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.
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.
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.