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How Jackie Robinson's legend and legacy reshaped Cardinals history, shifted power in National League

How Jackie Robinson's legend and legacy reshaped Cardinals history, shifted power in National League

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St. Louis Cardinals

The St. Louis Cardinals wear uniforms with the No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson for the April 15, 2016 at Busch Stadium. (AP Photo/Tom Gannam)

ST. LOUIS — When the Brooklyn Dodgers returned to St. Louis in mid-September 1947 for their fourth and final visit there, only a sweep by the host Cardinals could keep Jackie Robinson and his team from printing World Series tickets.

Stan Musial & Co. had done it a few months earlier.

But this was the Swifties’ last stand.

The Cardinals won 11 of their first 12 games in August to get three games back of the Dodgers. On the morning of Sept. 11, 1947, as the Dodgers prepared for a three-game series at Sportsman’s Park, the Cardinals (79-56) trailed Brooklyn (86-53) by five games in the standings. With a dozen games remaining after the Dodgers left St. Louis, only a sweep by the Cardinals would “delay an order to the print shop” for Fall Classic tickets, author Jonathan Eig wrote in his book, “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season.

The series started on a Thursday, and by the end of the weekend the Cardinals’ wartime dynasty was over.

Robinson's legacy had already begun. 

On April 15 each year Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day to commemorate his debut and the breaking of baseball’s color barrier. This year is the 73rd anniversary of Robinson’s first game in the majors, and due to the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the 2020 season, the Robinson celebrations have been rethought, recast, and moved online or onto MLB Network.

On Wednesday evening, the Cardinals would have been at Dodger Stadium, continuing the rivalry that has really shaped the National League for at least 80 years. All of the Cardinals would be wearing 42, like the Dodgers. Like Robinson. The Cardinals are forever intertwined with Robinson’s story – whether they were cast as villains or friends or even helpful rivals. Robinson had a higher batting average against the Cardinals in his career than any other opponent – his .34199134 average against the Cardinals edging the .34163209 average against Pittsburgh. In 196 games against the Cardinals he hit .342/.423/.499 with 16 homers and far more extra-base hits (71) than strikeouts (37). Only Cincinnati struck him out fewer times. And in St. Louis, Robinson hit .305/.400/.436 with an even 100 hits at Sportsman’s Park.

The Cardinals are part of legends printed, cleats spiked, and facts ignored. And Robinson’s arrival was a catalyst for a power shift in the NL.

In 1946, the Cardinals and the Dodgers faced each other in the first National League Championship Series to break a tie at 96-58 and settle the pennant winner. The Cardinals won, sending Musial and his team to their fourth World Series in five seasons. Brooklyn won the pennant in 1941, and the Cardinals took over from there. The Cardinals won the NL pennant in four of the next five seasons, won the World Series three times, and finished second in 1945. From 1942-46, the Dodgers never finished ahead of the Cardinals and it was in Brooklyn that Musial got his nickname, “The Man.” Twice, in 1942 and 1946, the Dodgers finished second by a combined four games.

Branch Rickey, the Cardinals executive who invented the modern farm system and constructed the great St. Louis teams from the Gas House Gang to the Swifties, had designs on returning the Dodgers to greatness. Researchers and biographers have long debated Rickey’s motivation for integrating baseball – pointing to his deep religious views, anecdotal events in his past, or the same competitive zeal and innovation he brought to building the Cardinals. Biographer Lee Lowenfish’s “take is detailed and nuanced, balancing the issue of integration with the economic and competitive imperatives of running a professional baseball,” wrote a reviewer in The Los Angeles Times. “Without question, Rickey was looking for an advantage. … As Lowenfish writes, Rickey’s motivations were complicated, a mix of ambition and fair play.”

When Musial reached the majors in 1941, the Cardinals were in a race with Brooklyn and would finish second, 2 ½ games back after closing the gap to a ½ game with less than two weeks to play. In 1942, Musial saw his first World Series by leapfrogging the Dodgers, and 21 years later when Musial took off his No. 6 jersey for the final time he did so for a 93-win Cardinals team that had spent 39 days of the season in first place. But not on the last day.

The Dodgers were.

“We had a lot of battles with the Dodgers,” Musial told St. Louis Post-Dispatch baseball writer Mike Eisenbath back in 1992. In the same interview he expanded on that after noting how the Cardinals did not have an African-American player in the majors until 1954, seven years after Robinson’s debut. “It made a difference, because we didn’t have anybody coming along in the ‘50s. The Cardinals had a reputation for not wanting to have blacks or play against teams with blacks. Back then, St. Louis was still considered a Southern town and we had a lot of players from the South. Being from Pennsylvania, I didn’t think about it.

“I don’t think anyone realized there were so many great players in the Negro Leagues,” Musial continued. “We all underestimated the impact.”

