Monday, February 22, 2010

This week in history: Jackie Robinson arrives in Havana

Sixty-three years ago this week, a ship carrying members of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their minor league team, the Montreal Royals pulled into Havana Harbor for spring training.
Among the passengers were former Negro League players Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and Roy Partlow. With Dodgers president Branch Rickey intent on having Robinson break baseball's color barrier, he moved the Dodgers' spring training site in 1947 to Havana.

Cuba, Rickey reasoned, would provide a better atmosphere in which to smooth Robinson's transition to the major leagues than Jim Crow Florida, where the Dodgers had trained in 1946.

The irony was that even though Cuba had seen black and white players share baseball fields since before the turn of the 20th century, Robinson and his black Royals teammates found themselves segregated not only from the Dodgers but from their white Royals teammates.

While Robinson, Campanella, Newcombe and Partlow stayed at the Hotel Los Angeles -- a fleebag that the New York Sun at the time described as a "musty third-rated hotel" -- their white Royals teammates stayed and trained at the Havana Military Academy on the outskirts of Havana. The Dodgers, meanwhile, stayed at the opulent Hotel Nacional.

During a 1997 interview, Newcombe relayed this story about the separate, but hardly equal accommodations:
"I wasn't even allowed to go in the lobby of the Nacional to see Mr. Rickey on baseball business. I had to bet permission from the bellhops. In fact, one [white] bellhop put me out of the lobby."
And yet, despite such uninspiring circumstances, that spring training paved the way for Robinson to break baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947.

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