The Jerseys of Jackie Robinson, Part 1

With the upcoming Ken Burns Jackie Robinson film airing next week, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the jerseys worn by him before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. This first post focuses on his brief period in the Negro leagues. It also illustrates some of the joys and challenges of our research process.

When Robinson was discharged from the Army in 1945, he was a college educated multi-sport star athlete, yet as an African-American his professional prospects were slim. He first returned to the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League, with whom he had played before the war. He then accepted a job as basketball coach at the historically black Sam Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University). It was while he as at Sam Huston that he received an offer from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. Although the Monarchs were the glamor team of black baseball, boasting Satchel Paige and other stars, the Negro leagues were still a dubious operation, and Robinson chafed at the gambling and lack of structure prevalent in Negro leagues baseball. Despite his misgivings, Robinson excelled during his time playing shortstop for  the Monarchs, batting .383 and playing in the East-West Game, black baseball’s annual all-star showcase in Chicago. Let’s take a look at the jerseys worn by Robinson in his brief time in the Negro leagues.

The Monarch uniforms of 1945 are very unusual for two reasons: First, there appears to have been a different color scheme worn at home and on the road. The home pinstripe uniforms were trimmed and lettered in the Monarchs’ usual red-and-navy combination. Jackie wore #5. We know this because fortunately for our purposes, the Monarch players wore a small number on the upper thigh of the pant on the home uniform. (I should point out here that researching Negro league player numbers is extremely difficult, because so few rosters exist with player numbers, and very few photographs show the back of the jersey). On the road uniform, however, the Monarchs substituted a navy-and-gold color scheme on the travel gray flannel. We only know this because an actual 1945 uniform came up for auction several years ago, otherwise we would have guessed from the black and white photos that the lettering scheme was the usual red-and-navy. We also located a 1945 roster from an away game (see below), and low and behold, Robinson is listed as #23, not #5. Now, we should point out that Jackie was not yet a star, and uniform numbers in those days did not have the significance they do today. It is quite possible that the clubhouse man simply handed out the uniforms and the numbers were more or less randomly assigned.

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Jackie Robinson in Monarchs home jersey, note #5 on pant.

After the regular season, Robinson also played for a Negro leagues California Winter League all-star team called the Kansas City Royals (no relation to the current world champs). If you were wondering how they played baseball in Kansas City in the winter, this league actually played all their games in Los Angeles. Robinson famously signed his contract with Brooklyn on October 23, 1945, so all eyes were on him when he played for the Royals at the end of the year. He did not disappoint, hitting .429 in the short season. He also endured a taste of what he would find when he made it to organized baseball. Although the Royals were a black squad, the league was integrated, and there were many doubters. Pitcher Bob Feller – who had faced Robinson before – remarked that Robinson didn’t have a chance to make it to the bigs, as “he couldn’t hit an inside pitch to save his life.” Fortunately for Feller, the American League Indians would not have to face Robinson when he finally came up in 1947.

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Jackie Robinson’s 1946 Winter League Jersey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This roster for the visiting Kansas City Monarchs comes from the Philadelphia Tribune from June 23, 1945. Jackie Robinson is listed as shortstop, #23. Satchel Paige is #0, also different from his uniform number at home. The paper also carried an account of a Monarchs-New York Black Yankees game at Yankee Stadium in front of 22,000 fans.

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Flannels Of The Month

Returning to an old tradition here. At the end of nearly every month we add a new group of historic baseball jerseys to our website. At one time I used to do a blog post about one or more of them, then I got busy, or I got lazy, take your pick…Anyway, the point being we’d like to start doing that again. I like this month’s group, both for the graphic diversity (who doesn’t like a baseball shirt with a tree on it? Thank you 1956 Missoula Timberjacks), and the relevance to current events. With Cuba once again in the news, I thought it would be a nice time to introduce the 1956 Hershey Sports Club shirt to the world. And with Ken Burns’ Jackie Robinson film coming up in April, I thought it would be a good time to revisit Jackie’s 1945 home Kansas City Monarchs jersey, which we will take up in more detail in a couple of weeks. One of the oddest jerseys I have seen was this zip-up Hawaii Islanders flannel from 1970. It is rare to see vertical stacked lettering like this. As flannels were almost universally abandoned after 1971 for the dreaded double knits, this was likely Hawaii’s last road flannel.

