Before today’s Cubs-Reds game, the team commemorated Jackie Robinson. The PA announcer mentioned that Robinson’s first appearance at Wrigley Field drew the largest crowd in the stadium’s history– 46, 572 in 1947, a fact also pointed out by Al Yellon at BCB.
The Wrigley announcer failed to point out a fact that Jules Tygiel mentions in Baseball’s Great Experiment, that the Cubs were “one of the most troublesome clubs for Robinson.” He describes an incident in which Cubs shortstop Len Merullo “deliberately kicked” Robinson following a pick-off attempt. Robinson “started to swing at the shortstop,” but didn’t.
Tygiel also quotes a column by Mike Royko on the ocassion of Robinson’s 1972 death. As a kid, Royko (whose brother was my Little League coach) attended Robinson’s first game at Wrigley Field in 1947:
By noon, Wrigley Field was almost filled. The crowd outside spilled off the sidewalk and into the streets. Scalpers were asking top dollar for box seats and getting it.
I had never seen anything like it. Not just the size, although it was a new record, more than 47,000. But this was twenty-five years ago, and in 1947 few blacks were seen in the Loop, much less up on the white North Side at a Cub game.
That day, they came by the thousands, pouring off the northbound Ls and out of their cars.
They didn’t wear baseball-game clothes. They had on church clothes and funeral clothes·suits, white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes, and straw hats. I’ve never seen so many straw hats.
As big as it was, the crowd was orderly. Almost unnaturally so. People didn’t jostle each other.
The whites tried to look as if nothing unusual was happening, while the blacks tried to look casual and dignified. So everybody looked slightly ill at ease.
For most, it was probably the first time they had been that close to each other in such great numbers.
We managed to get in, scramble up a ramp, and find a place to stand behind the last row of grandstand seats. Then they shut the gates. No place remained to stand.
Robinson came up in the first inning. I remember the sound. It wasn’t the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long, rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt.
When Robinson stepped into the batter’s box, it was as if someone had flicked a switch. The place went silent.
He swung at the first pitch and they erupted as if he had knocked it over the wall. But it was only a high foul that dropped into the box seats. I remember thinking it was strange that a foul could make that many people happy. When he struck out, the low moan was genuine.
I’ve forgotten most of the details of the game, other than that the Dodgers won and Robinson didn’t get a hit or do anything special, although he was cheered on every swing and every routine play.
But two things happened I’ll never forget. Robinson played first, and early in the game a Cub star hit a grounder and it was a close play.
Just before the Cub reached first, he swerved to his left. And as he got to the bag, he seemed to slam his foot down hard at Robinson’s foot.
It was obvious to everyone that he was trying to run into him or spike him. Robinson took the throw and got clear at the last instant.
I was shocked. That Cub, a hometown boy, was my biggest hero. It was not only an unheroic stunt, but it seemed a rude thing to do in front of people who would cheer for a foul ball. I didn’t understand why he had done it. It wasn’t at all big league.
I didn’t know that while the white fans were relatively polite, the Cubs and most other teams kept up a steady stream of racial abuse from the dugout. I thought that all they did down there was talk about how good Wheaties are.