Jackie Robinson and Dodgertown, a Haven of Tolerance

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared at FanGraphs on April 15, 2019 to mark the 72nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking major league baseball’s color line.

Jackie Robinson Day marks the 72nd anniversary of the breaking of baseball’s color line, an annual opportunity to take stock of Robinson’s immeasurable courage in confronting racism as well as the immense talent he showed while playing at the highest level. Earlier this month, Major League Baseball commemorated the centennial of Robinson’s birth and furthered his legacy by renaming Historic Dodgertown — the former Navy housing base in Vero Beach, Florida that served as the Dodgers’ spring training headquarters from 1948-2008, which MLB assumed operational control of on January 2 — the Jackie Robinson Training Complex.

Recognized as “the jewel of Florida’s baseball crown” even after expansion put two teams in the state on a permanent basis, the facility was the first fully integrated major league spring training site in the South, a “haven of tolerance” in the words of historian Jules Tygiel. “It was, without doubt, the first crack in the wall of prejudice that continued to plague baseball for the next 15 years,” wrote Sam Lacy in the Baltimore Afro-American. On this anniversary, its role in Robinson’s story, and in the history of baseball’s integration, is worth considering.

While the April 15, 1947 date is etched into history, Robinson actually signed his first professional contract on August 28, 1945 at the Dodgers’ business offices at 215 Montague Street, a location just a five-minute walk from this scribe’s residence. While team president Branch Rickey hoped to wait until November or even the following January to announce the historic deal, a confluence of factors involving city politics forced the acceleration of his timetable. The contract was announced on October 23 in Montreal, where Robinson would play with the Royals, the Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate and a site well-insulated from the racism and segregation prevalent in the United States. Still, the Dodgers had to navigate significant logistical hurdles to prepare Robinson and his teammates for the season.

During World War II, wartime travel restrictions had forced major league teams to conduct spring training close to home. The Dodgers, who had trained in Havana, Cuba in 1941 and ’42, spent the springs of ’43 through ’45 headquartered at the Bear Mountain Inn in the Hudson Valley, often negotiating snow-covered fields. With restrictions lifted for the 1946 season, Rickey chose to headquarter the major league team in Daytona Beach, Florida, with the minor leaguers — over 600 of them, to stock 27 affiliated farm teams (!) — about 40 miles inland in Sanford.

Segregation reigned in Florida through Jim Crow laws, which were particularly prevalent in Sanford, where Robinson and pitcher John Wright, a Negro Leagues veteran signed by Rickey about a month after Robinson, could not stay with the team at the lakefront Mayfair Hotel. With the help of Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith, Rickey arranged for Robinson and his wife Rachel to be housed with a college classmate of Smith’s in the black community of Sanford. The newlywed Robinsons endured all manner of indignities and insults on their 36-hour journey from Los Angeles to Sanford, including being bumped off a flight from Pensacola in favor of a white couple, only to be driven from their new residence by threats of violence from local bigots. The couple — and indeed, plans for the entire Royals’ spring training — was moved to the more moderate climate of Daytona Beach, a city that had black police officers and bus drivers. There the Robinsons boarded with a local black businessman named Joe Harris and his wife, Dufferin.

Such was the rampant bigotry of the time that some venues refused to host exhibitions involving Robinson and the Royals. The team showed up in Jacksonville only to find the stadium padlocked, while in DeLand, the game was called off because, uh, the lights weren’t working. Finally, on March 17, 1946, Robinson made history by playing in an exhibition between the Dodgers and the Royals in Daytona Beach. Though he went 0-for-3, he was cheered by those in the black fans’ grandstand (including by future major leaguer Ed Charles, who died last year) and received politely by white fans as the game went off without incident.

Robinson starred for the Royals in 1946, hitting .349/.468/.462 with 40 stolen bases while leading the team to the International League championship and victory over the Louisville Colonels, champions of the American Association, in the Little World Series. Meanwhile, the Dodgers nearly won the NL pennant; after finishing the regular season tied with the Cardinals at 96-58, the two teams faced off in a best-of-three playoff, the first of its kind, but the Dodgers were swept. Wait ’til next year.

Wary of further confrontations in Florida over the presence not only of Robinson but also catcher Roy Campanella and pitchers Don Newcombe and Roy Partlow — whom the Dodgers had signed out of the Negro Leagues in 1946 — Rickey chose to headquarter the team in Havana, citing Cuba’s passion for baseball. The move made some sense, given that black players, including Negro Leagues stars Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige, had been playing in Cuba since the turn of the century without incident. What Rickey really wanted was space to decide whether Robinson was ready for the great experiment to move forward. In addition to showing he could maintain his temperament and hit big league pitching, he had to learn to play first base, given the presences of Pee Wee Reese at shortstop and Eddie Stanky at second.

