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70 Years Ago: Robinson’s Debut in Daytona Beach

City Island Ballpark, 1940

Today marks a date that should be remembered annually: It’s been 70 years since Jackie Robinson made his spring-training debut for the Montreal Royals on March 17, 1946 at Daytona Beach’s City Island Ballpark, after being locked out of other Florida ballparks.

Robinson was in Dodgers camp as a member of the International League’s Montreal Royals, and he was slated to make his debut in an exhibition against parent Brooklyn. This Montreal/Brooklyn matchup would been attempted in other area cities — Jacksonville, Sanford and DeLand (interestingly, all three ballparks where Robinson attempted to take the field still stand) — but only in Daytona would Robinson play.

Why Daytona Beach? Local residents who opened their doors to Jackie Robinson and his wife, Rachel. From the Daytona Beach News-Journal:

The city wasn’t exactly a bastion of racial progressivism. Jim Crow was well-entrenched here, as evidenced by the segregated restaurants, hotels, bathrooms and beaches — not to mention the seating at City Island Ballpark. But Daytona Beach also was home to Mary McLeod Bethune and the school of higher learning she founded, Bethune-Cookman College (now University). She was an influential African-American activist and benefactor in a predominantly white community, as was Joe Harris, a pharmacist and businessman. Harris and his wife Duff opened their Spruce Street home to Robinson and his bride Rachel — because segregated hotels wouldn’t let Robinson room with his white teammates….

On the morning of the game, a Sunday, black churchgoers heard sermons from the pulpit on Robinson, then after services walked hand in hand to the ballpark. Dodgers officials had invited wounded veterans of World War II who were convalescing at the Army hospital in Daytona Beach to attend the exhibition. They included some 250 African-American veterans, who proceeded to sit where they pleased, bypassing the blacks-only bleachers along the right field line. Even before the first pitch had been thrown, City Island Ballpark had become integrated, at least for a day.

Neither the mixed-race seating nor Robinson’s debut drew much protest. Mayor William Perry, perhaps with an eye toward the economic benefits of having the Dodgers train in his city, had spread the word that there would be no confrontations. Robinson received but a smattering of boos (he would face far worse abuse when he made his historic major league debut with the Dodgers the following season).

This didn’t change things overnight, and ballparks — particularly those in Florida — were not magically segregated. Here’s a shot from Tampa’s Al Lopez Field in 1955 (the year it opened as spring home of the Cincinnati Reds), well after Robinson’s debut.

Al Lopez Field, 1955

Today Bethune-Cookman University plays its home games at Jackie Robinson Ballpark (as do the Florida State League’s Daytona Tortugas) and the ballpark’s great history is displayed in a exhibit outside the ballpark. Racial equality is something America still struggles to achieve, and Major League Baseball still confronts diversity issues daily. That’s why it’s important to mark anniversaries like Robinson’s first MiLB game — and why the obstacles he faced daily should be remembered today as well.

Photo of City Island Ballpark (c. 1940) courtesy Florida State Archives. Photo of Al Lopez Field courtesy State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia.

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