During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black Stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
Jackie and Rachel Robinson, married less than three weeks, waited during the early evening of February 28, 1946, at Los Angeles’ Lockheed Airport to board a plane to go to Daytona Beach, Florida.
Jackie was on his way to spring training, where he would try to make the roster of the Montreal Royals, the top minor league team in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. If he did, he would become the first Black in what was called “organized professional baseball” in the 20th century. To succeed he would have to do so in the violent Jim Crow South, where the Ku Klux Klan rode at night and white cops shot unarmed Black men with no consequences.
This was not the honeymoon either had dreamed about.
Never has so much been riding on an athlete in surroundings as unforgiving as the Deep South in 1946, where racial discrimination was legal and brutally enforced, and where Blacks who confronted segregation laws could be jailed, beaten, or murdered.
28 DAYS, 28 STORIES: How America's racial reckoning impacts sports
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The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson talk before a press conference in 1962.
Robinson’s story of how he transformed baseball and society usually begins on April 15, 1947, when he took the field for the first time with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But it shouldn’t. It should begin when he left California for Florida. This was the beginning of what historian Jules Tygiel called “baseball’s great experiment.” And it nearly failed before he played his first game that spring.
This story begins with a shoebox and ends more than 40 hours later with Jackie telling two sportswriters he wanted to quit white baseball and return to the Negro leagues.
Jackie’s mother, Mallie, handed Jackie a shoebox as the couple waited to board the plane.
“What’s that?” Jackie said.
“It’s full of fried chicken and hard-boiled eggs,” Mallie said.
“Aw, mamma, you shouldn’t have brought this,” he said, “they serve food on the plane.”
“I know,” she said. “But I just thought something might happen, and I didn’t want you starving to death and getting to the baseball camp too weak to hit the ball.”
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947. (Photo: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons)
Jackie and Rachel didn’t want the shoe box. It embarrassed them. They knew the stereotype of Blacks having picnics in segregated train cars because they were prohibited from dining cars.
Jackie took the shoebox, thanked his mother, and said goodbye.
Six months earlier, Robinson met in the office of Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey told Robinson, who was in his first year with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues, that he wanted to sign him for the Royals. If things went well, Robinson could expect a promotion the next year to the Dodgers. Rickey had kept a file on Robinson and knew about his explosive temper. Rickey knew that Robinson had been court-martialed for insubordination while serving in the army for angrily protesting after being ordered to the back of a military bus at Fort Hood, Texas.
Rickey signed Robinson after receiving the ballplayer’s promise that he would have the “guts not to fight back” when racial epithets were hurled at him or when an opposing pitcher threw at him or an opposing player tried to spike him.
The racial climate in the United States was volatile. Black soldiers had returned from fighting in a war to stop the spread of racism only to find racism waiting for them. When they protested against racial discrimination, many were killed by white police officers. Three days before the Robinsons left California, a race riot in Columbia, Tennessee, resulted in hundreds of police officers arresting dozens of Black men and destroying much of the Black business district. Two suspects were shot while in custody.
The Robinsons flew through the night to New Orleans where they had a layover before flying on to Florida. When Rachel went to find the restroom, she saw something she had never seen in California: separate restrooms for “White Women” and “Colored Women.” She went into the restroom for “White Women.”
When the Robinsons lined up to board the plane, they were told they had been bumped. They decided to wait in a restaurant but were denied entry because it was for whites-only. They were glad they had kept Mallie Robinson’s shoebox of chicken and eggs.
The Robinsons then flew to Pensacola, Florida, for a refueling stop before the plane continued to Daytona Beach. A flight attendant asked the Robinsons to leave the plane. Once they were on the tarmac, an airline employee explained they had been bumped because a storm was expected and the pilot needed to counter the weight of additional fuel by removing two passengers – the only two black passengers on the plane. As Robinson listened, he saw two white passengers board the plane.
Robinson felt a mounting rage in the pit of his stomach but remembered what Rickey had told him and choked back his anger, knowing that any bad publicity might jeopardize “baseball’s great experiment.”
The Robinsons could not wait for another plane that might or might not take them the rest of the way. They boarded a Greyhound bus and sat in the comfortable seats near the front of the bus until the first stop when the bus driver called Jackie “boy” and ordered him to the back of the bus.
“Rae and I had said to each other during the months we had tried to prepare ourselves for exactly this kind of ordeal,” Robinson later said in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made. “We had agreed that I had no right to lose my temper and jeopardize the chances of all the Blacks who would follow me if I could break down the barriers. So we moved.”
The Robinson spent the last twelve hours of their journey in the last two rows of the bus, where blacks were restricted, breathing the exhaust of diesel fumes wafting through the open windows making them nauseous and ruining their clothes.
The Robinsons were met at a bus station in Daytona Beach on the afternoon of March 2 by two journalists, Wendell Smith and Billy Rowe with the Pittsburgh Courier, the leading black newspaper in the country.
“Well, I finally made it,” Robinson snapped, “but I never want another trip like this one.”
Robinson stayed up into the early morning hours bitterly recounting what he and his wife had been through, seething over one racial indignity after another.
“He was very annoyed and hurt,” Rowe remembered. “He had been called a ‘boy’. This man had become a ‘boy’.”
Robinson told Smith and Rowe he did not think he could get a fair tryout in Florida and said he wanted to quit and return to the Negro leagues, Smith and Rowe calmly talked with him, explaining – as Rickey had – that he had to suffer torturous experiences like this so other Blacks could follow him into baseball and other professions.
“We tried to tell him what the whole thing meant,” Rowe told me when I was working for the Daytona Beach News-Journal in 1993, “that it was something he had to do.”
When the sun came up the next day, Rowe said, Robinson was a different person.
Robinson had his first day of spring training on March 4.
Chris Lamb, the author of "Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training" and "Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography," is chair of the journalism and public relations department at Indiana University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). He can be reached at [email protected]
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