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  • Writer's pictureCharles I. Guarria

Jackie Robinson Reintegrated Baseball Earlier Than You May Think

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

On March 17, 1946, Jackie Robinson took the field in an exhibition game at City Island Ball Park in Daytona Beach, Florida as a member of the Montreal Royals. A Brooklyn Dodgers minor league baseball club. It was his first game for the Royals; as such, it was the day baseball reintegrated.

Recently, the City of Daytona Beach hosted a ceremony for the placement of a historical marker, recognizing another day of equal importance. Mr. Robinson practiced and played in minor league exhibition games for the Royals days before the March 17, 1946, game against Brooklyn.

Part of the inscription on the State of Florida historical marker reads, "On March 6, 1946, two African-American ballplayers, Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright and their white Montreal Royals teammates began spring training in Daytona Beach." The plaque describes a March 6 scrimmage in which Mr. Robinson played shortstop for four innings.

The game was played, and the historical marker unveiled a scant two and a half miles southwest of City Island Ball Park at the now-razed Kelly Field.

A historical marker was unveiled at the Midtown Cultural & Education Center., Daytona Beach, Florida, on Oct. 23, 2022.

The former field is the current location of the Midtown Cultural & Educational Center on George W Engram Blvd. "What happened here (Kelly Field) could easily be considered the forerunner to the civil rights movement," said Mr. Jim Bard when addressing the crowd gathered for the ceremony.

Mr. Bard is the secretary of the Central Florida Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). He, along with fellow SABR member Mike Kaszuba, came to Daytona Beach in August of 2021 to watch a ball game at the former City Island Ball Park. That park is now home to the Cincinnati Reds minor league affiliate Daytona Tortugas. The stadium has since been renamed in Mr. Robinson's honor as Jackie Robinson Ballpark.

To properly frame the meaning of the scrimmage that March day in 1946, we need to go back to 1884. That was the year Moses Fleetwood Walker debuted with the Toledo Blue Stockings becoming the first African-American to play baseball side by side with Caucasians.

By the late 1880s, maybe 1890 depending on the source you want to reference, baseball owners had come to a gentleman's agreement to not allow any more African Americans into the game. Those who had contracts could stay.

That leads to Mr. Robinson's appearance in the scrimmage at Kelly Field as the first time since roughly 1890 that an African-American played alongside Caucasians in what is considered modern-day baseball. (I am assuming that the reason it is hard to find definitive dates is that records were not kept or preserved as well back then as they are in the modern game. )

The plaque refers to another African-American on the Royals, pitcher Johnny Wright. Mr. Wright had signed with Brooklyn three months after Mr. Robinson so that Mr. Robinson would not have to go through a near-impossible situation by himself.

Make no mistake, Mr. Wright was not a Montreal Royal just to be by Mr. Robinson's side. Sporting a career that included two all-star appearances, three no-hitters and a 3.09 ERA proves he could stand on the merits of his baseball accomplishments.

Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry recognized both men for their courage, "We understand that Mr. Wright, Mr. Robinson, and all who played at Kelly Field before integration, did great things under tough situations."

Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry speaking at the dedication ceremony.

Johnny Wright's daughter, Carlis Wright-Robinson, (no relation to Jackie Robinson's family), was in attendance; emotional at the podium, she spoke of the ceremony's importance, "There aren't words in the Webster dictionary able to show my appreciation."

Johnny Wright with the Homestead Grays. A Negro League professional baseball team .

After the dedication ceremony Ms. Wright-Robinson spoke about her father, "My dad was a typical daddy." She mentioned that he didn't talk about baseball. "A lot of what I've learned, I've had to learn just by research." Ms. Wright-Robinson described her father as one who "celebrated life." She said he was a "very soft-spoken person. but everybody knew him in the neighborhood, a lot of people didn't know he played ball.

"He liked to entertain and would frequently have ball players at his house when he was a player. Ms. Wright-Robinson has begun to pen a book about her father.

The Montreal Royals playing at Kelly Field in Daytona Beach wasn't a matter of choice. Rather, it was a matter of circumstance. The Dodgers had been spurned by the Florida cities of DeLand, Jacksonville and Sanford before settling on Daytona Beach. In Sanford, after a second day of practice, word got out that Caucasians would take matters into their own hands if Robinson and Wright were not out of town by nightfall.

J. Wright, 4th from left, J. Robinson, 5th from left, as Royals teammates in a game against Brooklyn in Daytona Beach. No reference is made to whether this is City Island or Kelly Field.

Thanks to Daytona Beach community leaders such as Dr. Mary McLeod Cookman, the city was more willing than most in the south to realize that separate was not equal. Mr. Bard underscored the point, "No other city in Florida would permit Jackie or Johnny to take the field."

The dedication ceremony took place on Sunday, October 23. It was a fitting day to unveil the plaque as it was the 77th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Whereafter he was assigned to Montreal Royals.

People attended dressed in Tortugas t-shirts, while others had Dodger jersey's on with Mr. Robinson's number 42 on the back. The State of Florida historical marker is located near the front entrance to the Midtown Cultural & Education Center. There is talk of adding a scoreboard where the field used to be that would detail the significance of Kelly Field.

Kelly Field's right field area is now a pond.

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