Over the last couple decades Greensboro has seen some incredible, sometimes historic ballplayers grace the diamond. Andy Petitte, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Giancarlo (Mike) Stanton, Bryce Harper, Brian McCann, and Ryan Howard have all brushed through Greensboro. Some of the ballplayers were on the Greensboro team that was affiliated with the New York Yankees, others played for the Marlins affiliate. Some even played on opposing teams that gave us a chance to get a glimpse at a major leaguer in a minor league ballpark. Before the season started Greg and I went to go see the movie “42” together. It tells the story of Jackie Robinson‘s entry into Major League Baseball. Phenomenal movie. I realized during that movie, that I didn’t know that much about good ol’ Jackie. So I started doing some research and anything that had his name on it, I was intrigued to read it. It wasn’t too much longer, Bill On Baseball‘s Bill Hass wrote me a message to check out his article in the Greensboro Grasshoppers game day program. It was about Jackie Robinson and his ties to Greensboro. Bill has been so gracious to give us permission to share with you guys his story on baseball’s Hall Of Famer, Jackie Robinson, and his connections to Greensboro.
Jackie Robinson And His Ties To Greensboro
by Bill Hass
Jackie Robinson’s impact on the game of baseball and society in America was immense.
I don’t think I fully understood to what extent until I wrote a story in 2004 for the News & Record of Greensboro. It focused on how the stands were segregated in War Memorial Stadium, which didn’t change until the early 1960s.
One of the people I interviewed was Spencer Gwynn, the long-time voice of football and basketball at North Carolina A&T, who summed up what Robinson meant to African-Americans in 25 words.
“Black people all over the country identified with him,” Gwynn said. “When Jackie struck out, we struck out. When Jackie stole a base, we stole a base.”
Many people don’t realize that Robinson played three times in Memorial Stadium. Or they may remember two games, in 1950 and 1951, when the Brooklyn Dodgers played the Greensboro Patriots in exhibition games as they traveled north from spring training in Florida.
But the largely forgotten game, and the first time Robinson played here, came on Oct. 14, 1949. Robinson had a team of barnstorming all-stars that came to town to play against a local team of black all-stars.
Segregation of Memorial Stadium’s stands was suspended for that day. An advance story in the Greensboro Daily News noted that “a special section of box and reserved seats has been set aside for white spectators.”
That meant black fans, instead of having to sit in “their section” down the foul line behind first base, could sit anywhere.
Robinson’s presence created what Gwynn called “an electric crowd.” The official attendance was listed at 6,620 and Robinson was quoted as saying, “I know 3,000 crawled over the fences that weren’t counted.”
Robinson’s team won, 11-5. One of the opposing players was James Tonkins, a second baseman for the Greensboro Red Birds, a semi-pro team that played its games in Memorial Stadium.
“I remember he went sightseeing on old East Market Street, meeting people,” Tonkins told me. “It seemed like he went on campus (at N.C. A&T) that day.
“What fascinated me so much was how pigeon-toed he was, almost like he was walking on the tips of his toes. He was quite a guy, real outgoing. His appearance created quite a bit of interest.”
So did Robinson’s second appearance, on April 11, 1950. The Dodgers crushed the Patriots 22-0 and Robinson had three hits and two RBIs and scored twice. Attendance was 8,434, the largest crowd up until then to watch a baseball game in North Carolina.
The crowd probably was larger. Patriots owner Rufus Blanchard estimated that 1,500 youngsters slipped over the fence. One account told of 500 people “clinging perilously to tree branches and rooftops outside the stadium.”
For some reason I did not document, at least in that story, Robinson’s third appearance here. It came in April of 1951 and it’s likely the Dodgers won and the crowd was large.
I started thinking about all this after recently seeing the movie “42,” an account of 1947, the year Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. For the most part, it was well done and a fitting tribute to what Robinson endured that season, set against the background of the social changes he helped set in motion.
The movie strived to be as authentic as possible — the physical resemblance between Robinson and actor Chadwick Boseman is uncanny — although it took some dramatic license with incidents and characters.
Two characters in the movie, both of whom are cast in a bad light, have a Greensboro connection. Dixie Walker, Robinson’s teammate, played with the Patriots in 1928 at age 17, although he appeared in just six games.
Walker is accurately depicted as one of the Dodgers who signed a petition — rejected by team president Branch Rickey — saying they would not play if Robinson was a member of the team. Although the movie implies otherwise, there is no evidence Walker gave Robinson a hard time during their season together.
