He was unwelcome

Jackie Robinson with Phillies manager Ben Chapman in an uncomfortable meeting during the 1947 season. Chapman and his team set the standard for racial taunting of Robinson.
Jackie Robinson with Phillies manager Ben Chapman in an uncomfortable meeting during the 1947 season. Chapman and his team set the standard for racial taunting of Robinson. (UPI File Photo)

Phillies' and city's behavior toward Jackie Robinson shocked the baseball world.

Posted: April 08, 2013

This week's opening of the film 42, on Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball, brings to mind the dramatic role played by Philadelphia in this seminal event in America's civil rights history.

Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball during the 1947 season was revolutionary. The game had been segregated since the 1880s, reflecting the isolation of African Americans in the nation. Even in the years after World War II, America remained a segregated society, with African Americans, save for some entertainers and athletes like Joe Louis, largely invisible.

Branch Rickey's signing of Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers set off a firestorm in baseball circles - every owner in baseball protested, arguing that the game was not ready for integration. Philadelphia was no exception. Its reception of Robinson confirmed its reputation as "the northernmost Southern city."

When the Phillies played in Brooklyn for the first time that season, the team's behavior shocked the baseball world. The Phils' manager, Ben Chapman, a Southerner famous for the brutality of his bench-jockeying - when he played for the New York Yankees he was notorious for his anti-Semitic comments - set the standard for racial taunting of Robinson.

Chapman told sportswriters that the Phillies would "ride" Robinson. What he didn't tell them was how crude the taunting would be. Led by Chapman, the Phillies bench erupted in the crudest of racial cruelty, including "Nigger, go back to the cotton fields"; "Hey, snowflake, which one of your white boys' wives are you dating tonight?"; and "They're waiting for you in the jungles, black boy."

Robinson followed Rickey's advice to turn the other cheek, although he admitted later that he "wanted to grab those white sons of bitches and smash their teeth in with my despised black fist."

Instead, he let his bat do his talking.

Robinson started off well, batting over .300 for most of the first month of the season, and then went into a brief slump just as the Dodgers arrived for their first series in the City of Brotherly Love.

Aware of the Phillies' performance in Brooklyn, the baseball commissioner, A.B. "Happy" Chandler, and Ford Frick, the National League president, warned Chapman not to engage in any further race baiting.

They were right to be worried. With the Dodgers due to open a four-game series May 9, Herb Pennock, the Phillies' general manager, begged Rickey not to bring Robinson to Philadelphia. The city was "just not ready for that sort of thing," he said.

Any doubt about what was in store for the Dodgers was set to rest when the Benjamin Franklin Hotel informed the team that it would refuse Robinson a room. Dodgers officials scrambled to find other accommodations, and the Bellevue Stratford finally agreed to house the team.

Such was Robinson's "welcome" to the City of Brotherly Love. The city's leading African American newspaper, the Philadelphia Tribune, showered Robinson with praise, but many others were less enthusiastic.

The four games were somewhat anticlimactic after what had happened in Brooklyn. While Robinson's slump continued, Chapman recognized that he and the Phillies players had overdone their hazing of Robinson. Chapman let it be known that he would meet with Robinson and shake hands. Robinson was reluctant, but eventually agreed when he was told that such a display of harmony "would be good for the game." The photograph of the encounter reveals two uncomfortable-looking individuals, with neither looking at the other.

As an 11-year-old, I attended the Sunday doubleheader with my uncle. The crowd of more than 40,000 was the largest in Shibe Park's history. As my uncle and I were on our way to our seats, we saw a crowd of well-dressed African American men under the stands. We were told they were "colored detectives" out to ensure there would be no trouble. But the uniformed police presence was noticeable, too. They were everywhere, in the aisles, in the stands, and outside the ballpark.

There were no incidents. The Phillies won both games behind their Sunday specialists, Lynwood "Schoolboy" Rowe and knuckleballer Emil "Dutch" Leonard. Robinson didn't do much - he had one hit in each game. During one of his at-bats, he hit a high pop-up to the infield. An old African American fan sitting near us jumped up and cheered. When I asked why, my uncle said he would tell me later. When he explained to me that the fan was happy to see an African American playing in the majors, I got my introduction to the intricacies of America's racial problems.

Robinson got hot after the Phillies series, drawing huge crowds wherever he played. He won the Rookie of the Year award and helped the Dodgers win their first pennant in six years, beginning the dynasty that would dominate the National League for the next decade. He also took the nation on a major step down the road to America's civil rights revolution.


John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University. E-mail him at rossi@lasalle.edu.

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