Jackie joined a winning team in ’47
Posted by athomeatfenway on February 14, 2013
I have been catching the offerings on MLB Network, ESPN Classic and other sports verticals. Three days ago I read with great relish the back-to-back scheduling of Henry Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Buck O’Neil and Bob Gibson on separate interview shows hosted by the late & great Dick Schaap and highly skilled Roy Firestone.
On that meandering day I heard Buck O’Neil explain that poor attendance drove the Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson, and that good attendance was the reason that the Red Sox and Yankees were not motivated to integrate.
It’s interesting to examine Brooklyn’s intentions for hiring Jackie because the Dodgers not only were the first….they were the best. Rickey’s team signed a series of major black stars including Robinson, Campanella, Black, and Newcombe. With a heroic black and white nucleus, they played in the World Series 6 time in 10 years.
It is interesting to examine Brooklyn’s intentions because they have often been attributed to motivations of social justice and morality.
But was poor attendance in Brooklyn the catalyst for change? That seems to be possibly true at first blush….but…..not exactly true. I checked it out.
1947, Jackie’s first year in Dodger flannels, was a banner one for Brooklyn. There were 1,807,526 paid admissions to Ebbets Field. That set a new franchise record that would not be broken until 1959, when the Alston men played in the 78,000 seat L.A. Coliseum.
1.8 million is a staggering count for 1947, especially compared to the earlier war years. 1.8 million is THREE TIMES the paid attendance of 1944 (605,905).
Furthermore, Brooklyn ranked #1 in total attendance in the National League for 1947.
There is no question that Jackie created a passionate interest in what occurred in the little 35,000 seat ballpark built by Charles Hercules Ebbets. But was Robinson the driving force? Was the boom in Brooklyn really a spike in a trend ?
A little digging reveals that the 1.8 million of ’47 was actually just a smidge above ’46. The Jackie-less Dodgers of 1946 pulled 1,796,824 while Robinson batted .349 for the Montreal Royals. (That year, Montreal also rostered Al Campanis, of all people).
So Jackie’s MLB advent resulted in an immediate home attendance increase of only one half of 1%.
Further digging shows that the Dodgers were a team on the rise for the 8 years prior to Robinson. In 5 of the 7 years immediately prior to his arrival, the Dodgers ranked 1st in the league in attendance. Plus 1 year ranked 2nd, and the other 3rd.
1939 was the year that the Dodgers leaped to the top in ticket sales. A position that would last through the Ebbets Field years and well into the Dodger Stadium era.
So what happened in 1939 ? Leo Durocher replaced Burleigh Grimes as Skipper. The Dodgers improved from 69 wins to 84 wins. From .448 to .545.
Durocher brought his feisty brand of “I come to kill You” baseball in 1939. Plus, in the 3 years that followed Leo’s coming, the Dodgers added Pee Wee Reese, Joe Medwick, Pete Reiser, Mickey Owen, Kirby Higbe and Whit Wyatt, thus bringing depth of white talent to the roster. A team that was a loser from 1932 to 1938, the nadir of the Great Depression, became a winner.
The Dodgers didn’t need Jackie Robinson to drive attendance. They were already a good team that was highly ranked in ticket sales and on the diamond.
But Jackie did bring something that cannot be overvalued in our game. Jackie led a new decade of winning. He was the best player in the league. An inspiration to teammates and fans.
In Terry Francona and Dan Shaughnessy’s new book, Francona, the Red Sox Years, Theo Epstein is quoted as saying, “The only way to successfully market a baseball team is by winning.”
Jackie was the cardinal rule. He was insurance for continuing success. Pennants, baby.
And the time was ripe for change.
In the late 1930’s, MLB players were asked if they were ready for black players to join them in the big leagues. 80% of them said yes, according to Ken Burns’ landmark 1996 documentary, Baseball.
The time for change and acceptance had arrived in the minds of the majority.
No, it wasn’t an attendance problem that compelled Rickey to sign Jackie. There was no attendance problem.
And it was not good attendance that prevented Tom Yawkey, Dan Topping and Del Webb from signing Robinson, Satchel Paige, or Willie Mays. It was something else. The same belief system that festered in the DNA of K.M. Landis and J.G. Taylor Spink, two of many baseball bigots.