In his biography “I Never Had It Made,” Robinson uses a quote from Walker that appeared in The Sporting News: “Dixie Walker summed it up in a few words the other day when he said: ‘No other ballplayer on this club with the possible exception of Bruce Edwards, has done more to put the Dodgers up in the race than Robinson has. He is everything Branch Rickey said he was when he came up from Montreal.”
Another “villain” in the movie is Pittsburgh pitcher Fritz Ostermueller. Unlike Walker, he didn’t just pass through Greensboro. He pitched for the Patriots in 1931, going 15-9, and in 1932, when he was 21-9.
In the movie Ostermueller, who died of cancer at age 50 in 1956, is shown as hitting Robinson in the head with a pitch and saying “You don’t belong here.” But there are several problems with the scene.
First, he was a left-hander, not right-handed as the movie shows. Second, research by several sources indicates that while Robinson was hit by Ostermueller’s pitch, it wasn’t in the head. The pitch may have been up and in, but Robinson was struck in the left forearm that he raised to protect himself, then fell to the ground. And there is no account that says Ostermueller shouted at Robinson.
The Dodgers are shown rallying around the fallen Robinson and shouting at Ostermueller, and accounts of the day bear that out.
Ostermueller’s daughter, Sherrill Duesterhaus, has publicly criticized the directors for unfairly portraying her father as a racist. Robinson didn’t seem bothered by the incident. In his book, the only mention of Ostermueller, whom he referred to as “Fitz,” is that during a game in Pittsburgh, Robinson noticed the pitcher had become “a little careless and relaxed.” So he stole home with what turned out to be the winning run.
Make what you will of Walker and Ostermueller. I just found it interesting that two players with Greensboro backgrounds played important parts in “42.”
There are two more indirect connections between Jackie Robinson and Greensboro. One came in 2002, when the second baseman for the Greensboro Bats was Robinson Cano, now a star for the New York Yankees. Cano told me his father named him for Jackie Robinson.
The other connection concerns Mariano Rivera, the great Yankees closer who played for the Greensboro Hornets in 1991 and 1993. Rivera, who will retire after this season, is the last player in the major leagues to wear the number 42, which was permanently retired several years ago for all teams.
It seems a fitting legacy that the now-famous number of Hall-of-Famer Jackie Robinson is being worn for the last time by future Hall-of-Famer Mariano Rivera.
That is one thing that makes Greensboro such a spectacular place to watch a game. You never know who you are watching make history. With storied names like Robinson, Jeter, Stanton, Petitte, Fernandez, it just makes Greensboro all the more fun. If you looked back in the history pages you would see that it has been and forever will be… A GREAT TIME TO BE A HOPPER!!!
Once again, we offer a sincere thank you to Bill Hass for sharing this incredible story. You can check out all of Bill’s stories on his “Bill On Baseball” blog. This story about Jackie Robinson is also set to run again in the Greensboro Grasshoppers program during their June 24-30 home stand against the Asheville Tourists and the Delmarva Shorebirds, so be sure to check it out in print when you’re at the ballpark next week!
As I write this blog entry during my lunch break, the Greensboro Grasshoppers are battling the Rome Braves in the first of two 7-inning games scheduled for today. (It’s currently the top of the 8th, with the score tied at zero, so the first game of the double-header gets extra innings today….) Why a double-header? Because yesterday’s game was called on account of rain. So while the boys are playing today’s game, I’m happy to bring you a few pictures of Brian McCann from Friday’s game. The Hoppers fell to the Braves Friday night (box | recap), due in large part to an RBI double from Brian McCann in the 9th.
These pictures come courtesy, once again, of Patrick Abbott. Patrick was enjoying the game from Suite 210. Patrick reports that “McCann was very gracious when it came to autographs…. He even delivered a bunch of baseballs to fans eager to get an autograph or photo by the player entrance/exit immediately after the game.” Sounds like a great time, and I’m glad so many baseball fans in Greensboro got a chance to see a first-rate big-league player in our ballpark.
Thanks again for that great pictures, Patrick!
Remember, you can click on any of the pictures in the post to embiggen them. Join the conversation by leaving a comment — what are you thinking?
