During the last few years of his life, former catcher and longtime baseball executive Bobby Bragan called the offices of Dodger Stadium on the opening of the baseball season with the same question, his voice mixed with pride and apprehension. “How many guys are left from the 1947 team?”
Bragan was referring to his teammates on the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. Most sports teams become famous if they perform well in the playoffs at the end of the season, always invited to reunions if the group wins a championship. Although they were crowned National League champions in September, the 1947 squad became forever linked to our national history on April 15, Opening Day, when Jackie Robinson made his debut at Ebbets Field as the first African American player of the twentieth century to appear in the Major Leagues.
In previous years the Dodgers usually found their biggest challenges in the opposing dugout, whether battling their crosstown rival the New York Giants or a St. Louis Cardinals franchise dominating the 1940s with pennants in 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1946. A decade earlier, the biggest hurdle was the team’s balance sheet, with the Brooklyn Trust Company serving as the club’s chief creditor and fearing bankruptcy during the Great Depression.
But the presence of Robinson in 1947 forced players and coaches to look within themselves and their respective communities back home as their sport became integrated. It also meant learning about Robinson as a teammate and ballplayer through his play on the field.
At age twenty-eight Robinson wasn’t a typical rookie, because of life experiences such as being a student-athlete at UCLA, playing professional football, facing racism in the military, and resuming his baseball career in the Negro Leagues. As a second lieutenant in World War II, he was acquitted during a court-martial trial that stemmed from his refusal to move to the back of a military bus when so ordered by the driver, even though the army had commissioned its own unsegregated bus line. And his marriage to UCLA nursing student Rachel Isum before leaving for Triple-A Montreal in 1946 gave Robinson a partner and a solid foundation for the historic rookie season and the final twenty-seven years of his life.
With Brooklyn in 1947, Robinson wasn’t there to make friends as a first-year player. His only desire was for the other Dodgers players to respect him as a man while proving blacks and whites could play together on a ball field.
Broadcaster Red Barber admitted his initial uncertainty when tipped off the previous winter to the Robinson plans by Dodgers team president Branch Rickey. The 154 games of the regular season meant Robinson’s drama could slowly play out on a national stage and soak into the nation’s consciousness as the Dodgers visited the various National League cities.
And one season wouldn’t end the problems. Robinson received death threats prior to a 1949 exhibition game in Atlanta, and Robinson’s teammates were advised of a possible sniper. Gene Hermanski, an early supporter of Robinson in 1947, suggested that every Dodger wear uniform No. 42 “so they won’t know which one to shoot at.” The irony, of course, is every Major League player now wears Robinson’s number on the April 15 anniversary date.