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The State of Hawaii patch adorns the left sleeve, as on previous Hawaii uniforms. The Islanders were a California Angels affiliate in this period, and the basic uniform style and trim owed a lot to the parent club. They may have even been earlier Angel uniforms handed down to the affiliate team – a common money-saving practice at that time. The Islanders were the pride of the Coast League in 1970, with a club that boasted a 98-48 record (best in the league). Chuck Tanner was manager and the team drew 467,000 fans into Honolulu’s old “Termite Palace”, pretty great when you consider that the next-best drawing club was Tucson, who only attracted 35% as many fans. In fact, the Islanders are considered one of the 100 best minor league teams in history. The Aloha State’s love affair with their professional baseball club ended by 1987, when the team finished last, and only 116,000 fans showed up to bear witness. The Islanders packed up and left for Colorado Springs the following season.

Check out the rest of this month’s selections here. And hopefully, this will become more of a habit!

Pride of the Yankees?

One thing that can almost ruin even a good baseball movie for me is if the uniforms are not done accurately. I happened to catch “Pride of the Yankees” on TV the other day, arguably one of the best baseball films ever made, and was immediately struck by how far off the road “NEW YORK” uniform lettering was, more precisely how low on the chest it was placed. As this was (and is) possibly the most famous baseball uniform in the world, and there were ample references available to the costumers, it is difficult to understand why more effort was not expended on accurately replicating the jerseys. If you look closely at both jerseys, you can see that the button spacing on the movie version is farther apart than on the real uniform, however the lettering could still have been moved up to more closely match the originals. After all, this is one of the most recognizable athletic uniforms in the world, so not that tough to get right. Another interesting story regarding the uniforms in this film: Since Gehrig was left-handed and Cooper was right-handed, a number of scenes were shot wearing a backwards-lettered uniform. This way, Cooper could “bat” right-handed, but the film could be turned around and he could be shown batting left-handed with the letters and Gehrig’s #4 still facing the right way!

Movie version with low lettering.

Movie version with low lettering.

Lou Gehrig in Yankee road flannel. Note placement of "Y".

Lou Gehrig in Yankee road flannel. Note height and arc of lettering.

The L.A. Angels “Waffle Weave” Uniform and Other Experiments

Wool uniforms were quite heavy prior to World War II, and there were a few attempts to alter the traditional flannel suits before double knit polyester uniforms arrived with a bang (or a thud, depending on your viewpoint) in the early 1970s. Another issue was mobility, particularly for running and throwing. One experiment can possibly be tied to Branch Rickey, as several Brooklyn-affiliated clubs tried flannel shorts and a rayon pullover shirt in the early 1950s. This experiment was most famously associated with the Hollywood Stars, but the uniform style was also worn by the Ft. Worth Cats, Miami Beach Flamingos, Bisbee-Douglas Copper Kings, and others. The shirts were made of the same “durene” rayon/cotton blend that football and hockey had adopted (although the shorts were made of the standard wool flannel material).

Hollywood Stars 1950 uniform. Note satin belt.

Hollywood Stars 1950 uniform. Note satin belt.

Houston Buffs rayon jersey, early 1950s.

Houston Buffs rayon jersey, early 1950s.

In 1956 the Los Angeles Angels made a big splash when they announced their “waffle weave” uniforms. Former Angel star Max West had gone into the sporting goods business, and this innovation was his idea. These were regular flannel suits, but the shirts and pants featured a knit three-color knit “waffle weave” panel that was designed to give the player more freedom of movement. Gene Mauch was enlisted to model the uniform at a press conference, which was covered by the L.A. Times’ fashion writer Jeanne Hoffman. The success of the uniform is not known, but the following season (the Angels’ last in the PCL) saw a return to the traditional all-flannel suit. More about the Angels waffle-weave unis from our friend Gaylon White here. (Ebbets Field made this jersey for a few years until our supply of waffle weave material ran out).

LA Angels 1956 "waffle weave" jersey.

LA Angels 1956 “waffle weave” jersey.

It is unknown why these uniform experiments did not remain in favor. Likely the shorts were not amenable to sliding, and it is possible the rayon fabric for the shirts did not launder well. Ultimately the flannel era was extended by the fabric manufacturers blending synthetics like acrylic into the wool, producing a much more comfortable fabric that also allowed the uniform to be less baggy and more “tailored”. At the same time varieties in the traditional pattern were developed that had a much shorter sleeve, or no sleeves altogether, giving us such classic styles as the Mantle-era Yankee uniforms and the vest styles employed by Kansas City (later Oakland), Cleveland, Cincinnati, and other clubs.

In the end of course, the flannel era passed, and by 1973 all professional baseball teams were wearing the new poly knits – for better or worse.

Cuba – What Does The Future Hold?

