I was honored to give a talk on Jackie's time with the Monarchs at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum recently. Below is more or less what I said.
But I’ll start a little earlier. Before he was a Monarch, Jackie grew up playing and excelling at any and every sport he could find in his hometown of Pasadena, California. Crucially, he was playing on integrated teams and going to integrated schools. That included baseball, but he played just one season at UCLA, and it was not a particularly successful season. He truly starred at basketball, track, and football. While Jackie of course became much more famous after the Dodgers signed him, he became quite well known before that thanks to his collegiate athletic career. After college, he played some semi-pro football in Honolulu in 1941. He left Honolulu after the season on December 5th—two days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. The US entered the war, and Jackie was soon drafted. His first station was Fort Riley, Kansas, just 130 miles west of here. He was famous enough that it was news in Kansas City that he was stationed nearby.This is a picture from a 1942 Kansas City Call—three years before his professional baseball career started. Jackie tried to play baseball on the Fort Riley team, but was refused due to the color of his skin. Playing other sports for military teams was also out due to Jim Crow policies. That meant that his nearly three years of military service went by with Jackie playing very little or no high-level competitive sports. He was almost 26 years old as his service came to an end, and he had few prospects for well-paying work once he got out.
(57 games played is my estimate of regular season games he played against Negro league competition. Including games from spring training and in-season exhibitions, I estimate Jackie played close to 90 games with the Monarchs.) Those numbers combined with good defense at shortstop plus fantastic base-running look like a strong MVP candidate to me. The narrative I’ve heard on occasion that he was just an OK to very good player for the Monarchs, but was selected for his background and character, and then took his game to a new level when the stakes were raised doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. I think he was already an elite player in addition to having the right make-up to face the strain ahead. Perhaps those Negro leaguers that downplayed his performance in 1945 did so because he wasn’t an established star. Guys like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and many more had been performing at Hall of Fame levels for many years, so there were some ruffled feathers when a new kid on the block was selected. But the established stars were on the wrong side of their primes. It would be kind of like choosing between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols right now. I’m sure MLB players have a lot more respect for Pujols at the moment, but as a GM, who would you rather have on your team for the next 10 years?
Thanks to Dr. Doswell and Mr. Kendrick for inviting me to speak. I love this place, and it’s a thrill to be here doing this.
Like a lot of baseball fans, the history of the game is a big part of my appreciation and fandom. And being born and raised here, the history of baseball in Kansas City is especially compelling to me. So knowing that one of the most important players in baseball history was playing for one of the hometown teams of the past when he was signed to break the color line in the majors, I naturally wanted to learn all I could about Jackie Robinson’s season playing for the Monarchs in 1945. It’s a part of his story that is often just brushed over. Jackie touches on it briefly in his autobiography, and several other books have some good information, but my curiosity still wasn’t satisfied after reading the more modern sources I could find on the topic. My remaining curiosity led me to seek out contemporary news accounts from 1945, and I started at the downtown Kansas City library looking at microfilm from the Kansas City Call, the newspaper geared toward the black community in Kansas City that is still in operation just across the street. I started piecing together the day-to-day happenings of the ’45 season. I added to what I found in the Call by searching various online archives, and, along with some help from other researchers, I managed to get a pretty good feel for the five months Jackie spent with the Monarchs. Negro leagues coverage was spotty compared to the immaculate major league records we are used to, but there is more information than you might think. There were plenty of fascinating details to be found, and I hope you’re interested to hear them.
But I’ll start a little earlier. Before he was a Monarch, Jackie grew up playing and excelling at any and every sport he could find in his hometown of Pasadena, California. Crucially, he was playing on integrated teams and going to integrated schools. That included baseball, but he played just one season at UCLA, and it was not a particularly successful season. He truly starred at basketball, track, and football. While Jackie of course became much more famous after the Dodgers signed him, he became quite well known before that thanks to his collegiate athletic career. After college, he played some semi-pro football in Honolulu in 1941. He left Honolulu after the season on December 5th—two days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. The US entered the war, and Jackie was soon drafted. His first station was Fort Riley, Kansas, just 130 miles west of here. He was famous enough that it was news in Kansas City that he was stationed nearby.
There are two versions of how he ended up on the Monarchs after his service. The way Jackie told it in his autobiography, he happened on soldiers playing catch at a military base towards the end of his service in 1944. He noticed one was throwing some curve balls with some real snap. Jackie asked if he could catch him for awhile, and they struck up a conversation. He turned out to be a Negro leagues pitcher named Ted Alexander, most recently of the Monarchs. He told Jackie that the pay and life in the Negro leagues was good and that the Monarchs were looking for players. Jackie sent a letter to Tom Baird, co-owner of the Monarchs, who invited Jackie to meet the team for spring training in Texas, with a promised $300 a month if he made the team. Jackie countered with a request for $400 a month and Baird agreed.
