Crossing The Line

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On April 15 Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in their opening-day game against the Boston Braves. In so doing, he became the first African-American to play in the major leagues since an abortive attempt at integration in 1884. Robinson’s courageous breaking of the color line would eventually have great repercussions inside baseball and out. Yet on the day of his momentous debut, fans and journalists alike were oddly blasé.

The main topic in New York newspapers reporting the game was the absence of Leo Durocher, the Dodgers’ manager since 1939, who had just been suspended for associating with gamblers. The next biggest item was Pete Reiser’s triumphant return to center field after breaking his ankle the previous year. Somewhere in the last few paragraphs most stories got around to discussing Brooklyn’s many new players, among them the “Negro lad,” who was twenty-eight at the time. On this historic occasion almost 6,000 of Ebbets Field’s 32,500 seats were empty, and the spectators who did show up were noticeably subdued, especially-by Brooklyn standards. After the game, though, about 250 mostly white autograph seekers did surround Robinson as he left the park.

Robinson’s signing of a major-league contract four days earlier had attracted greater notice. Some papers had taken it upon themselves to advise black fans on how they should act. The Sporting News offered this counsel: “To the Negro fan, let it be said that he must approach the new situation with understanding and patience, two qualities his race has long utilized in its amalgamation into American life, especially in the South.” The Amsterdam News , a local black paper, advised its readers to “have fun ... in a clean, healthy manner” without “ridiculous loud and uncouth jokes” and “fanatic dances.” It also discouraged drinking in the stands and joined The New York Times in condemning the boisterous antics of a few Robinson supporters at a recent exhibition game.

On the same day that Robinson debuted, an even more widely heralded player appeared in his first major league game, a can’t-miss kid named Clint Hartung. In 1946, against military teams stocked with big leaguers, Härtung had compiled a 25-0 pitching record and batted .567. During the next year’s spring training, as Hartung slammed home run after home run and predictions of stardom multiplied, the only question seemed to be whether the versatile New York Giants rookie would make the Hall of Fame as a pitcher or as a hitter. The Hondo Hurricane (as Hartung was dubbed after his Texas hometown) looked impressive in his first game, doubling in a run on the first pitch he saw and later singling and scoring from first on a two-base hit. Yet the lanky, laconic Hartung already showed two troubling weaknesses: He was a wretched fielder, and he could not hit a curve ball. The Giants shifted him to the mound, only to find that as a pitcher he made a pretty good hitter, while as a hitter he made a pretty good pitcher. Hartung spent six unspectacular years with the Giants before retiring in 1952. His name has since become a synonym for an overhyped phenom who fails to live up to his potential.