By the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers were the rising, adored contenders and advertised as favorites in some corners. The Cardinals, reigning World Series champs, helped that hype as they stumbled to a 2-11 start. By the time they left Brooklyn after their first series against Robinson and the Dodgers, the Cardinals were 5-12, in last place in the National League, and about to face a stain that follows them still. Once described as “the sports scoop of the century,” an article in The New York Herald Tribune on May 9, 1947, stated that “some” Cardinals had instigated a strike of NL players to refuse playing against Robinson, and that this plan had been “averted.” The report’s flaws were revealed within its own paragraphs and within days. It has been largely debunked by historians. Former Post-Dispatch columnist and Hall of Fame baseball writer Bob Broeg spent decades hammering the keyboard against that allegation, writing as late as 1997 of the “canard” and calling it “fallacious.”

(This well-researched study by Warren Corbett is worth reading.)

That report, however, set the stage for Robinson’s first visit to St. Louis – on May 21, 1947, a day later than scheduled due to a rainout. The Cardinals (9-19) were trying to get traction in the standings against the Dodgers (15-13). Writing for The Post-Dispatch 50 years after Robinson’s first big-league game in St. Louis, Vahe Gregorian described the scene in baseball’s southernmost city as Robinson arrived as was not admitted with his teammates to The Chase Hotel: “More oppressive than law was custom, which barred blacks and whites from sharing virtually all theaters, churches, parks, restaurants, hotels and other public places.”

The box score says that 16,249 attended the game at Sportsman’s Park, the last of the big-league ballparks to integrate.

In the first inning, Robinson walked and advanced to third on a single. A groundball to first base forced Musial to make a call, and he tagged first for the forceout and then went to second for the tag. Robinson scored from third on the play for a 1-0 lead. The Dodgers would win, 4-3, in 10 innings with Robinson finishing zero-for-four. Less than a month later, Brooklyn returned to St. Louis, and the Cardinals had narrowed the standings. In a four-game series, Robinson went four-for-15 with three runs scored.

His Dodgers scored eight total.

The Cardinals swept Brooklyn to move within reach of a winning record, and New York sportswriters responded accordingly. Eig wrote in his book that one baseball writer likened Brooklyn’s loss to the fall of Roman Empire. Robinson, in a column he wrote for a newspaper, referred to the Cardinals as still the team to beat in the NL.

That reputation held.

Another was being challenged.

“The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t only good ballplayers, but they’re good guys as well,” wrote legendary sportswriter Wendell Smith, the first African-American inducted into the writers’ honor wing in Cooperstown, coming out of that series for The Pittsburgh Courier. “It was as though they were trying to show him they aren’t the villains they appeared to be earlier in the season.”

An example comes in Eig’s book as several Cardinals players approached Robinson during games or batting practice – with questions, with comments, and with pointers.

“You’re too tight up there at the plate,” former Triple Crown winner Joe Medwick told Robinson, according to Eig. “For goodness’ sakes, loosen up and hit that ball. If you do, you’ll burn up this league, Jack.”

There would be two other notable exchanges between Cardinals and Robinson that have echoed through history louder than those. That same summer, Enos Slaughter would face harsh and lasting criticism for spiking Robinson, and later in the season, toward the end, as the pennant race gripped both teams, catcher Joe Garagiola and Robinson would have an argument at home plate. The Slaughter incident, captured as a seminal moment in the film “42” and written about extensively (including Musial's thoughts), followed the Hall of Famer outfielder throughout his life, and at times he pushed hard against the reputation.

On Sept. 11, 1947, Garagiola tried to stay out of a double play and spiked Robinson at first base. In the next inning, the two players jawed at home plate – and had to be separated by the umpire. That event became part of a children’s book years later, and that depiction forever bothered Garagiola, a St. Louis native and Hall of Fame broadcaster.

Two innings later, Robinson homered.

That Sept. 11 game at Sportsman’s was the crucible for the Cardinals. Brooklyn was pulling away for the pennant. The hosts needed a sweep. A run that scored on Garagiola’s groundout gave them a 2-0 lead. Robinson’s two-run homer vaporized it. In the eighth inning, the Dodgers broke another tie and headed for a 4-3 victory.

The Dodgers scored four runs in the ninth the next day to take a lead, but the Cardinals answered and Slaughter delivered a walk-off double. Musial scored the winning run. The race was already over. A sweep wasn’t happening. World Series tickets started to print. Brooklyn won the September series finale to go 11-11 against the Cardinals in ’47. The second-place Cardinals would finish five games behind the Dodgers, and Robinson would later write how “the spirit shown after the Slaughter incident strengthened our resolve and made us go on to win the pennant.”

From 1947 to 1956, the span of Robinson’s career, the Cardinals would not win another pennant, would not return to the World Series. In 1949, they finished a game behind. Robinson’s teams would win six NL pennants and the 1955 World Series.

In that September series at Sportsman’s Park, it wasn’t the Roman Empire that collapsed. Robinson had the pivotal homer, four runs scored, a stolen base, and a crucial catch on a popup right by the Cardinals’ dugout in that series. He finished the visit six-for-13.

He was just getting started.

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