Several other sources say that Jackie approached Monarchs pitcher Hilton Smith while he was playing winter ball in California, asked if he could help him get a job, and that Hilton recommended him to the team. I give a little more credence to Jackie’s story, but it’s possible there is truth to both stories. Maybe Jackie had already been in touch with Baird, but was hedging his bets and figured an additional recommendation from Hilton would help. However, every source on the topic tells one version or the other, not both.
Fresh out of the service, Jackie spent the winter of 1944-45 in Austin, Texas as the athletic director at tiny Samuel Huston College. When spring came around, Jackie headed for the Monarchs training camp in Houston. In Kansas City, the Call was abuzz with the news that he was joining the team. “Jack Robinson to the Monarchs” was the bold headline on the sports page, and the paper called his signing “the news of the week.” I wonder how confident Jackie was in his baseball skills as he made the trip to Houston. After all, it had been five years since his only college season, with apparently little baseball in the interim. But according to reports, he “looked good” in his very first workout with the club on March 27. One of his first of many frustrations with the Negro leagues was that he only had a few days to try to get in game shape before the tough travel schedule for exhibition games started on Easter Sunday, April 1 in San Antonio. His first opponent was an all-white team dubbed Engle’s Minor League All-Stars, headed by veteran minor leaguer Charlie Engle. Engle patched together a team of minor leaguers and cadets from a nearby Air Force base. The game was called a tie after 14 innings. Jackie managed one hit in seven at-bats and turned three double plays as the shortstop. He was installed at that difficult defensive position from the get-go, despite the presence of all-star shortstop Jesse Williams on the team. Williams may not have been 100% healthy in 1945 after fracturing his arm the year before, but it still says a lot about Jackie’s athleticism that he immediately took over and remained at such a demanding position. Jackie reportedly had the range of a good shortstop but his throwing arm may not have been the strongest.
The team toured through the South all April playing exhibition games against the Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox, and Indianapolis Clowns. But in the middle of April, Jackie took a separate trip to Boston. In baseball’s early days, playing games on Sundays was controversial. There was an old law still on the books in Boston prohibiting Sunday baseball, and the major league Red Sox and Braves had to secure a special permit to play on Sundays from the city council every season, which was typically just a formality. But an enterprising city councilman named
Isadore Muchnick saw the Sunday permit as an
opportunity to strike a blow against major league segregation. Muchnick, who
was Jewish, informed the two Boston clubs that he would block their Sunday
permit unless they allowed an African-American to try-out for them. Muchnick
partnered with integration-crusading sportswriter Wendell Smith, and Smith’s
paper, the Pittsburgh Courier,
bankrolled a trip to Boston for three Negro leaguers with major league
potential. Smith invited Marvin Williams of the Philadelphia Stars, Sam Jethroe
of the Cleveland Buckeyes, and Jackie Robinson, who had been with the Monarchs
for just three weeks. Jackie’s name recognition could have been part of the
reason Smith invited him. The trio was put off for several days, but finally on
April 16 the Red Sox gave in. The Sox season opened the next day, and they
needed that Sunday permit! So along with a group of white amateurs, the three
Negro leaguers ran through drills for around an hour and a half at Fenway Park
in front of the Red Sox GM, manager, and two coaches. Jackie wore the Monarchs
uniform he brought while he stood in the Fenway batter’s box and sprayed line
drives over the center field wall and against the green monster. He neatly performed
some fielding drills at short with Marvin Williams at second. Sox manager Joe
Cronin told Wendell Smith, “They look like ballplayers alright. They really
look good out there.” But in the end, the Red Sox men made excuses about their
farm clubs being located in the South, and that they would need to see the
players in real game action before signing them. They told the players they’d
be hearing from them, but they never did. Jackie said the players never believed
that the tryout was sincere. Still, the try-out ended up being significant when
Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers contacted Wendell Smith soon after the
tryout to ask if any of the players were any good. Smith told Rickey that Robinson
was “big-league material.” Jackie and Isadore Muchnick remained friends after
the tryout, and Jackie later thanked Muchnick for “all (he) meant to
(Robinson’s) baseball career.”
Jackie returned to the Monarchs and finished out the spring training schedule. When it was clear that he’d be making the team, he asked about signing a contract, but was surprised and disappointed to hear that the letters he’d exchanged with Tom Baird were all that was necessary. He felt as though this was to allow the team to drop him easily if they ever wanted to. This was standard practice in the Negro leagues at the time though, and the two Monarchs owners were known for treating their players fairly.
