Jackie Robinson's groundbreaking moment didn't start in the US; it began in Cuba
The overflow crowd spilled into foul territory where ropes cordoned off fans from the field of play. Beyond the outfield wall, those who failed to gain entrance climbed the light towers for a glimpse of the contest.
The decisive game of the Cuban League season riveted the packed house at Havana’s El Gran Stadium on Feb. 25, 1947, but Cuban fans briefly diverted their attention to acknowledge the presence of a special guest.
After Jackie Robinson was introduced over the public-address system, "he took bows to the wild shouting of 38,000 jabbering fans," Sam Lacy wrote in the Baltimore Afro-American 75 years ago, pointing out that several members of the Brooklyn Dodgers sitting in the same reserved section "were hardly noticed."
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The Dodgers were in Havana to begin spring training and brought with them their Triple-A Montreal Royals farm team, which included Robinson and three other Black players: Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Roy Partlow.
Dodgers president Branch Rickey had chosen Havana instead of Daytona Beach and the fields of Jim Crow Florida as the audition stage for Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier.
Cuba’s more tolerant racial climate and the Dodgers’ familiarity with the Cuban capital – Brooklyn had held spring training there in 1941 and 1942 – made it an ideal choice.
And yet, Robinson and his Black teammates found themselves separated, not just from the Dodgers but from the rest of the Royals as Rickey opted for different accommodations to avoid any possible incidents in the Royals’ camp.
The Dodgers stayed at Havana’s opulent Hotel Nacional, while the Royals were housed and trained at the Havana Military Academy, located about 15 miles outside the city. But Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe and Partlow stayed on the edge of Old Havana at the Hotel Los Angeles, which the New York Sun described as a "musty, third-rate hotel" that "looked like a movie version of a waterfront hostelry in Singapore."
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Lacy was still writing columns for the Afro-American at age 93 as an earlier milestone Robinson anniversary approached in 1997. The Hall of Fame writer recalled the details of the Hotel Los Angeles 50 years prior with remarkable clarity and specificity.
"It was a fleabag hotel where we slept on heavy spreads that we used for mattresses," said Lacy, who died in 2003. "The springs were coming up – pressing into our bodies – which shows you just the type of hotel we were in."
Robinson seethed about the separate and unequal accommodations.
"He hated it with a passion, as did all of us," Newcombe recalled in 1997. "Jackie was more outspoken about it, but he knew there wasn't anything he could do about it. He was trying to get to the big club. He had to keep his cool and be quiet."
Said Lacy: "Jackie was adamant in his resentment. He was upset, as were all of us. The conditions were actually miserable. But it was the case where all of us knew we were on a crusade. We had to go with the flow, as the saying goes. Although we didn't like it, we endured it because of the goal that we were all seeking."
Along with the Pittsburgh Courier's Wendell Smith, Lacy was embedded with Robinson at that hotel and throughout spring training. Longtime advocates for baseball integration, the two members of the Black press hoped to chronical Robinson's eventual promotion to the Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
Smith had spoken with Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher about Robinson's prospects as the two flew from Miami to Havana aboard a four-engine Pan American Clipper before the start of spring training.
"He's my type of ballplayer," the Hall of Fame writer quoted Durocher in his column in 1947. "Jackie can hit, run, and field. What more can a manager ask of a ballplayer? ... Jackie Robinson is a damn good ballplayer."
Regarding Rickey's plans for Robinson, Durocher told Smith, "I honestly don’t know. I don’t think he’s definitely made up his mind about Jackie and the Dodgers. ... If he says Robinson’s a Dodger, that’s what he’ll be."
But as Robinson's historic 1947 season was beginning with spring training in Havana, it was not at all certain the former shortstop for the Negro American League's Kansas City Monarchs would be promoted.
During spring training, Robinson had to deal with an ongoing stomach ailment, a series of minor injuries and learning to play first base – his third position in three seasons – along with the annoyance of being segregated from the rest of the Royals.
"That damn hotel," recalled Newcombe, who died in 2019. "It was full of cockroaches. It was so hot, you couldn’t sleep. ... One day, I stirred up a bowl of vegetable soup, and a big cockroach came out. I puked up my insides. This was the hotel coffee shop. I never ate there again. Nor did I eat very much more the next three or four days."
