was issued a new button-up uniform.

But, all these years later, isn’t it interesting that of all the discrimination he faced along the way to arrive in Brooklyn on April 15, even the equipment manager allowed his bias to show?

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