Saturday, June 17, 2017

How George Shuba inspired beyond his famous handshake with Jackie Robinson

George Shuba gave many congratulatory handshakes in his days as a major league ballplayer with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his most famous one was captured during Jackie Robinson’s first game in the minor leagues on April 18, 1946. The hard-hitting outfielder who earned the nickname “Shotgun,” passed away at his home in Youngstown, Ohio on Monday. He was 89.

George Shuba / Topps
Shuba played seven seasons with Brooklyn, appearing in three World Series including their 1955 victory over the New York Yankees, but his most famous moment was immortalized in a national photograph of Shuba shaking Robinson’s hand after his first home run in the minor leagues. The moment was later dubbed, “A Handshake for the Century.”

Manager Clay Hopper, who managed Shuba the year prior in Mobile, installed him into the third slot of the batting order right behind Robinson. Shuba’s ability to hit the ball to the right side of the infield influenced his manager’s decision for Robinson’s debut in Jersey City.

“He put me in the third slot which is a very important slot because I was a pull hitter,” Shuba said to me during a 2008 interview in New Jersey. “If someone was on first base, I had the big hole. He knew I made contact, so that's why I was lucky to be in that slot.”

His place in the order set the stage for history when Robinson deposited the ball over the left-field field in the third inning. As Robinson rounded the bases, Shuba was waiting with an outstretched hand to greet him.

“When Jackie hit his home run,” he said, “I came to home plate and shook his hand.”

Over sixty years later, Shuba was able to put the event in its proper context. A friendly gesture that any teammate wouldn’t think twice about extending turned out to be a significant part of Robinson’s assimilation into the previously all-white professional leagues.

“I realize now it was actually a historical event,” he said. “Being fortunate to have Jackie, it didn't make any difference to me if he was black or Technicolor. As professional ballplayers, we are focused to beat the other team and if Jackie helps us to be the other team, he's with us 100%. Truth be said, he was the best ballplayer on the club.”

Shuba joined his good friend on the Dodgers in 1948, one season after Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues. He served mostly as a reserve outfielder, finding difficulty in breaking through an outfield that had Duke Snider, Carl Furillo and Andy Pafko. He carved his niche as a pinch hitter, a role that paid dividends during the 1953 World Series against the New York Yankees when Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen sent him to pinch-hit against Allie Reynolds.

“We got behind a few runs,” he said, “so now Charlie Dressen decided to use me early with a couple of me on base. I was ready to pinch hit; [I was] never nervous. When I went up to pinch hit, I felt the pitcher was in trouble, not me. ... When I stepped in the batter’s box, the shadows were in between me and the pitcher. It was all day ball. The ball would come out of the sun into the shade. I turned around to get some dirt on my hand and Yogi Berra said, 'Hey Shuba, it's kinda tough seeing up here, isn't it?’ I said, 'Don't bother me Yogi, I've gotta get a base hit.’ Reynolds threw me a fastball on the outside corner with two strikes on me and I hit a line drive over the right field fence 355 feet away.”

Shuba was featured in Roger Kahn’s legendary “The Boys of Summer,” which followed up with the post-playing careers of many seminal Brooklyn Dodgers. He was honored to be included in Kahn’s historical work.

“He covered each one of us at our homes,” he said. “I was very fortunate to be on that book because I had my best year in 1952 when Roger came up. We were in our early 40s when he visited us and he saw some people that might have been having tragedies in their families. I was fortunate I had just recently married. It was more than about baseball.”

The man who was given the nickname “Shotgun” by Bill Bingham of the Mobile Press in 1945 for the sound of his wicked line drives, used his powerful hands for a different cause when he penned his autobiography, “My Memories as a Brooklyn Dodger,” in 2007 with Ohio author Greg Gulas. It was an effort that he initially intended to be an oral history of his career for his family keepsakes that blossomed into a fully fledged book.

“I started out writing for my family only,” he said. “A friend of mine Greg Gulas, I asked him to be the author. He was the Sports Information Director for Youngstown State and also wrote for the Vindicator. … It covers a vast spectrum of my career as a minor and major leaguer.”

Reflecting on a career that started after being signed by the Dodgers from a tryout camp in Youngstown in 1943, Shuba shared the following words of advice in 2008 hoping to inspire the younger generation to strive towards success both on and off the field.

“Competition is good for people,” he said. “If they succeed, it gives them confidence. After they’re playing days are over, it can help them make the transfer to the regular life. … I would tell the kids to dream. The saying is, 'Dreams plus dreams equals dreams. Dreams plus action equals success.’ I was fortunate that my dreams came true. I lived my dreams and I am forever grateful for that.”

* - This was originally published September 30, 2014 for Examiner.com

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