The First Time Jackie Robinson Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier

Today’s post was written by Bob Nowatzki, Archives Technician in Research Services at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

For good reason, Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 at Ebbets Field is seen by many as a major event in the history of U.S. civil rights as well as sports history. However, that day was the second time Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. The first time he did it was seventy-five years ago, on March 17, 1946, when he played second base for the Montreal Royals (a minor league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers) in a spring training game at City Island Ball Park in Daytona Beach, Florida (NAID 77841845). He played his first regular season game with the Royals against the Jersey City Giants on April 18, 1946. Baseball’s color line included not only major league teams but also their minor league affiliates, and this barrier had excluded African American players since 1889, when catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker played his last game for the minor league Syracuse Stars.

During spring training, Robinson encountered significant racial discrimination while playing in Florida. He was not allowed to stay at hotels with his white teammates, and games were cancelled in De Land and Jacksonville because local authorities objected to the presence of Robinson and Johnny Wright, another Black player on the Royals’ roster. During a game in Sanford, Robinson and Wright were forced to leave the game by local authorities. Robinson also had to face the racial hostility of white players and fans of opposing teams, and he was well aware of the racism of his manager Clay Hopper, who pleaded (unsuccessfully) with Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey to not sign him to the Royals. However, Robinson found the Montreal fans to be very supportive of him; when the Royals won the “Junior World Series” against the Louisville Colonels of the American Association, thousands of fans waited after the game to cheer him. Robinson excelled during his only year with Montreal, leading the International League with a .349 batting average and helping the Royals win the pennant as well as the Governor’s Cup (the International League championship) against the Syracuse Chiefs. His performance was good enough to justify Rickey’s decision to promote him to the Dodgers during the spring of 1947, when he would break the color line in Major League Baseball.

Robinson sitting on bench in baseball hat and uniform that says Royals
Montreal Royals second baseman Jackie Robinson, Conrad Poirier (courtesy Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and Wikimedia Canada)

The National Archives has two records relating to City Island Ballpark, the stadium where Robinson broke baseball’s color line in March 1946 (the current stadium on this site is named Jackie Robinson Ballpark):

In addition, the National Archives has numerous records relating to Jackie Robinson, including his correspondence with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson:

  • Official Military Personnel File for Jackie Robinson (NAID 57308498)
  • New York NHL John Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson House (NAID 75315787)
  • Letter from Lt. Jack Robinson to Truman K. Gibson (NAID 159703346)
  • Jackie Robinson in his Brooklyn Dodgers Uniform (NAID 6802718)
  • Letter from Jackie Robinson to President John F. Kennedy (NAID 7329815)
  • Letter from Jackie Robinson to Robert F. Kennedy (NAID 193948)
  • Telegram from Jackie Robinson to E. Frederick Morrow (NAID 2619029)
  • Letter from Jackie Robinson to President Lyndon Baines Johnson (NAID 7329806)
  • Letter from Jackie Robinson to President Eisenhower (NAID 17368593)
  • Statement of Jackie Robinson before the House Un-American Activities Committee (NAID 7822182)
  • Letter from Jackie Robinson to Roland Elliot, Deputy Special Assistant to President Richard Nixon (NAID 7329808)
  • Former Baseball Player Jackie Robinson with his son at the Civil Rights March on Washington (NAID 542024)

A Field of Dreams: The Jackie Robinson Ballpark. from Teaching with Historic Places, National Park Service is a detailed lesson plan and teaching resource dealing with Jackie Robinson

Further reading:

  • Jackie Robinson. I Never Had It Made: The Autobiography of Jackie Robinson. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1995.
  • Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.
  • Sharon Robinson, Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America. New York: Scholastic Press, 2004.
  • (children’s book) John R. M. Wilson, Jackie Robinson and the American Dilemma. New York: Pearson, 2009.

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