I was given a seat in Row 13 on my Cubana Airlines flight from Cancun, and I was assigned a room on the 13th floor of the Habana Libre Hotel when I arrived in Havana. I am not a superstitious person, but I hoped these were not omens of the week to come. It had been fifteen years since my last visit and that trip was still lingering in my memory: Miraculously getting into the first baseball game played by a major league team in forty years (no tickets were issued to the public); riding through the dark and silent streets of Habana Vieja in a horse-drawn cab to surreptitiously visit a Cuban friend. While lingering over a beer at Bar Montseratte, it was easy to imagine myself as a character in Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana (which I had brought along to re-read on this trip).

the Bacardi Building, Havana.

the Bacardi Building, Havana.

Cuba has changed – and Cuba has stayed the same. The legalization of small-scale private enterprise has made for more choices in meals, which is a refreshing change from three bland hotel buffets a day. Habana Vieja is now overrun with tourists, and a large cruise ship was docked in the harbor. But away from the tourists (and the badly-needed hard currency they bring with them) life remains an economic struggle for almost all Cubans, who earn the equivalent of about $20 US a month. As it is a physical impossibility to keep body and soul together on that amount, almost everyone has to have another means of income, whether it’s driving a taxi or making sales of fresh vegetables to your neighbors. The irony – and tragedy – of Cuba is that one of the most educated populations in the world is pared with an economic system that provides almost no outlet for marketable skills.

So, Fidel and Raul are both in their 80s. Nobody lives forever. What does the future hold? There are as many opinions of this among Cubans as there were in 1993, when I first visited and asked the same question. The truth is that nobody knows. Rumors are that Raul Castro is grooming his grandson to take over, thus perpetuating family dynastic rule. This, of course, would be a huge setback for improved Cuba-U.S. ties, as well as the Cuban people themselves. But don’t assume that anyone in Cuba wants American-style capitalism (of the current corporate chain and big box store variety). Although Cubans chafe at the restrictions on travel and other limitations on their freedom, and certainly want more economic opportunity, I did not meet a single soul who pines for Starbucks or McDonald’s. Cubans are an independent people who lived for many decades in the not-too-pleasant shadow of the Yanquis, and are not in any hurry to rekindle a one-sided relationship. There is a reason the Castro regime has so successfully used anti-Americanism to stay in power: There was a time when U.S. companies decided what was in Cuba’s interest, and the U.S. government had a hand in writing Cuba’s constitution. Cuba will not become a suburb of Florida. Whatever comes next, hopefully, will be an improvement, but a distinctly Cuban one.

DSCN1634As to the expectations of the recent thaw bringing a mass influx of American tourists to Cuba, one only has to land at Jose Marti Airport or stay at the Haban Libre to understand the impossibility of that happening very soon. Cuba simply does not have the infrastructure in place to handle mainstream American tourists in the style and comfort to which they have become accustomed. Elevators in 25-floor hotels don’t work; planes sit for an hour after landing because there are no officials to meet them; blackouts are common; food and accommodation outside of Havana and other tourist centers is scarce. And if you think free wi-fi is an inaliable right, you’re in for a reality check. It will take time.

CarsShould you visit? Absolutely! Cuba is a time capsule, where buildings have been preserved and used because tearing them down and building new ones is cost-prohibitive. It’s a place where – perhaps more than any other place I have visited – you will find no Starbucks but instead warm people who actually want to engage with you. A place where the music and rhythms are infectious, and will live inside you long after you return home. A place where your taxi will possibly be a 1957 Edsel, held together by improvised parts, wit, and sheer will. A place where – dare I use the cliche – baseball is still played for love of the game. Visit now, while it is still what it is. What about the travel ban? (Applies to Americans only). This is not being enforced, and going on your own (you should have some knowledge of Spanish) is much cheaper than signing on with a group. Travel for tourism is still technically banned, but you can now go under one of twelve categories of travel, and you can do so independently, which was not true before this year. I cannot advise anyone to break the law, but you should go before another administration in Washington takes over and restricts travel again, something I hope does not happen. Just be prepared for the realities and inconveniences mentioned, they are worth it, believe me.

Baseball In Cuba Today

My rear end is still sore from sitting on the broken slatted metal seats at Holguin’s Calixto Garcia Stadium, but other than that and the odd blackout (also in Holguin), watching a top-level baseball game in Cuba is a refreshing experience to someone used to the American 21st Century version. Going to four or five games (in Holguin, Bayamo, and Artemisa) has hardly made me an expert on Cuban baseball, but I thought I would share some history and observations.

Outside the media office at the Holguin ballpark.

Outside the media office at the Holguin ballpark.