The squad headed to Kansas City for the season and home opener on Sunday, May 6 against the Chicago American Giants.Here’s an ad for the game from the Call. First pitch was scheduled for 3:00, and the pre-game festivities got under way at 2:00. A parade was led by the American Legion drum corps and the Monarchs booster club. The opening day lineup looked like this:
Jesse Williams, 2B
Walter Thomas, RF
Jackie Robinson, SS
John Scott, CF
Herb Souell, 3B
Othello Renfro, LFe
Lee Moody, 1B
Frank Duncan, C
Booker McDaniels, P
Walter Thomas, RF
Jackie Robinson, SS
John Scott, CF
Herb Souell, 3B
Othello Renfro, LFe
Lee Moody, 1B
Frank Duncan, C
Booker McDaniels, P
44 year old Frank Duncan was the manager of the team and was a Kansas City native. He’s an underappreciated figure in Kansas City baseball history. He joined the Monarchs in 1921and spent most seasons with them all the way through 1947, and umpired home games for many years after that. He was not a big hitter, but was reputedly a great defensive catcher. In 1945, he ended up splitting the catching duties with a rotating cast of characters including Sammie Haynes, Chico Renfroe, Chester Gray, and Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe.
Booker McDaniels ended up being the workhorse of the pitching staff, even though it included Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith. Another fine pitcher, Lefty LaMarque, rounded out the four most used pitchers in ’45. The pitching was strong, but other than Jackie and Herb Souell, the offense didn’t strike too much fear in the opposition. The Monarchs roster was hit hard by the war. An entire all-star outfield of Willard Brown, Hank Thompson, and Ted Strong was in the service along with all-star first baseman Buck O’Neil.
Jackie had been so impressive that he was batting third in his first league game. He stayed in the three hole for just about every game with the Monarchs. He had an RBI double in the opener, plus a stolen base and run scored.
The team spent most of their schedule on the road, playing a lot of neutral site games, so Jackie only actually played in Kansas City on around 12 dates. When he was in town, Jackie stayed at the Streets Hotel at 18th & Paseo. The hotel had a hopping jazz club called the Blue Room, but I doubt Jackie spent a lot of time there. He was a teetotaler and straight-laced kind of guy, committed to his girlfriend Rachel back in California. He may have stayed away from some of the late night fun some of his teammates no doubt enjoyed.
The team got off to a hot start, winning 10 of the first 14 games for which I’ve found results. They stayed in the Midwest in May and early June, playing against the American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, Indianapolis Clowns, and Cleveland Buckeyes. On Memorial Day at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, Satchel Paige showed up and got a belated to start to the season. Satchel had a good day, but Jackie had a great day. He came to the plate seven times during the double header, and reached safely all seven times with three walks, two singles, a double, and a triple.
In mid-June, the team headed east to meet some powerful Negro National League teams (the Monarchs being in the Midwest-based American League). Jackie and the Monarchs heading east got plenty of media attention. Even the New York Times previewed a game at Yankee Stadium and called Jackie, “one of baseball’s leading shortstops.” The New York Amsterdam News took their praise even farther, saying Jackie was, “one of the sport’s most valuable additions in years,” and that he was “headed for stardom.” I haven’t been able to nail down exactly when Brooklyn Dodgers scouts first started watching Jackie, but manager Frank Duncan later claimed, “by the time we got to (the East), those scouts were on him.” I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dodgers were watching him earlier, but it was probably no later than this eastern trip. They would have been impressed with what they saw.
The team headed to Griffith Stadium in D.C. for a double header with the mighty Homestead Grays, and the Washington Post had more advance praise for Jackie, saying he “may steal the show” from Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. And Jackie did put on quite a show. If I could go back in time to watch baseball games, the doubleheader on June 24 is one I would choose. I’d get to see seven Hall of Famers take the field: Jackie, Satchel, and Hilton for the Monarchs, and Josh Gibson, Jud Wilson, Cool Papa Bell, and Buck Leonard for the Grays. I’d also get to see Jackie reach base safely in all eight plate appearances he made in the two games (five singles, two doubles, and one walk). The Grays murderer’s row was too much for the Monarchs in both games however.
The season was split up into a first half and second half, with each half winner to meet after the season for the league championship. The Monarchs cooled as the first half went on. They lost their last four games to the Cleveland Buckeyes, who won the first half.
