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Jackie Robinson’s overlooked season in the Negro Leagues shaped his historic path to Major League Baseball

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If not for that team, if not for that buccaneering league that housed them, would that scout — that “white fellow,” in the words of inquiring teammates — ever have approached Jackie Robinson in late August of 1945 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park? Would that scout have asked him to meet him in Toledo and then take the train east with him but in the meantime ask him to keep quiet about those plans? Would he have beseeched Robinson to please believe him when he told him why he was there?

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“Jack,” he said to him. “This could be the real thing.”

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Before — but not long before — Jackie Robinson was a Brooklyn Dodger or even a Montreal Royal, he was a Kansas City Monarch. Robinson’s 34-game turn with the iconic Negro American League franchise in 1945, his first season as a professional baseball player, isn’t exactly forgotten, but given his later pioneering and history-crafting, Robinson’s Monarch days often get forsaken in discussions of his legacy. On the 75th anniversary of his trailblazing debut, though, it is important to remember how we got to that April 15, 1947, MLB debut. And that story cannot be told without the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.

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Although Robinson didn’t debut for the Monarchs until he was 26, his sporting bona fides were never in doubt. He was a thriving four-sport athlete from high school to junior college then to UCLA, where he was the first to letter in four sports — football, track, basketball and baseball. In football, he earned All-American laurels, and he likely would’ve been an Olympian had the 1940 Summer Games not been called off because of World War II.

Financial troubles forced Robinson to drop out of UCLA during his senior year in the spring of 1941, and a brief career in semi-pro football followed. Robinson also around this time received an informal and perhaps unserious tryout for the Chicago White Sox in Pasadena, but soon after he was pressed into military service in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This put his athletic career on hold for roughly three years while he mostly served as a second lieutenant in the 761st Tank Battalion in Texas. In November 1944, Robinson prevailed in a court martial hearing resulting from his principled refusal to obey an order to sit at the back of a Foot Hood bus. Once vindicated, he was honorably discharged.

Prior to that discharge, Robinson at Camp Breckenridge in Kentucky, as the story goes, ran across a group of his fellow soldiers playing catch, and one of them — possibly Ted Alexander, who had pitched sporadically in the Negro Leagues — suggested that he request a tryout with the Monarchs. Robinson did that and was granted an audition the following spring. Another version of Robinson’s Monarchs origin story has it that pitcher Hilton Smith in 1944 became his Negro League advocate after a brief discussion while Smith sat in a winter-league bullpen not far from Robinson’s Pasadena home. Another has it that Smith saw Robinson play at Fort Hood and then urged the Monarchs to approach him. Which version is true, or whether there’s some truth in all the versions, is somewhat obscured by history.

Robinson became the first athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports — football, track, basketball, and baseball.

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Robinson at UCLA and afterward seemed to carry more promise as a football player (or a “gridster,” as one Kansas City Call reporter referred to him). Indeed, his lone season of college baseball occasioned struggles. That plus the long layoff from organized sports likely conspired to make him a bit of a long shot with one of the Negro Leagues’ strongest teams. However, Robinson’s tryout was good enough to get a spot in the Monarchs’ infield for the 1945 season under manager Frank Duncan. He would make $400 a month. Had the Monarchs been at full strength — the imposing likes of Buck O’Neil, Hank Thompson, Willard Brown and Ted Strong were still serving in the military in 1945 — Robinson would not have made the roster. Things as they were, though, the Monarchs had a need, and Robinson had an aptitude.

At the time, Robinson was coaching basketball at small Samuel Huston College in Austin, Texas, and his obligations didn’t permit him to report to spring training in Houston until camp had been underway for a week and with just a couple of days remaining before the Monarchs’ extensive exhibition schedule began. He reported on Friday, lost a chance to get in some sorely needed reps on Saturday because of rain, and then showed up to the Monarch’s first game on Sunday. Robinson filled a utility role at first, but after shortstop Jesse Williams suffered an injury, he took over as the regular at that critical position despite a throwing arm that seemed ill-suited to making heaves from deep in the hole. Robinson claimed the vital role despite the fact that most of his teammates had played winter ball in Latin America and thus were much closer to being ready for game action. Nevertheless, Robinson kept working to revive his surely in-repose baseball skills in spring tilts that took Robinson and the Monarchs all across Texas and then into Alabama and Georgia.