Rickey really had no need to separate Robinson and the other Black players from the Royals. Robinson had played with Montreal the previous season and led the International League in hitting. And Cuba's professional winter baseball league had been integrated since 1900.
"The Cubans were then, and always have been pro-Black," Lacy recalled. "As a matter of fact, most of them – even those that were fair-complexioned – felt we were acceptable. As a matter of fact, they were very supportive, hoping that the time would come when (Black Cubans) would be able to be considered (for the majors)."
Newcombe, however, remembered there being "a lot of racism in Havana" and recounted experiencing it when he tried to meet with Rickey at the Hotel Nacional, which catered to American tourists.
"I wasn’t even allowed to go in the lobby of the Nacional hotel to see Mr. Rickey on baseball business one day," Newcombe recalled. "I had to get permission from the bellhop. In fact, one (white) bellhop put me out of the lobby."
Staying in Old Havana meant Robinson, Newcombe, Campanella and Partlow had to be shuttled back and forth each day from the Hotel Los Angeles to the Royals' training camp.
But Montreal's camp was the site of pleasant surprise one day. Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who was in Havana for a series of exhibition bouts, visited Robinson as a show of support.
According to Smith, Robinson and the "Brown Bomber" compared golf swings and talked about Robinson’s prospects for making the Dodgers. Before leaving, Louis told Robinson: “See you opening day at Ebbets Field with the Dodgers." Robinson yelled back: "I hope so. I sure hope so."
The biggest obstacle to Robinson's prospects of making it to Brooklyn, of course, was the resistance among certain Dodgers players – led by outfielder Dixie Walker – who circulated a petition in opposition to Robinson's potential promotion.
"The players took it up because they knew that Jackie was due to get to that ballclub," Newcombe said. "They knew that if he came, some white guy was going to have to leave."
Unbeknownst to Robinson, the petition came to a head when the Dodgers and Royals spent 12 days playing a series of games in Panama, a side trip which Lacy said "gave us sort of a morale boost" because "we were able to see that the Montreal team, with these Black players, were drawing larger crowds than the Dodgers themselves when they came into town."
Both Lacy and Newcombe said they weren't aware of the petition until much later, but the Brooklyn front office found out when a drunken Dodgers pitcher Kirby Higbe let word slip to the team's traveling secretary Harrold Parrott, who informed Rickey.
There's a scene in the movie "42" where Durocher rousts the players from sleep to confront them about the petition.
"You know what you can do with that petition? You can wipe your ass with it," Durocher wrote in his 1975 autobiography, "Nice Guys Finish Last", describing how he ripped into his players.
"I’m the manager of this ball club, and I’m interested in one thing. Winning. I’ll play an elephant if he can do the job, and to make room for him, I’ll send my own brother home. … So, I don’t want to see your petition, and I don’t want to hear anything more about it. The meeting is over; go back to bed."
Rickey also individually summoned the players involved with the petition to his hotel room, where some of them, such as catcher Bobby Bragan, asked to be traded rather than play with Robinson. Brooklyn fan-favorite Walker, who had played with the Dodgers since 1939, eventually put his trade request in writing.
"I would like to be traded as soon as a deal could be arranged," Walker wrote in a hand-written letter dated March 26, 1947. "For reasons I don’t care to go into, I feel my decision is best for all concerned."
Walker's request was eventually granted when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates after the 1947 season. Bragan, however, ended his playing career with the Dodgers in 1948. But the Alabama native said years later that playing with Robinson had been "the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
Bragan, who died in 2010, went on to manage integrated teams in the Cuban League for four winter seasons, leading Almendares to the championship in 1953-54 and 1954-55 and becoming the only American manager ever to win a pennant in the Cuban League.
"Those people like myself, who might have been a little slow joining Robinson at the breakfast table, we were fighting to see who would eat with him," Bragan said in 1997. "It was a real transition. He sold everybody."
Cesar Brioso is the author of "Havana Hardball: Spring Training, Jackie Robinson, and the Cuban League."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jackie Robinson's 1947 MLB season began with spring training in Cuba