But while Rickey housed the white Dodgers players at the opulent (and integrated) Hotel Nacional, and the Royals at the Havana Military Academy, he sent the black players to the Hotel Boston in “old” Havana. Understandably, Robinson was furious, telling Dodgers traveling secretary Harold Parrott, “I thought we left Florida… so we could get away from Jim Crow. So what the devil is this business of segregating the Negro players in a colored nation?” Rickey was apparently being overly cautious in trying to avoid any disturbances during the team’s stay.

Nonetheless, Robinson’s presence offended many Dodgers, which led to All-Star right fielder Dixie Walker organizing a petition to protest the potentially historic promotion. Several Dodgers, most of them southern-born — including Bobby Bragan, Hugh Casey, and Stanky — supported Walker’s position, but when manager Leo Durocher got wind of the rebellion during a road trip to Panama City, he called a midnight team meeting, where he told the players they could “wipe your ass” with the petition. The mutiny was quelled.

In Havana, the Dodgers hosted the Yankees and Boston Braves while also playing games against the Royals and a squad of Cuban All-Stars; they also traveled to Caracas, Venezuela and the Panama Canal Zone. However, before they could open the season in Brooklyn, Durocher was suspended by commissioner Happy Chandler for a year for an “accumulation of unpleasant incidents” including associating with known gamblers.

Thus it was interim manager Clyde Sukeforth, who had played a pivotal role in scouting Robinson, who wrote the historic lineup on April 15 against the Braves. Robinson went 0-for-3 with a sacrifice bunt on which his speed helped force an error; he came around to score the go-ahead run in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory. Manager Burt Shotton arrived three days later, and piloted the Dodgers to their first pennant since 1941. Robinson struggled in the early going, and endured plenty of ugliness, particularly in Philadelphia, where the general manager Herb Pennock threatening a boycott if Robinson played, and manager Ben Chapman leading his team in racist taunts once he did. The entire Dodgers team was turned away from the Ben Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia, their usual stop. In St. Louis and Pittsburgh, Robinson could’t stay with the rest of the team, while in Cincinnati, he could stay only if he ate his meals in his room and didn’t use the swimming pool. Nonetheless, Robinson went on to hit .297/.383/.427 with a league-high 29 steals while serving as the regular first baseman on a pennant-winning team.

With Havana having proven too expensive for the cost-conscious Rickey — their series against the Braves had drawn so poorly that the St. Louis Browns canceled a planned trip — the Dodgers looked elsewhere for the spring of 1948. Lured by a guarantee of $50,000, Rickey agreed to headquarter the team in Ciudad Trujillo, in the Dominican Republic. However, he still needed a place for the minor leaguers. He put Buzzie Bavasi, who as GM of the Nashua (New Hampshire) Dodgers had overseen the relatively smooth transition of Campanella and Newcombe to organized ball in the New England League in 1946, in charge of finding a site for a permanent spring training facility.

Through Rickey’s daughter’s neighbor, a businessman named Bud Holman got wind of the Dodgers’ desire. Holman had built the Vero Beach Municipal Airport in 1929. During World War II, the airport was commissioned as Naval Air Station Vero Beach, but when the war ended, the facility was returned to the city. Holman proposed that the Dodgers take over the station’s barracks facilities. Bavasi was impressed, and Holman’s overwhelming hospitality — including a stag party on his ranch — prevented Bavasi from planned tours of two other sites.

“The facilities were already there. All we had to do was put in the ball fields,” Bavasi recalled in 1988. “Another thing was having the airport so close. We had our own plane then and we could walk from the airport to the offices. The other places were trying to sell us something. Vero Beach was trying to give us something.”

In January, the Dodgers and the city reached agreement for a five-year lease of “Dodger Town,” with an option for five additional years at the 109-acre facility. This was a dream come true for Rickey, who could establish a permanent baseball campus for instilling “The Dodger Way” under his supervision. The team’s lower-level minor leaguers would be housed there that spring while the Dodgers and Royals trained in the Dominican Republic. LIFE devoted its April 5, 1948 cover story to its opening, noting the arrival of 550 players to the facility, where “Branch Rickey, parsimonious panjandrum of the Brooklyn National League club, personally superintended the operation of a baseball stock farm devised to improve the breed of the Brooklyn Bums, win at least five National league pennants in the next 10 years and enrich the company’s coffers by several hundred thousand dollars.”