In 1961, with the regime drifting closer to Communism, Fidel Castro ended decades of professional baseball tradition with the stroke of a pen. The four-team winter Liga Cubana was no more, and the International League’s Havana Sugar Kings had been transferred to Jersey City in July of 1960 (the franchise survives as today’s Norfolk Tides). What had been a professional system intertwined with U.S. organized baseball became an amateur all-Cuban affair known as the National Series, which remains to this day. One important change was that the teams were now spread out throughout the island, rather than all being based in the capital, as was the case in the Cuban League. The Industriales team was created to take the place of the popular Almendares and Habana clubs, with Industriales borrowing the blue of Almendares, and the lion emblem of Habana. The flow of Cuban players (other than the ones who left) to the U.S. major leagues obviously stopped.

There are several obvious differences between North American and Cuban games. First, the atmosphere in the parks is still all about the baseball. There are no distractions from the game, except for the occasional inebriated fan being escorted from the ballpark by the police. Fans are knowledgeable, boisterous, and not afraid to express their opinion. The proximity of the stands to the action on the field facilitates this. No alcohol is sold in the park, and perhaps that’s understandable. Available snacks are limited to paper cones of roasted peanuts and the odd wrapped ham and cheese sandwich. (On the positive side, one can enjoy a cigar during the game without anyone batting an eye). Cuba has been in financial crisis since the demise of their former patron, the Soviet Union, and this shows in the condition of the parks. There was a blackout in the fourth inning in Holguin, and the light standards in Artemisa had no lights. Infield conditions varied from decent to sub-par, and there were a few bad hops on the hard dirt. The current format in Cuba has sixteen teams – one from each province –  playing a 45-game schedule. Half the teams are then eliminated and the remaining eight play another 45 games, then playoffs to determine a national champion (last year, Pinar del Rio). Industriales are the Yankees of Cuba, the team everyone loves to hate.

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Victor Mesa, Matanzas manager.

As to the quality of play itself, it varies widely. because of the large number of teams for a relatively small population, there are a few players of major league caliber some who could play in the minors, and some who probably would not make it even at the lower minor league level in North America. The style of play itself is exciting, with aggressive base-running and lots of offense. We had an opportunity to visit with Victor Mesa, former Cuban star and now manager of the Matanzas team. He is perhaps the most colorful figure in the Cuban game today, and is either loved or reviled by Cubans, (depending upon whether or not they are Matanzas fans!), Mesa is an imposing figure, not afraid to pull a pitcher instantly if he sees something he doesn’t like (he pulled one hurler for throwing a knuckleball. In another game he used four catchers. I didn’t know any teams even carried four catchers).

Vendors at the Artemisa ballpark.

Vendors at the Artemisa ballpark.

Cuban baseball has a new arrangement with the Japanese leagues which allow a player to play in Japan during Cuba’s off-season and keep most of their salary (astronomical by Cuban standards) with a portion going to INTER, the Cuban baseball organization. Obviously, because of the embargo, a similar arrangement with MLB is far off, and the only way a Cuban player can achieve his major league dreams is by defecting, which many have done. If the embargo were to be lifted, I can see a day when perhaps more Cuban players can be fed into organized baseball, with INTER being able to make enough money from the arrangement to improve their ballparks, training facilities, and equipment, but this is pure speculation on my part. We were fortunate to have Peter Bjarkman in our group last week. Anyone wanting to know more about Cuban baseball history should seek out his book “Smoke” (written with Mark Rucker), as well as Peter’s blog.

Onward to Havana

Tonight I depart for Havana, Cuba for the first time in over 15 years. My first visit was in 1993, where I had the opportunity to play some informal games of baseball with and against a variety of Cuban players. (I learned what real “heat” was when I faced a former Cuban National Team pitcher in Pinar del Rio). In 1999 I returned “under the radar”. The chance to see the first official game between involving a major league baseball team on Cuban soil since 1961 was too much to resist. I arrived in Havana without official status, a ticket to the game, or much else, but managed to have an excellent time anyway. I’ll never forget the sound of the Star Spangled Banner coming from a scratchy record and wafting through Estadio Latinaericano. (My adventures on these trips were chronicled in earlier blogs, which we will re-post here soon.) In the time since my last visit, Fidel has stepped aside, small-scale entrepreneurship has been legalized, and most dramatically, the U.S. and Cuban governments have begun the long and painful process of establishing “normal” relations. Ironically, this trip was scheduled under the old rules, which involve much red tape and expense (it remains technically illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba as mere tourist). I hope to update this blog regularly during my time in Havana, but with Cuban internet access unreliable and expensive, I cannot yet say how frequently I will be able to post. Stay tuned to this space!