BROOKLYN – For years, Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis proclaimed that there was no actual policy that excluded blacks from playing in the big leagues. Considered a liberal on the topic of race upon his appointment in 1920, he was never overtly outspoken about the breaking of the color line, though the commonality of skin color between all major leaguers during his reign was enough of a smoking gun.
A seemingly altruistic Landis maintained that black players could not be integrated into the major leagues without heavily compensating the owners of Negro league teams for what would likely result in the loss of their investments. Additionally, perhaps a more competitive reasoning behind this invisible barrier was that the players in the Negro Leagues were incapable of playing professional caliber baseball, according to Landis, as well as many of the people who owned those major league teams.
It was not until after the death of Landis in 1944, that the opportunity to integrate the sport with the blessing of the commissioner came about. Albert ‘Happy’ Chandler had been elected in 1945, and with his southern drawl, he brought with him the belief that African Americans could make it in baseball, and should be given that opportunity.
It was a year later that Branch Rickey, then the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had signed Jackie Robinson to play with the minor league Montreal Royals for the 1946 season. With Rickey at the operational helm of a ball club, players would receive proper fundamental instruction, aided by one of the first full-time spring training facilities in Vero Beach, FL. When Jackie was to join the Dodgers for the 1947 season, he would benefit from his design, as well as his coaches. And, especially from George Sisler.
George played college ball for Rickey at the University of Michigan from 1912 to 1913, where he formed a very meaningful relationship with the man. It was during Sisler’s sophomore year that Rickey left Michigan to join the front office of the St. Louis Browns. And when Sisler set his eyes towards professional ball in 1915, it was Branch who came calling. The Browns would pay him $300 a month, as well as a $5,000 bonus.
He entered the majors as a left-handed pitcher, though he was also worked out at first and in the outfield. Pitching 70 innings with a 2.83 ERA, he also ended the season with a .285 average, three homers and 29 runs batted in.
Though Rickey would leave the Browns during Sisler’s second season, the young player continued to thrive. From 1916 to 1925, Sisler batted over .300 nine consecutive times, including two seasons in which he hit better than .400 – the only player besides Ty Cobb to post multiple .400 batting marks. In 1920 specifically, as an everyday player, he hit .407 and collected 257 hits – a record that would stand for 84 years. He also hit .420 in 1922, was named the American League Most Valuable Player, and led the Brown’s to within one game of winning the pennant.
Sisler ended his career in 1930, with a career average of .340, 2,812 hits and 1,175 runs batted in, all of which were good enough numbers for him to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.
In late 1942, one of Rickey’s first moves with the Dodgers was to ask his former player and good friend to consider taking a scouting position with the Brooklyn team, as well as becoming an assistant during spring training. In 1945, Sisler, along with Clyde Sukeforth and Wid Mathews, were responsible for scouting the Negro Leagues, as Branch Rickey was looking to break the color barrier. Those three would be principally responsible for scouting Robinson and eventually convincing Branch to make him the first player to integrate the game.
It was in 1947 that Sisler’s responsibilities became of greater importance. He was asked by Rickey to move his life to Brooklyn, as he needed help in monitoring progress of younger players, including many of the bonus babies. Additionally, Branch wanted George to meet with the manager and coaches before and after each game, and to sit in the stands and catalog each pitch in the hope of helping some of the catchers with information on opposing batter traits.
When that move was finally made by Sisler, it was the Dodgers who benefited most. In that year, Jackie Robinson’s first, the club finished 94-60, good enough to win the pennant.
In 1949, Sisler was placed in full charge of hitting, beginning with spring training. Jackie became his most notable project. In 1947 and 1948, Jackie hit .297 and .296, which though respective, was by no means what he was capable of. It was during that spring that things began to change with George’s help. At his suggestion, the game’s most recognizable figure spent hours with a batting tee at the Dodger’s Vero Beach training complex, learning to hit the ball to right field.
Robinson learned to prepare for the pitch – always looking for fastballs, never a curve. Sisler’s theory was that if a fastball was expected, it would be easier to adjust to a slow curve, rather than vice-versa. Jackie learned patience at the plate, stopped lunging and was taught to check his swing until the last possible millisecond.
In sixteen games during his training in the Grapefruit League, Robinson hit .521 in 48 times at bat. “I feel right now I could hit Warren Spahn as if I owned him,” he had said.
And when the season opened against the Giants on April 19 in Brooklyn, Jackie hit a homer and two singles.
However, he would falter in the coming weeks, seeming utterly entranced at the plate. After thirteen games, the Dodger second baseman was hitting around the .200 line. Confident that his training with Sisler had changed things for the better, he joked, “the Dodgers will have a great club, once Robinson joins them.”
Confidence or no confidence, 1949 was to be his first great season.
About a month in, he began to warm up with the weather. In a six game span, he had 10 hits in 27 trips to the plate. By the end of May, his average had climbed to .311. In one series against Warren Spahn and his Braves, Robinson lived up to his earlier boast. He had six hits in twelve tries, including a two-run homer against the great lefty.
By June, he was hitting .344, good for second place in the National League. And much to the delight of the Dodgers, he also led the circuit in runs batted in.
With his ever-climbing average at the beginning of July, Robinson, along with Roy Campanella, Larry Doby and Don Newcombe, became the first African Americans to be voted into the All-Star Game. In that contest, held in Ebbets Field, Jackie hit a double in the first inning and scored three runs.
After the break, Jackie’s performance continued to get better and better. By August he was still hitting above .360, carrying the Dodgers on his back. Even after injuring his heel earlier in the month, Dodger Manager Burt Shotton couldn’t keep him out of the line-up. On August 10, with the game tied in the ninth inning against the Phillies, Robinson hit his fourteenth home run of the season to lift the Dodgers to a 7-5 win.
By mid-September, after Jackie had been designated “the Ball Player of the Year” by Look magazine, he was in a tight race for the batting title. And when the smoke cleared in early October, he beat out Stan Musial and Enos Slaughter for the top spot with a .342 average. He would also finish second in the league with 203 hits and 124 RBIs, as well as place third in doubles and triples.
The Dodgers took the pennant once more, and in November, a 24-member committee of the Baseball Writers Association designated Jackie the Most Valuable Player in the National League. Securing twelve first-place votes, he was mentioned on every ballot.
Jackie could play ball at a professional level after all.