The team started their drive to win the second half with a game against the Birmingham Black Barons in Muskogee, OK on July 7. Jackie had a pair of homeruns in the game. In another July game at Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium, he put on a classic display of his incomparable base running: After bunting safely for a hit, he stole second, then stole third, and then raced home safely after the opposing catcher bobbled a pitch. That was just one of many examples that proved his legendary base-running was already in full effect in ’45. As his manager Frank Duncan said about Jackie years later: “You talk about (Jackie) running those bases—oh man.” A little later in July, Jackie crushed a curve ball for a home run against the Cleveland Buckeyes. Buckeyes manager Quincy Trouppe wrote about the homer in his autobiography, saying: “I knew then (Jackie) had the makings of a top pro. When a young player breaks into pro ball hitting the curve with authority, you can expect to see him develop into an excellent hitter.” The Monarchs lost the game however, bringing their final record against the Buckeyes on the season to 0-6. Trouppe also recalled that Jackie and Sam Jethroe got into a heated shouting match in the clubhouse after a Buckeyes/Monarchs game, which is interesting since Jethroe was one of the players Jackie spent time with in Boston for the try-out with the Red Sox. Arguments and a quick temper were par for the course with Jackie in 1945. Teammate Chico Renfroe recalled that Jackie “often got hotter than a General Electric burner when he played with the Monarchs. And he had a truly copious, ever-available supply of sizzling nouns, verbs and adjectives that went awfully well with that temper.”
Jackie was chosen to start the East-West all-star game at Chicago’s Comiskey Park July 29. Over 30,000 fans showed up to watch the annual spectacle. Jackie was joined by Monarchs teammates Jesse Williams and Booker McDaniels on the West team. Frank Duncan was also present as first base coach for the West. Jackie had a rare hitless day at the plate, but put the finishing touches on the West’s victory by spearing a tough grounder behind second base before nailing the runner at first for the final out.
From there he headed back to KC to play what ended up being his final home games with the Monarchs in exhibitions against military teams on August 3rd and 5th. The team then headed east for their second and final swing to the coast. Jackie mentioned this specific trip in his autobiography, writing, “Travel schedules were unbelievably hectic…on one occasion, we left Kansas City on a bus on a Sunday night, traveled to Philadelphia, reaching there Tuesday morning. We played a double header that night and the next day we were on the road again. This fatiguing travel wouldn’t have been so bad if we could have had decent meals. Finding satisfactory or even passable eating places was almost a daily problem…Some of the eating joints would not serve us at all. You were lucky if they…permitted you to carry out some greasy hamburgers in a paper bag…You ate on board the team bus or on the road.”
This second eastern trip included stops at several big league parks: Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field, D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, New York’s Yankee Stadium, and Boston’s Braves Field. The game at Braves Field was the first night game played there. A writer for the Boston Chronicle was mighty impressed with Jackie’s performance in the game, writing: “Jackie gave the fans thrill after thrill by his brilliant fielding, base running and hitting. His drag bunt, his delayed steal of third, and his stealing home with the opposing pitcher looking right down his throat, unable to do anything about it, were his three sensational plays. Jackie proved why he is the talk of the country. He acts like a big leaguer, hits like a big leaguer, thinks like a big leaguer, throws like a big leaguer, and he fields like a big leaguer at shortstop.”
Atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and World War II was starting to come to an end while the Monarchs were out East. Jackie told a reporter, “I bet $5 it wouldn't be over before October, but that is one bet I am happy to lose.”
The team had been playing just a hair over .500, hanging around just close enough to have hopes of catching the Buckeyes for the second half title. But just as they’d done in the first half, they finished poorly and by the end of August were out of the race. Satchel did toss a gem during the skid—in Nashville he struck out 15 Clowns in a complete game victory. During the next night’s game in Nashville, Jackie somehow injured his shoulder severely enough that he was unable to play for awhile. It turned out to be his last game with the Monarchs. From Nashville the team headed to Chicago for a four game set against the American Giants. On the 24th, Jackie was standing on the side of Comiskey Park’s field before the game when a white man called to him from the stands. He introduced himself as
Sukeforth from the Brooklyn Dodgers and said Branch Rickey was interested in
Jackie for the Brooklyn Brown
Dodgers, a new Negro league team that Rickey was involved in. Sukeforth asked
if Jackie could throw a few balls from shortstop so he could judge his arm
strength, but Jackie explained that his shoulder was injured. The two men
talked more after the game, and Sukeforth urged Jackie to come to Brooklyn to
meet with Rickey. Sukeforth told Jackie that if he didn’t go to Rickey, Rickey
would come to him. According to Robinson biographer Arnold Rampersand, “Both
Jack and Sukeforth now suspected that something more than a place on the
Brooklyn Brown Dodgers might be at stake.” Jackie couldn’t play with his hurt
shoulder anyway, and possibly suspicious but also intrigued by Rickey’s
interest in him. So he joined Sukeforth on a train to New York where he had his
famous meeting with Rickey on August 28 where Rickey revealed his true
intention to sign Jackie to play for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers top farm
team. I don’t believe Jackie rejoined the Monarchs after the meeting. He
missed just the last week of the regular season, but the team also played an
exhibition schedule all the way through September without Jackie. Their record
over the regular season was close to .500, perhaps a hair over (25-24 in games
I’ve been able to find).
