By Bill Schumann
Daytona Beach Area resident George Bates was twelve years old on April 2, 1946, when he, his dad and brother went to see Jackie Robinson play for the Montreal Royals against the Brooklyn Dodgers at City Island Ball Park. What he didn’t know was that he and his fourteen year-old brother Robert would be randomly picked from the crowd to become the bat boys. “We were there early and stood we out,” Bates recalled. “I did Montreal and my brother did the Dodgers that day.”
When cruel segregation laws ruled the South, this was the first racially integrated Spring Training in modern baseball history and the start of Robinson’s legendary career with the Brooklyn organization. Robinson was playing for the Dodgers’ top minor league team, the Montreal Royals.
George’s father Robert S. Bates had a home color 16 millimeter movie camera and intended to film Robinson. That home movie is the earliest known film to exist of Robinson during that Spring Training. It can be seen online at jackierobinsonballpark.com.
Bates had been to City Island that spring to see previous Dodger games, but had not seen the Royals yet with Robinson. “A lot of talk about Jackie Robinson we wanted to see him,” Bates said. “So that was the day we wanted to go.”
The Dodgers and Royals had played against each other a number of times that spring at City Island. This April 2 exhibition would become recognized as Robinson’s best game hitting against Brooklyn. An article in the 1946 Brooklyn Eagle newspaper by Tommy Holmes carried the headline about that April 2 game: Robinson Plays First Good Game. The Royals beat the Dodgers 6-1.
Before this game some critics said Robinson had been in a hitting slump since he had arrived at the spring camp in early March. This was the late Spring Training when key roster decisions were being made. Even through Robinson was a favorite to make the Royals, the pressure was on for him to get hits.
The film does not include sound from 1946, but Bates remembers giving words of encouragement. “Show em Jackie,” Bates recalled saying, as Robinson was on his way to bat wearing number nine for Montreal. “I was a fan of his,” Bates explained. “I was hoping him to do well.”
There were a number of newspapers covering the game giving various perspectives. It’s widely reported that Robinson had an outstanding game with offense and defense. Research shows Robinson most likely batted sixth in the lineup and started a second base, with two hits, a walk, and a stolen base. Robinson got hits during his first two times at bat, and then drew a walk in the ninth.
The ballpark was segregated, with African-American fans in a small grandstand along the right field area. Robinson’s fans were loud and supportive. The Brooklyn Eagle reported on the April 2 game that the: “The coop-like wooden stands for colored people, out beyond the right field wing of the local grandstand, literally shook with a spasm of hysteria as Jack Roosevelt Robinson came up with his first base hit of the Spring exhibition schedule here.”
The home movies show Robinson’s exciting style of play. Robinson is at the plate most likely against Eddie Chandler. Chandler was a six-foot two-inch tall right-handed pitcher who had not yet made it to the major leagues. He was also the starting pitcher for Brooklyn on March 17 against Robinson and the Royals. In their previous encounter, Robinson made contact at the plate, but did not get a hit. On March 17 observers noticed Robinson saw plenty of curve balls. On April 2, it’s likely Robinson recalled how Chandler pitched before, and could anticipate better what to expect at the plate.
The film of the April 2 game demonstrates how Robinson was fast and daring on the base paths. That was the kind of exciting base running Dodger President Branch Rickey encouraged him to do. Robinson turns around first in the film, goes almost half way to second base and gets back to first base by sliding in feet first. The first baseman, Ed Stevens tries to tag Robinson but he is safe.
After that game, Robinson’s hitting truly developed. That year Robinson helped lead the International League in hitting, playing a key role in the team’s minor league championship. In 1947, Robinson was promoted to the Dodgers, breaking modern major league baseball’s color line.
This game in Daytona Beach on April 2, 1946 was a kind of breakthrough game for Robinson’s hitting, which started his historic rise in professional baseball. Jackie Robinson had a Hall of Fame career. He is a true American hero who is recognized each year by Major League Baseball on Jackie Robinson Day.