In April, Robinson took a break from the team in order to travel to Boston. He did so at the urging of legendary Black sportswriter Wendell Smith, who along with Boston city councilman Isadore Muchnick had pressed the pitifully reluctant Red Sox into granting a tryout to three Negro League players — Robinson, Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars, and Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes.

Given his long baseball layoff and very recent return to the sport, Robinson would seem an odd choice for such an important — if contemptibly ceremonial, from the Red Sox’s standpoint — opportunity. So why would Smith, one of the most devoted advocates of integration in Major League Baseball, have taken such a risk on Robinson? Glenn Stout in his essay titled “Tryout and fallout: Race, Jackie Robinson and the Red Sox“writes:

“The NNNAA [the National Negro Newspaper All-American Association of Sports Editors] touted Robinson more than any other athlete. Members such as [Mabrey] Kountze knew that the first player to break the color line needed to be more than just a great athlete. In order to succeed, he also needed the requisite social, emotional and intellectual skills to survive the scrutiny of a nation. Robinson’s academic and athletic experiences at UCLA left him uniquely qualified.”

After Robinson’s history-rattling debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947, revisionism took hold and credit would accrue to Dodgers executive Branch Rickey for intuiting these qualities in Robinson — meaning, mostly, the stoicism and resolve necessary to outlast as much as overcome the barriers before him. It was, however, Black journalists like Smith and Sam Lacy and Kountze who recognized Robinson’s suitability for such a charge long before Rickey did.

As for his Boston tryout, Robinson, Williams, and Jethroe were told they would be put through their reps on April 12, but that didn’t come to pass. The suggested cancellation that the Red Sox, who from the start were reluctant to conduct the tryouts, were attempting to “run out the clock” before they departed on the afternoon of April 16 to begin the regular season. On the morning of the 16th, however, Dave Egan of the Boston Daily Herald leading his column inches to ridiculing the Sox for stalling while Robinson and the others whiled away the hours and then the days in their Boston hotel rooms. The muscling worked, as the three players were granted their elusive tryout a few minutes after 10 am on the 16th and a few hours after Egan’s condemnations landed on newsstands.

Robinson acquitted himself well during the tryout — he looked the best of the three, according to most contemporary reporting — and Red Sox manager Joe Cronin was complimentary in his remarks. “We shagged some flies in the outfield. Then we hit,” Robinson would recall. “Williams batted first and hit the ball hard. Then I batted and hit the ball harder. Jethroe batted and then the old fellow who was running the workout said, ‘You boys look like pretty good players. I hope you enjoyed the workout.’ That was that.”

After the trio departed Fenway Park, however, none of them heard from the Red Sox again. On a practical level, the Boston roster, so thinned out by the war, could have used the talent infusion then and beyond, but the club didn’t integrate until 1959, the last team to do so. Never one slow to perceive the realities about him, Robinson later wrote, “Not for one minute did we think the tryout was sincere.”

One positive to come from the tryout was that Wendell Smith on his way back paid a visit to Rickey in Brooklyn and imparted to him Robinson’s fitness for the Dodger boss’ still-nascent plans to integrate his organization. Robinson’s football fame likely had already put him on Rickey’s radar, but if it hadn’t then Smith’s endorsement surely did.

Robinson maintained both a confidence and a sense of mission when it came to the integration of the major leagues, and he seemed to believe that he or someone in his orbit would play the most central role in it. “We’d ride miles and miles on the bus,” his Monarchs teammate Othello Renfroe once recalled to Robinson’s biographer Jules Tygiel, “and his [Robinson’s] whole talk was ‘Well you guys better get ready because pretty soon baseball’s going to sign one of us.'”

His faith would be vindicated by his own hands. That he had such faith even while marooned on a Negro Leagues bus –…


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