Howard Cosell used to say, “Sports affects the very sociology of America.”
I know of no series of events that affected American societal attitudes and furthered interracial understanding as much as the integration of baseball.
In this, New Jersey played a critical role.
African-Americans have contributed far more to this nation than they have received. Their struggle against racism continues, and while matters have improved, America still has a long way to go. Every time I see a white man wearing a red MAGA hat, I know that hatred of people of color endures.
Yet the triumph of one African-American man in the 20th Century continues to inspire me and give me hope: Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. The story of his triumph over racism in integrating Major League Baseball in 1947 as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers is at long last gaining the recognition it failed to achieve in its time. His triumphs on and off the baseball diamond were vital in uniting America as a nation.
I worship the memory of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and I exult every day that the good people of Brooklyn may at long last have their hearts lifted if the Brooklyn Nets win the NBA Championship this year. I visit at least once a year the site of the late, lamented Ebbets Field at the intersection of Bedford Avenue and Sullivan Place in Brooklyn, and I feel as if I am visiting a holy place. And every time I visit the Barclays Center to see what is now my favorite team in sports, the BROOKLYN NETS, I first stop outside this magnificent arena to look at the flag pole now located there that once stood in left field in Ebbets Field. I look forward to the day, God willing, when I can give my granddaughter, Quinn, her old granddad’s sports history tour of Brooklyn!
As a New Jerseyan, I take tremendous pride in the role of the Garden State in the triumph of Jackie Robinson. April 18 of this year will mark the 75th Anniversary of the integration of Organized Baseball by Jackie’s appearance at second base in the lineup of the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top farm club against the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City. Jackie hit a home run in his second at bat in that game!
The events of that hallowed day of April 18, 1946 in Jersey City were described by my late friend Nick Acocella in a column in New Jersey Monthly.
Most significantly, the major contribution of New Jersey to the integration of baseball was made by three outstanding African-American ball players who played vital supporting roles to Jackie: Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Don (Big Newk) Newcombe. On this occasion of Black History Month, they are my New Jersey nominees.
By 1949, all three of these players had come into Major League Baseball. All three of these individuals had grown up in New Jersey, Doby in Paterson, Irvin in Orange (the home town of former heavyweight boxing contender Two Ton Tony Galento), and Newcombe in Elizabeth. Doby and Irvin are both in baseball’s Hall of Fame, and Big Newk belongs there. All three of these individuals played for the Newark Eagles in the old Negro League prior to their advent in Major League Baseball. And each of these three positively affected the sociology of America.
Larry Doby (pictured) in July, 1947 became the first African-American to play in the American League, as an outfielder for Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians. He was a superb player, both offensively and defensively. In 1978, Bill Veeck hired Larry to manage the Chicago White Sox, making him only the second African-American to manage a Major League Baseball club.
Monte Irvin signed with the then New York Giants in 1949 and starred as an outfielder, like Doby, both offensively and defensively. When Willie Mays came up to the Giants in 1951, Irvin was his mentor. Monte was the leading star of that 1951 Giant team which came from 13.5 games behind to overtake the Brooklyn Dodgers and win the pennant in the playoffs on Bobby Thomson’s famous home run. After his career, in 1968, Irvin was hired as a public relations specialist for the Commissioner of Baseball. The appointment made him the first black executive in Major League Baseball.
Don Newcombe was brought up to the Brooklyn Dodgers from their farm system in 1949 and quickly became the first African-American Major League Baseball star pitcher. The Cy Young Award for baseball’s best pitcher was established in 1956, and Big Newk was its first winner. He also became the first Major League Baseball pitcher to win all three of the following awards: Rookie of the Year (1949), Most Valuable Player (1956), and the Cy Young Award (1956).
Prior to Jackie’s Jersey City historic debut as a member of the Montreal Royals, the Baseball Guide, a publication of the Sporting News, known as the Bible of Baseball, began with the words, “Baseball is a game played by Caucasian gentlemen.” After that blessed day of April 18, 1946 in Jersey City, these words were obsolete.
Like Jackie Robinson, these three great New Jerseyans, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Don Newcombe had to face on a daily basis the hostility of millions. Their success was a triumph of their character, and the true winner was America.
It is my hope that New Jersey will celebrate on April 18th the 75th anniversary of that historic day in Jersey City and that special recognition be granted not only to Jackie Robinson but also to those three individuals who are of special pride not only to New Jersey but for America itself: Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Don Newcombe.
Alan Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.