On March 31, 1948, the Dodgers played the first of two exhibitions against the Royals at Dodgertown. Robinson homered, and Campanella suited up for the big club for the first time, his contract having been purchased from Montreal. With that, Dodgertown became major league baseball’s first integrated spring training site in the South, not to mention one of the few integrated institutions of any kind in the region. “By offering an integrated and egalitarian workplace, one in which players were judged not by who they were but what they did, Dodgertown was unique not just among Southern spring training facilities, but among Southern institutions generally,” wrote historian Jerald Podair.

The 1948 season did not go as planned. Durocher returned from his suspension, but when the Dodgers stumbled to a 35-37 start, Rickey allowed his controversial manager to become skipper of the rival Giants, whose owner, Horace Stoneham, had initially inquired about the availability of Shotton, then serving as a scout. Though Robinson took over second base duties and improved to .296/.367/.453, and Campanella held his own, the Dodgers finished third in the NL under Shotton.

For the spring of 1949, the entire Dodger organization, from Class D through the majors, was quartered at Dodgertown, free of most of the distractions and indignities the team had alternately endured and dodged over the previous three years. The players were boarded together, dined communally at an all-inclusive cafeteria, and were put through a meticulous schedule designed by Rickey himself, from reveille to optional post-dinner lectures. Wrote Red Smith of the New York Herald Tribune, “Anyone laboring under the misconception that baseball is still a game should visit the incredible factory called Dodgertown, a vast industrial plant which Branch Rickey built to turn out Dodgers on a stamping machine, so many per hour with every item cut to the same size and pattern.”

Robinson, who showed up to camp in much better shape than the year before, received instruction from Hall of Famer George Sisler (who had scouted him) on his balance at the plate, and hitting to the opposite field, and from former Cardinals star Pepper Martin on his sliding technique. He hit well during exhibition season, and it carried over into the regular season, which turned out to be the 30-year-old pioneer’s best campaign: .342/.432/.528 with 16 homers, 12 triples, and 37 steals en route to MVP honors. With Campanella and center fielder Duke Snider much improved, and with Newcombe joining the pitching staff (and winning Rookie of the Year), the team won 97 games and the NL pennant, though again they lost to the Yankees in the World Series.

Life inside Dodgertown wasn’t exactly glamorous — the barracks lacked heat and air conditioning and the sanitary facilities were primitive — or entirely devoid of trouble. In one 1948 incident, an argument between Newcombe and a white Philadelphia A’s catcher led spectators to threaten the Dodgers’ prospect, with one brandishing a plank from a picket fence. Rickey ordered the Dodgers’ black players to remain inside the compound for the duration of camp, and began working to provide additional amenities, as a practical matter as much as one of racial equality. In 1949, Walter O’Malley, one of the Dodgers’ co-owners, built a swimming pool. Basketball, tennis, and shuffleboard courts, a movie theater, a game room, a pond stocked with bass for fishing, and a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course would all follow. But while it was intended as a sanctuary for the Dodgers’ black players, Robinson found Dodgertown “like being confined to a reservation.”

While O’Malley had been critical of Rickey’s expenditures in running Dodgertown, he came around on that notion, but the team’s ownership situation, which included each strong-willed man owning 25% of the team, came to a head with the death of co-owner John L. Smith and the expiration of Rickey’s contract following the 1950 season, another near-miss campaign in which the Dodgers had lost a shot at the pennant in the final game of the regular season against the Phillies. Ultimately, O’Malley bought Rickey out for over $1 million and gained controlling interest of the team, which would remain in the family until News Corporation bought the Dodgers in 1998.

Rickey departed for the Pirates, while O’Malley continued to invest in both in Dodgertown and an integrated roster. With Bavasi promoted to general manager, the Dodgers signed a pair of Negro Leagues veterans, righty Joe Black and infielder Jim Gilliam, prior to the 1951 season; the pair would win back-to-back NL Rookie of the Year awards in 1952 and ’53. That year, they also signed shortstop Maury Wills, who wouldn’t get his shot with the Dodgers until 1959 but would go on to win 1962 NL MVP honors. Outfielder Sandy Amoros and catcher John Roseboro, both of whom would be part of championship teams, were signed prior to the 1952 season.

O’Malley decided to move the Dodgers’ spring training games to Miami Stadium, more than two hours away. In 1951, for example, the big league club spent February 18 to March 9 in Dodgertown, with the minor leaguers, then relocated to Miami for a slate of 19 exhibition games — a step backwards, in that it was a return to Jim Crow. At the same time, the Dodgers continued to flex their economic muscle in Vero Beach. In 1952, with the expiration of the team’s first five-year lease on the horizon, some members of the city council were balking at renewal, as the city’s businesses were uneasy about accepting black patronage. The weekend before the council’s vote, Bavasi secured 20,000 $2 bills, stamped them with the words “Brooklyn Dodgers,” and distributed them to some 600 players to spend in town under the pretense that the Dodgertown kitchen was out of commission and they needed to fend for themselves. The conspicuously marked bills circulated through the local economy, Bavasi made his point, and the Dodgers and the city hammered out a new 21-year lease. Later that year, O’Malley announced the construction of Holman Stadium, a 5,000 seat ballpark on the grounds. Construction was completed in just 55 days.