He was relieved to have a way out of the Negro leagues, which he called, “a miserable way to make a buck,” and where he said he felt “unhappy and trapped.” He called the teams “poorly financed” and that “their management and promotion left much to be desired.” Jackie might be the only player to ever complain about the management of the Monarchs, who by all other accounts were run extremely professionally. Jackie felt “trapped” in the Negro leagues because he didn’t know any other way he could be making so much money. Still, I doubt he would have continued a baseball career past 1945 if the Dodgers hadn’t come calling.
The August 28 meeting was kept a secret for a while. In late September, an article in the Call said Jackie’s absence from the team was due only to his injury. On October 23, Jackie was in Montreal for the public announcement of his signing with the Royals. In Kansas City, the Monarchs owners were blind-sided, and initially made noise in the press that they were owed some sort of compensation, and they’d be taking the matter up with baseball commissioner Happy Chandler. But saying anything short of full support of Jackie’s signing was not a good look, and they quickly changed their tune, saying they would do nothing to “impede his progress.” Tom Baird was a complex character whose racial attitude was sometimes questionable, but he told the press in 1945 that, “We are glad of (Jackie’s) advancement and hope more Negro players get the same opportunity. We are not in Negro baseball just to make money; we want to see the Negro race advance to full participation in American activities.” Branch Rickey felt no need to consult with or compensate the Monarchs, likening the Negro leagues to “a racket” and saying he “had not signed a player from what I regard as an organized league.”
Jackie probably would not have disagreed with those comments. I wish he would have lived long enough to comment on and see the modern appreciation for all the Negro leagues contributed, and see whether he would have eventually seen that the leagues built the bridge for him to cross to the majors. I think his hatred of segregation blinded him to the positive aspects of the Negro leagues. After all, where else could he have played in 1945? Where else would Dodgers scouts have found him if not in the Negro leagues? The Monarchs and the Negro leagues were crucial stepping stones, without which the color line is broken much later than 1947, which then delays the larger civil rights movement that Jackie helped spark.
Publicly, Negro league players had nothing but support and well wishes for Jackie. Satchel told the press Jackie was “major league caliber” and Rickey couldn’t have picked a better man. Privately, the players had more complex reactions about Jackie being the one chosen. Many years down the line, Negro league players often stated that Jackie was not the best Negro league player at the time, but he was the right one to break the color line. I think that undersells just how fantastic Jackie played in 1945. The limited stats we are able to recover combined with the rave reviews he garnered in the press leave little doubt that he was one of the elite players in the league that year. Here is a look at my best guess for Jackie’s stats with the Monarchs.
In closing, I’d like to share my favorite story from Jackie’s time with the Monarchs. It comes second-hand from Buck O’Neil, and tells you a lot about who Jackie was and the mark he left on the Monarchs in his short time with the team. Quoting from Buck’s autobiography:
We had been buying gas for years at a service station (in Muskogee, OK) that had just one restroom—and we weren't allowed to use it. We thought nothing of it, and we gave the owner a lot of business anyway. Well , when the bus pulled into Muskogee and stopped at this station, Jackie got out and headed toward the restroom. The owner, who was filling the tank, called after him, "Hey boy! You know you can’t go in there." Jackie asked him why. "Because we don’t allow no colored people in that restroom."
The guys knew about Jackie’s hair-trigger temper, so they just stood around, wondering what he was going to do. Jackie turned to the man very calmly and said, "Take the hose out of the tank." The owner stopped the pump and looked at him. "Take the hose out of the tank." Jackie repeated. Then he turned to his teammates and said, "Let’s go. We don’t want his gas."
Well, the Monarchs had two fifty-gallon tanks on the bus. That gas station wasn’t going to sell a hundred gallons of gas to one customer until the bus came back through a few weeks later. He shoved the hose back into the tank and said, "All right, you boys can use the restroom. But don’t stay long.
From then on, the Monarchs could use the restroom whenever they passed through. But more importantly, they decided never to patronize any gas station or restaurant where they couldn’t use the facilities.