The Day Jackie Came To Town
In the Sun Herald Sports section on Wednesday, October 21, 1953, the headline of a column read “Jackie Robinson All-Stars Slate Biloxi Appearance.” In the five-paragraph announcement, readers were informed that an opportunity to see “Big League baseball stars in action” was coming to the Gulf Coast on November 2
In the Sun Herald Sports section on Wednesday, October 21, 1953, the headline of a column read “Jackie Robinson All-Stars Slate Biloxi Appearance.” In the five-paragraph announcement, readers were informed that an opportunity to see “Big League baseball stars in action” was coming to the Gulf Coast on November 2 at the Lee Street Diamond.
It’s an event that was conscribed to history, forgotten by most until 2022, coincidentally the year that the entire baseball world is set to celebrate the 75-year anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It’s an anniversary that deserves reflection, but also more context than simply wearing the number 42 and mentioning Jackie Robinson’s bravery while integrating Major League Baseball. So, during this historic month, let’s look back at Jackie Robinson’s path and his one-time stop in Biloxi.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919. His family moved to Pasadena, California very shortly after he was born and he eventually starred as a four-sport athlete at Pasadena Junior College before enrolling at UCLA. While he was on campus in Westwood, Robinson lettered in baseball, track and field, basketball and football, the only athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports. Even though he excelled on the baseball diamond, Robinson was also a gifted football player, leading the nation in punt return average in 1939 and 1940. He also led UCLA in passing, rushing and scoring during the 1940 season. As a track and field star, he won an NCAA Title in long jump and likely would have competed in the 1940 and 1944 Olympics had they not been cancelled due to World War II.
Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army on April 3, 1942 and progressed to the rank of second lieutenant. While stationed at Camp Hood in Texas in 1944, Robinson was arrested for not moving to the back of a military bus when directed by a white bus driver. When he appeared for his court martial, numerous inconsistencies were found in the stories of the prosecution’s witnesses and Robinson was acquitted on all charges. He was honorably discharged from the Army in November of 1944 due to a bone chip in his ankle that caused the joint to lock up.
During the 1945 season, Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Primarily the teams’ shortstop, Robinson hit .375 with 13 doubles, a triple, four home runs, 27 RBI and 25 runs scored in 34 games on a team that also featured Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith.
Most people know that Robinson was picked by Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey with the intention that he would break the Major League color barrier. Before he debuted in 1947, though, Robinson spent an entire season in the Minor Leagues, playing for the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate, the Montreal Royals, during the 1946 season.
Make no mistake about it; Robinson earned his call up to the Brooklyn Dodgers. While with the Royals in 1946, he led the International League with a .349 batting average and stole 40 bases. Almost incomprehensible in the modern game, Robinson walked 92 times and struck out just 27 times across an incredible 553 plate appearances while scoring 113 runs and recording 66 RBI.
Finally, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field, breaking baseball’s color barrier and officially integrating the sport. The Dodgers would win 5-3 with Robinson going 0-3 with a run scored and a sacrifice hit. Robinson became an everyday player for the Dodgers, batting .297 with 31 doubles, five triples, 12 home runs, 48 RBI and a whooping 125 runs scored. He led the National League in stolen bases with 29 and was named the first ever National League Rookie of the Year while finishing fifth in MVP voting that season.
Fast forward to 1953. By that time, Robinson had won the National League MVP and batting title in 1949 and was coming off his fifth consecutive season as a National League All-Star. The Dodgers, still in Brooklyn, had just won their second consecutive National League pennant and fourth overall since Robinson had joined the team. During the offseason, it was common for baseball players to go on barnstorming tours, and for Robinson, his tour included Gil Hodges, Al Rosen from Cleveland and Ralph Branca of the Detroit Tigers. Robinson and his All-Stars, featuring players from both the American and National League, scheduled a stop in Biloxi to take on a team of Negro League All-Stars.