Holman Stadium opened with considerable fanfare on March 11, 1953, with commissioner Ford Frick, National League president Warren Giles, and American League president Will Harridge all in attendance. But while the rest of Dodgertown was fully integrated, under local ordinance the ballpark was segregated, with separate entrances, seating, water fountains, and restrooms for black fans. In August 1961, O’Malley expressed his frustration to the Major League Baseball Players Association, writing, “There are local city ordinances that are not in keeping with our thinking which, however, cover situations off our self-contained base. Our relations with the local political administration are not cordial at the moment and we have been giving some thought to transferring our base to the West Coast unless we see signs of improvement.”

The following year, O’Malley’s son Peter, by then the director of Dodgertown, met with a biracial committee of residents from Vero Beach and the nearby all-black community of Gifford, and agreed to challenge the ordinance. O’Malley had the whites/blacks-only signs at Holman painted over; by that point, city officials were loathe to challenge the team given its economic clout. Vero Beach itself lagged behind, with most of the city’s stores and theaters refusing to serve black patrons. It would take until 1969 for the local schools to integrate.

While Robinson was still active when Holman Stadium opened, he had hung up his spikes by the time it was integrated. He retired after the 1956 season, having helped to spark the Dodgers to six pennants (including the five predicted by Rickey in LIFE) and one championship (1955) in his remarkable 10-year career. With the elder O’Malley unable to secure his desired plot of land in Brooklyn for Ebbets Field’s replacement, the Dodgers departed Brooklyn after the 1957 season. Even so, the team would maintain Dodgertown as its base for spring operations and the home for its A-level affiliate. In 1967, the team purchased additional land, expanding Dodgertown to 220 acres; four years later, it added a public 18-hole golf course. In 1972, the barracks were replaced by air conditioned, carpeted hotel villas, complete with color televisions.

Robinson, for his part, agitated for change elsewhere within the Grapefruit League, calling for economic pressure on team owners who resisted change. In 1961, Cardinals owner Gussie Busch agreed to move his players into integrated quarters beginning the next year, and other teams soon followed suit. “By the time President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated public accommodations throughout the United States, every major league squad that trained in Florida was lodging its black and white players together,” wrote historian Michael Bechloss.

The Dodgers sold Dodgertown back to Indian River County in 2001, but stayed through 2008, not only through the O’Malley years but also the tumultuous News Corporation era. In November 2006, the Dodgers partnered with the White Sox in agreeing to move their spring training facilities to Glendale, Arizona, beginning with the 2009 season. Vero Beach tried to woo the Orioles to replace the Dodgers, but to no avail. Minor League Baseball reactivated the facility as Vero Beach Sports Village for a couple of years, but couldn’t maintain its financial viability.

In 2012, Peter O’Malley, his sister Terry O’Malley Seidler, former Dodgers stars Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park and Minor League Baseball bought the facility and renamed it Historic Dodgertown. It has since hosted training camps for the SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization, multiple Canadian Football League teams, and numerous other events. In 2014, Historic Dodgertown became a Florida Heritage Landmark, and earlier this year, it was added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. It is the only sports site on the trail, which also includes the Atlanta birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the Woolworth’s in Greensobro, North Carolina, and other landmarks where activists challenged segregation in the 1950s and ’60s.

In December 2018, MLB assumed the lease and agreed to invest $10 million in physical improvements to Holman Stadium and other facilities, an amount matched by Indian River County. The league assumed operational control on January 2 of this year, and three months later, at a press conference attended by O’Malley, commissioner Rob Manfred, and Rachel, Sharon, and David Robinson (Jackie’s wife, daughter, and son, respectively), they announced the name change to the Jackie Robinson Training Complex. At that time, they also announced a series of youth-focused events for boys and girls (baseball as well as softball), all to be held at no cost to the participants, variously in partnership with USA Baseball, USA Softball, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, and the MLBPA.

Dodgertown did not singlehandedly solve the Florida region’s problems when it came to race, but it did offer a model for social change, “an example of interracial egalitarianism” ahead of the rest of the South. In its current incarnation, bearing the name of its most famous graduate, it can’t singlehandedly solve baseball’s problems with declining youth participation, particularly among African American children and teenagers, but perhaps this new investment can help to reverse the tide. The name Jackie Robinson means a baseball that is open to all.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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Cave Dameron
5 years ago

Tolerance is very cool!