It’s the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first year as a Major League baseball star. Since then, he has always been a hero to me. I was a spectator at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park in April 1947 when the visiting then-Brooklyn Dodgers faced the Phillies.
It was the first time for the first African-American Major Leaguer to face our home team. In addition to the heavy pressures of playing a Major League game, Robinson had to deal with hostile local fans.
The people in grandstands and bleachers in those long ago days were known as “Boo Birds”, because of their loud, often obscene verbal abuse hurled at visiting team players. Robinson, playing second base for the Dodgers, was in for extra special treatment because of his skin color.
I was there with college classmates for the afternoon game, sitting out above left field in 50-cent bleacher seats. Of course, we enthusiastically joined other Philly fans in yelling when the hated Dodgers took the field or came up to bat. Phillies Manager Ben Chapman, many members of the home team, as well as fans, hurled their loudest abuse at Jackie Robinson, heavy with racial insults.
However, seeming to ignore the noise, Jackie went calmly about playing the game with energy and skill. He got two hits, ran the bases with amazing speed and was involved in two defensive double plays. As the game progressed, there were fewer boos and cat-calls from the stands. When it went into extra innings, some Phillies fans actually cheered Robinson when he came up to the plate, stole bases and made expert plays in the field.
We were happy when the Phils won 6-5 in the 11th inning. However, when we left Shibe Park that day after the game, we had learned a valuable lesson. It was respect and admiration for future Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson.
He showed us that he could bravely face the abuse with dignity and set an example in sportsmanship. In his first season as a Brooklyn Dodger, he truly paved the way for Major League Baseball to rise above racism and become a sport for all Americans.