Aug. 23, 1952: Today’s release of the movie “42” inspired us to seek out our file of Jackie Robinson pictures. We found four folders. Most contain images provided by the wire services — basic baseball action shots: Robinson at bat, sliding into second base, or trotting around the bases.
However, a handful of pictures show Robinson in Pittsburgh and out of uniform.
Our favorite picture is a wonderfully chaotic and telling image of Robinson visiting a group of children on the North Side. Robinson is a striking figure in a light suit, and he appears comfortable among an adoring throng. We love the children’s faces. By our rough count, 60 are present. Mostly, they are the faces of African-American children — some so small they must strain to be visible to the camera — though a few white faces can be found. A small white hand pats Robinson on the back.
The picture was shot in August, 1952. The original caption does not give a specific location. Robinson, the caption reads, spoke to the children about the importance of clean living.
Perhaps we’re attracted to the image because it makes us feel good about our city and our place in history. The man who broke baseball’s color barrier is seen in a happy moment, in Pittsburgh, surrounded by a crowd that obviously loves him.
Circumstances were somewhat different five years earlier when Robinson came to town in his debut at Forbes Field as a Brooklyn Dodgers player. Then, he stayed at the Ellis Hotel on Center Avenue in the Hill District. His teammates were lodged a few miles away, at the Schenley Hotel. The date was May 15, 1947. Exactly one month had passed since Robinson made history by becoming the first black to play baseball in the major leagues. It had proved to be an eventful month.
In St. Louis, Robinson was barred from staying with his teammates at the Chase Hotel. And in Philadelphia, the team’s luggage was unceremoniously plopped on the sidewalk outside the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. The hotel manager said the Dodgers were unwelcome. Come back when you get rid of the African-American, he said.
The manager, however, used a term somewhat different than “African-American.”
Because of that incident, the Dodgers’ traveling secretary made arrangements to have Robinson stay with black families or in hotels separate from his teammates.
Ugliness extended to the playing field. In Philadelphia, the Phillies’ manager threw a black cat on the field and yelled out to Robinson, “Here’s one of your brothers.”
One reserve player for the Pirates reported that infielders received an automatic fine if they didn’t try to bean Robinson on a double play.
Then there was the verbal abuse and heckling from the opposing dugouts. You can imagine what was said. It happened in Pittsburgh, too.
While at the Ellis Hotel on Center Avenue, Robinson mostly stayed in his room, recalled the hotel’s owner, Frank Ellis.
We love the picture of Robinson surrounded by the throng of adoring children, but the image we must remember is one we only can imagine — that of Robinson in a strange room in a strange town, separated from his teammates and alone with his thoughts. Surely he is, at that moment, aware of the historic burden placed upon his shoulders and the insults and hate that await him. And yet he remains filled with resolve.