Brian McCann is currently rehabbing with the Rome Braves, playing against the Greensboro Grasshoppers this weekend. The Hoppers Fan blog is thrilled to be able to share photos from his rehab stint taken by Dano Keeney, the Hoppers’ Team Photographer. Dano is in his 8th season with the Hoppers and has captured several memorable moments such as Christian Yelich jumping on home plate after the 15th inning walk-off in 2011 and the five first round pitchers in front of the “Greensboro” sign in 2006. Dano has also done most of the team cards since 2006. In addition to serving as the official photographer for the Hoppers, Dano does weddings, family photos, kids sports games, baby photos, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Visit the Dano Keeney Photography website to see his portfolio and get in touch with him if you want to have your event photographed.
Dano sent the following photos from Friday’s game, which was Brian McCann’s first rehab assignment.
Thanks again for that great pictures, Dano!
Remember, you can click on any of the pictures in the post to embiggen them. Send us your pictures and/or stories from Brian McCann’s visit to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll try to feature them on the blog. Join the conversation by leaving a comment — what are you thinking?
Brian McCann is rehabbing with the Rome Braves, who are playing the Greensboro Grasshoppers here in town this weekend. I talked a little about that in my last post. Several folks have responded to our call and sent some photos of McCann to share on the Hoppers Fan blog. The next several blog posts will feature those pictures. This installment comes to us thanks to Patrick Abbott and Debbie Rodriguez. I’ve known Patrick for several years — he and his son Eli can often be found at the ballpark taking pictures, collecting autographs, and just enjoying the game. Patrick sent this pictures from Friday’s game, which include both McCann swings that resulted in home runs. Debbie’s been a loyal Hoppers Fan fan for several years, too, and she sent us a picture of McCann signing autographs at the tunnel.
As for tonight’s game (box | recap), the Hoppers took a 1-0 lead in the 2nd and held it until Brian McCann brought in the tying run in the 9th with a double and Levi Hyams drove in the winning run. The Hoppers were unable to respond and went down 1-2-3. Check out the Bill on Baseball blog for more details, including reactions to the loss from the Hoppers manager and pitching coach.
The Hoppers are scheduled to play the Braves again tomorrow afternoon at 4:00. Weather might be an issue, with the forecast calling for rain. Let’s hope the rain stays in check and the field stays dry and it’s a great day to be at the ballpark. Show up early for a chance to get McCann’s autograph. Reports from both yesterday and today are that McCann is being generous, signing lots of autographs for the fans. Hoppers Fan Debbie Rodriguez sent in this picture of McCann signing autographs at tonight’s game.
Thanks for that great pictures, Patrick and Debbie!
Remember, you can click on any of the pictures in the post to embiggen them. Send us your pictures and/or stories from Brian McCann’s visit to email@example.com, and we’ll try to feature them on the blog. Tune in to the blog tomorrow for some pictures from the Hoppers’ Team Photographer, Dano Keeney.
Join the conversation by leaving a comment — what are you thinking?
It’s not often that a Major League player gets a rehab assignment that brings him to Greensboro. I can’t remember the last time a Marlins player ended up on the Hoppers roster. A couple of years ago, first baseman Ryan Howard was rehabbing for for Philadelphia with the Lakewood Blueclaws. In one of his games in Greensboro, he stopped a potential no-no with an RBI double in the sixth. I can’t remember seeing anyone rehabbing in Greensboro since then.
Well, starting this weekend, Brian McCann, the catcher for the Atlanta Braves, is rehabbing with the Rome Braves. McCann has been on the DL with a shoulder injury. As luck would have it, Rome is playing Greensboro this weekend, so this is an opportunity for the Hoppers fans to see a great major league player in action.
OK, McCann’s not a Hopper, but his brother Brad McCann played in Greensboro in 2005, so we can consider him family, right?
“It felt good,” he said. ”I got some pitches to hit and luckily I didn’t miss them.”
He was most pleased about the way his shoulder felt behind the plate and how fast he got the ball out of his glove and on the way to second base. The Hoppers tested McCann on the basepaths, stealing four bases, and he made two throwing errors. But accuracy is something he said he can iron out.
Neither Jordan nor I were able to make last night’s game, and we’ll probably miss all of the games against Rome. (Yes, it’s very sad. McCann is my favorite Brave, and I’d love to see him in our small park (I’ve seen him in Atlanta many times!) and have a chance to get his autograph, but other obligations trump baseball this weekend.) So this is the perfect time to enlist the Hoppers Fan Army! If you were at last night’s game, or make it out to any of the games when McCann is playing, we’d love to hear from you! Send us your pictures and/or stories from the game to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll try to feature them on the blog. We’ve already received a handful of photos from a few fans, so look for those coming up in the next few blog entries.
Join the conversation by leaving a comment — what are you thinking?