The All-Star Game was set for November 2, 1953 at 8 pm at the Lee Street Diamond and was sponsored by Joe Spanner and Sherman Johnson, who were managers of the Biloxi Tigers baseball nine. General admission was charged for the game, and by the account the following day in the Sun Herald, over 9,000 fans were in attendance for a Monday night game. It was estimated that the crowd was one of the largest to witness any sporting activity at the Biloxi athletic field.
The Negro League All-Stars jump started the scoring with a pair of runs in the first inning. Unfortunately, the names of the Negro League All-Stars or a roster for that game have still not been located.
However, we do know how Robinson’s All-Stars responded in the bottom of the first inning. After a walk to Bobby Young of the Baltimore Orioles, Luke Easter, who was born in Jonestown, Mississippi and played for six seasons with the Cleveland Indians, launched a two-run homer over the right-field fence to knot the game at 2-2. By the description in the Sun Herald, it was ‘the only four ply blast of the game,’ as Biloxi fans saw what was commonly referred to as an “Easter Egg,” a nickname for the towering blasts hit by the slugging first baseman.
Hodges, who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as member of the 2022 class this summer, reached on an error and came around to score on a double from McNeil (no first name was listed). Another last name only description followed as the Sun Herald detailed that McNeil scored on “Glenn’s sharp single over second.” This likely referred to Johnny Glenn, who played 14 seasons in the Minor Leagues and spent 32 games with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1960.
The Negro League All-Stars tied the contest with a two-run top of the second and briefly took a lead in the top of the sixth inning. No specifics were given in the paper about how Jackie’s All-Stars tied the game other than that they “knotted the count in their half of the sixth with a single tally.”
We are fortunate enough to have a detailed description of the climax to the contest. In the eighth inning, Gil Hodges walked to begin the inning and stole second base. Jackie Robinson then stepped to the plate and sharply “singled through the box,” driving in Hodges to give Jackie’s All-Stars a 6-5 win. It was one Hall of Famer driving in another, a perfect end to a smashing success of an exhibition game.
It is worth mentioning that Jackie’s barnstorming tour in the South was not without incident. Two weeks before arriving in Biloxi, Robinson’s All-Stars were slated to play a game in Birmingham, Alabama. On October 8, 1953, ten days prior to their scheduled game, the Police Commissioner of Birmingham, Eugene Connor, announced that the planned game would not be permitted inside of the city because there was still a city ordinance that “forbids mixed athletic events.” Faced with yet another hurdle, Robinson consulted with members of the Birmingham community and decided to move forward with the game by benching all of the white players on his team.
After the conclusion of the All-Stars game in Biloxi, the Sun Herald noted that “Sidney Wasserman, road manager” of the tour said they would “probably make Biloxi a regular stop on the winter circuit in the future,” noting that he was “well pleased with the turnout and that Biloxi’s baseball diamond was as good as he had seen in the South.”
A return trip never came to pass though as 1953 was the last season Jackie Robinson would barnstorm in the offseason. It coincided with the overall decline of barnstorming tours as baseball continued to integrate, games were televised and players’ salaries increased, eliminating the need for players to barnstorm in the offseason to make extra money. It was quite the final ride for the barnstorming tour as it went through 32 cities, and by reports drew over 92,000 fans in games played across Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
After his stop in Biloxi, Robinson played three more seasons in the Major Leagues. He was named an All-Star for a sixth consecutive season in 1954, and in 1955 he helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win their first World Series title, a memorable seven-game victory over the New York Yankees that included Robinson stealing home just in front of the tag of Yankees catcher Yogi Berra.
Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 and in 2004, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that April 15 would be observed as ‘Jackie Robinson Day,’ a tradition that has continued ever since.
The move to recognize April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day came after Major League Baseball retired his number 42 jersey across the league in 1997. When the Biloxi Shuckers began their franchise in 2015, the decision was made to retire the number 42 in recognition of Robinson, the only number that the Shuckers have retired. That decision seems even more appropriate now knowing that the Hall of Famer played a game right here on the Mississippi Coast, barely a mile from the site of MGM Park.