Thursday, December 28, 2017

Jackie Robinson's lone day as shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers

When the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1945, he was playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. His signing worried league veterans, as they questioned his ability to adequately field the position at the major league level.

“All us old fellas didn't think he could make it at short,” Hall of Famer Cool Papa Bell told Sports Illustrated in 1973. “He couldn't go to his right too good. He'd give it a backhand and then plant his right leg and throw. He always had to take two extra steps. We was worried. He miss this chance, and who knows when we'd git another chance?”

Jackie Robinson / National Archives
If anyone was qualified to evaluate Robinson’s readiness to play shortstop at an elite level, it was Bell. Regarded as the fastest the Negro Leagues had to offer, Olympian Jesse Owens reportedly refused to race against the fleet-footed outfielder. Even though Bell was in his mid-40s when he faced Robinson in Negro League competition, he could still draw on his legendary speed when necessary. He devised a plan to send a not-so-subtle message that Robinson needed to look for another place on the field if he was going to be their representative to break the color barrier.

“So I made up my mind to try and show him he should try for another spot in the infield,” Bell said. “One night I must've knocked couple hundred ground balls to his right and I beat the throw to first every time. Jackie smiled. He got the message. He played a lot of games in the majors, only one of 'em at short.”

Intrigued by Bell’s mention of Robinson’s lone game in the majors at shortstop, I looked for the story behind his brief return to a position he had not played professionally in eight years. On September 22nd, 1953, Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen gave the Brooklyn fans a treat during the last home game of the season, as he penciled in Robinson at shortstop next to his cleanup spot in the batting order.

Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers captain and shortstop, stepped aside so Robinson could have one last taste of the position he last held with the Monarchs. Ironically, Reese was the catalyst for this move, as it was his dare that provoked Robinson to change positions. In true form, the ever-competitive Robinson didn't hesitate to accept the challenge.

“Jackie Robinson played shortstop yesterday on a dare by Pee Wee Reese,” Dave Anderson wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “The man-in-motion now has played every infield position this season as well as left field.”


Robinson’s charge at shortstop was witnessed by only the most diehard Brooklyn faithful, as only 2,365 fans showed up to Ebbets Field for the game. His appearance passed with little fanfare except for a lone wire photo of Robinson snaring a line drive from the bat of Pittsburgh’s Danny O’Connell.

So was Bell accurate in his assessment of Robinson playing shortstop in the major leagues? Robinson handled five chances without an error, but his clean sheet left out one curious detail. In the first inning, the Pirates lefty-hitting Hal Rice reached safely at first base on a groundball to shortstop. While the news reports made no mention as to where Rice hit the ball, one can wonder if he tried to slap one in between short and third and test Robinson like Bell did in the Negro Leagues almost a decade earlier.

* Note - A tip of the cap to Luke Epplin (@LukeEpplin) for his assistance with the newspaper research.

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