Though Hoboken is recognized as the birthplace of baseball, Jersey City also holds a significant place in baseball history. Before Jackie Robinson could break the color barrier in the Major Leagues, he first needed to break the color barrier in the Minor Leagues. For nearly 60 years, Black players were excluded from Major and Minor League Baseball, until Jackie Robinson came to Jersey City on April 18th, 1946. Read on for more about how Jackie Robinson changed baseball starting right in Jersey City.
Baseball was not always segregated, and technically no official rule excluded Black players from the professional leagues. Still, a “gentleman’s agreement” existed, effectively disallowing Black players from playing in professional, white leagues. Since its founding in 1876, Major League Baseball’s National League included no Black players — with the exception of Edward White, whom it was recently discovered “passed” as white and played a single game in 1879.
^ Edward White
1884 saw two Black players, Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Weldy Walker, who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings.
^ Moses Fleetwood Walker + Weldy Walker
Unfortunately, overt racism prevailed, preventing generations of talented Black players from competing on an equal playing field.
Complicating matters, Native American and Hispanic players were permitted to play in “white” leagues, but the unjust, unwritten rule stood firm for Black players. Some Black players (like Charlie Grant) even attempted to pass as Native American, but were soon discovered because of the exuberance of his friends and fans.
^ Charlie Grant
By 1920, the Negro National League was founded, which showcased Black talent. Soon, it became difficult to ignore the capability and expertise exhibited by such an overwhelmingly neglected segment of the population.
Read More: The History of Jersey City’s Former Roosevelt Stadium
Branch Rickey + Jackie Robinson
In the mid-1940s, the club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, began to scout the Negro leagues for a potential addition to the Dodgers.
^ Branch Rickey
Branch approached Jackie Robinson in 1945. This was an overwhelmingly difficult undertaking. For context, three years later, it took a Presidential Order to desegregate the United States Armed Forces in 1948. Only in 1954 did the Supreme Court forbid segregation of public schools.
In August 1945, Branch approached Jackie under the auspicious of starting his own Black team. But, in a now-famous three-hour interview, Branch asked Jackie questions as to how Jackie might withstand racial slurs and provoking animus.
Jackie asked, “are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”
Branch replied that he needed a player “with guts enough not to fight back.”
Branch signed Jackie to a $600-a-month contract — $9,031 today.
There were several other players in the Negro leagues who could outperform Jackie on the diamond — like Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson. But Branch chose Jackie because he believed Jackie had the tenacity for what the situation required.
In a secret agreement, Branch committed to formally sign Jackie, and on October 23rd, 1945, Branch publicly announced Jackie would be assigned to the Royals (a Dodger’s Minor League farm team) for the 1946 season. This event later became referred to as “The Noble Experiment,” as Jackie was the first Black baseball player in the International League since the 1880s.
^ Jackie in a Royals Uniform
Branch soon signed other Black players, but kept the spotlight on Jackie. He publicized Jackie’s signing nationally through Look magazine and in the Black press.
See More: A Visit to Baseball Legend Yogi Berra’s Museum in Little Falls
Game Day: Jersey City
On April 18th, 1946, the Jersey City Giants hosted the Montreal Royals for the season opener at Roosevelt Stadium. Roosevelt Stadium was a nationally prestigious arena currently located at Danforth Avenue and NJ Route 440, in Jersey City.
^ Roosevelt Stadium’s current location today
Roosevelt Stadium hosted World Championship Boxing matches of Sugar Ray Robinson, soccer matches including Pelé, and concerts of the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers Band, Beach Boys, and Eric Clapton, among others. Interestingly, a sports stadium — New Jersey City University’s Thomas M. Gerrity Athletic Complex — currently resides near the location of the former Roosevelt Stadium.
^ Roosevelt Stadium
But on April 18th, 1946, Roosevelt Stadium marked the debut of Jackie Robinson. When Jackie took the field in Jersey City, the color barrier in baseball began to shatter.
In Jackie’s first at-bat, the Jersey City catcher called for the pitcher to beam Robinson — but the pitcher, Warren Sandel, refused.
Underwhelmingly, Jackie grounded out in his first at-bat — but in the 3rd inning, Jackie’s first contact delivered a 3-run homer. Later, Jackie stole two bases, eventually scoring four runs, contributing to a 14-1 victory.
That season, Jackie led the league with a .349 batting average and a .985 fielding percentage. He was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Jackie was called to the Major Leagues six days before the start of the 1947 season, wearing number 42 on April 11, 1947, in a preseason exhibition game against the New York Yankees. Four days later, he made his season debut before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, more than 14,000 of whom were Black. While he failed to get a base hit, he was walked, and scored a run, aiding in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory over the Braves.
Today, a statue at Journal Square commemorates Jackie’s first step in breaking baseball’s color barrier in Jersey City.