Baseball legend Jackie Robinson was born on this day in 1919. In honor of his birthday, we share this excerpt from Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston by sports journalist and author Howard Bryant. Bryant is also the author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.
Jackie Robinson was already fatalistic about the tryout. He didn’t believe the Red Sox were serious about integration and wasn’t especially thrilled about his own situation. He had only played for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs for a few weeks and was already disappointed by the league’s air of gambling and disorganization, the very type of lowbrow behavior that made white baseball people hesitant about allowing blacks into the big leagues. Robinson was fastidious in his adherence to his own personal code, and seeing the chaos of the Negro leagues only frustrated him further. It was the stereotypes of corruption and anarchy that not only plagued black baseball, thought historian Edmund G. White, but also gave whites a secure excuse to keep blacks out of the major leagues:
When the Negro Leagues had come within the consciousness of those within organized baseball, they had been seen as a reverse mirror image. If Organized baseball was free from gambling and corruption, the Negro Leagues were run by racketeers. If Organized baseball was premised on the roster stability of the reserve clause, the Negro Leagues were the province of contract jumpers. If Organized baseball was structured around the permanent franchise cities and regular schedules, the Negro Leagues were a kaleidoscope of changing franchises and whimsical scheduling. If Organized baseball was a clean, wholesome, upwardly mobile sport, Negro League games were the scenes of rowdy, disorderly, vulgar behavior. By being the opposite of Organized baseball’s idealized image, the Negro Leagues served as their own justification for the exclusion of blacks from the major leagues. They appeared to demonstrate just how “contaminated” major league baseball would become if blacks were allowed to play it.
When Robinson arrived in Boston, the tryout was delayed for two more days in the wake of Franklin Roosevelt’s death. He told Smith of his disappointment during the days of delay. “Listen, Smith, it really burns me up to come fifteen hundred miles for them to give me the runaround.”
Nearly fifty-five years after Cap Anson engineered the removal of the last black major leaguers in the late nineteenth century, the tryout finally took place at Fenway Park at eleven on the morning of April 16, 1945. Two above-average Negro leaguers, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams, joined Jackie Robinson. The Red Sox players were white and were mostly minor league pitchers. Starting the season the following day in New York, the big league roster was given the day off by Joe Cronin. The routine was mundane. The players fielded, threw, and took batting practice. Hugh Duffy, the former great Red Sox out- fielder, ran the tryout and took notes on index cards. Cronin sat, according to one account, “stone-faced.” Another depicted Cronin barely watching at all. Muchnick marveled at the hitting ability of Robinson, whose mood apparently darkened. When it ended, he, Williams, and Jethroe received platitudes from Duffy. Joe Cashman of the Boston Record sat with Cronin that day and reported that the manager was impressed with Robinson. He wrote cryptically, with virtually little comprehension, that he could have been witnessing a historic moment. “Before departing, Joe and his coaches spent some 90 minutes in the stands at Fenway surveying three Negro candidates. . . . Why they came from such distant spots to work out for the Red Sox was not learned.” The Boston Globe did not cover the tryout.
Robinson himself was satisfied with his performance, although by the time he left Fenway he was smoldering about what he felt to be a humiliating charade. As the three players departed, Eddie Collins told them they would hear from the Red Sox in the near future. None of them ever heard from the Red Sox again.
Eighteen months later, the Dodgers signed Robinson, who would begin a legendary career a year and half later. Jethroe, at age thirty-three, integrated Boston pro baseball with the Braves in 1950 and would become the National League Rookie of the Year. Williams would stay in the Negro leagues, never again coming so close to the majors.
The remaining details of that morning are completely speculative. Robinson never spoke in real detail about the tryout. Joe Cronin, who next to Collins and was the most powerful member of the Red Sox next to Yawkey, also never offered a complete account about the tryout except to say that he remem- bered that it occurred, although he and Robinson would never speak.
Thirty-four years later, Cronin would discuss the tryout; he explained the Red Sox position as well as the game’s:
I remember the tryout very well. But after it, we told them our only farm club available was in Louisville, Kentucky, and we didn’t think they’d be interested in going there because of the racial feelings at the time. Besides, this was after the season had started and we didn’t sign players off tryouts in those days to play in the big leagues. I was in no position to offer them a job. The general manager did the hiring and there was an unwritten rule at that time against hiring black players. I was just the manager.
It was a great mistake by us. He [Robinson] turned out to be a great player. But no feeling existed about it. We just accepted things the way they were. I recall talking to some players and they felt that they didn’t want us to break up their league. We all thought because of the times, it was good to have separate leagues.
Clif Keane would give the day its historical significance. A reporter for the Globe, Keane said he heard a person yell from the stands during the tryout. The words—“Get those niggers off the field”—were never attributed to one person, but they have haunted the Red Sox as much as Pinky Higgins’ proclamation a decade and a half later. Numerous Red Sox officials, from Joe Cronin to Eddie Collins to Tom Yawkey himself, have been credited with the taunt, if it was ever said at all. Keane has always believed it was Yawkey.
What cannot be disputed about the events of that April day are the final results and the consequences that followed. It was an episode from which the reputation and perception of the franchise have never recovered.