In 1947, Major League Baseball tried to ease racial tensions with a photoshoot

Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson called the photoshoot with Phillies manager Ben Chapman “one of the most difficult things I had to make myself do”

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Robinson, left, and Chapman in 1947. Image donated to ExplorePAHistory.com by Corbis-Bettman

There is no unity in their pose, with the men’s gazes fixed in opposition to one another even as they stand in feigned solidarity.

The year was 1947, and this incident did not occur in St. Louis or Baltimore, the southernmost Major League Baseball locations at the time. It happened in Brooklyn in the Dodgers’ own Ebbets Field against Philadelphia, a city situated comfortably north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The second baseman was Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League player since 1884, and the Phillies manager was white, Nashville-born, Alabama-bred Ben Chapman. Robinson commented on that game in the Pittsburgh Courier, “The things the Phillies shouted at me from their bench have been shouted at me from other benches and I am not worried about it. They sound just the same in the big league as they did in the minor league.”[3]

Placing the media’s superhero alongside its arch villain in a staged photo might telegraph that there was no trouble in paradise, that there was in fact joy in Mudville.

When it was evident Robinson was not destined to be a career minor leaguer, Dodgers outfielder Dixie Walker quickly voiced his refusal to accept playing alongside a black man, even writing a letter to Rickey stating his intent to leave the team if Robinson played for the Dodgers and circulating a petition among the players protesting the integration of the Dodgers.[11] However, when Chapman, a close personal friend of the Alabama-born Walker, let loose his cannon of vitriol, even Walker felt compelled to chide the Phillies manager.[12] While Walker’s reprimand of Chapman was notable, it was mostly symbolic and occurred after the on-field incident.

“The things the Phillies shouted at me from their bench have been shouted at me from other benches and I am not worried about it. They sound just the same in the big league as they did in the minor league.” — Jackie Robinson

However, more than a two-second glance at the photo reveals something other than unity and peace, as Chapman is looking into the camera and gripping the handle of the bat and Robinson stands to his right looking away from the camera and uncomfortably supporting the barrel of the bat with his right hand. The men are standing close to one another, but there is a visible distance between them. Robinson’s left hand appears to be on his hip, serving as a barrier between the men, keeping Chapman at a comfortable distance. There is no unity in their pose, with the men’s gazes fixed in opposition to one another even as they stand in feigned solidarity. Neither player nor manager appears genuine; the smile on Robinson’s face looks forced and Chapman’s stony visage reveals nothing. Nevertheless, the photo ran in several newspapers, positioned as a gesture of good will between the men.

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Robinson, left, and Chapman in the second photo. Apparent eye contact aside, the reluctance in their meeting is evident. Photo: Associated Press, from “69 Years Later, Philadelphia Apologizes to Jackie Robinson,” New York Times, April 14, 2016.

“If you do this, you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts.” — Ford Frick

Powered by the Phillies manager’s actions, the St. Louis Cardinals voiced their own disapproval of Robinson’s inclusion on the Brooklyn roster. The Dodgers were scheduled to play in St. Louis shortly after the incident at Ebbets Field and with media attention still focused on Chapman’s racial slurs, the Cardinals began organizing their own protest. According to Rampersad’s account in Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Cards owner Sam Breadon got wind of his team organizing a strike, refusing to play on the same field as Robinson, an action that “might then spread throughout the league, to turn back the clock on integration.”[21] Breadon took his discovery to National League president Ford Frick in an attempt to keep the impending incident from occurring as well as to keep it out of the papers. Herald Tribune writer Stanley Woodward (no relation to Bob), however, got wind of the plot and quickly reported it alongside Frick’s reaction to it. Frick reportedly said, “If you do this, you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts.”[22] He added the National League “will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequences,” indicating his support for the Dodgers infielder and, by extension, the integration of Major League Baseball.[23] The message was also sent to other National League teams as a preemptive strike should any other clubhouse be cultivating a similar idea.[24]

This time, unlike in May 1947, the awkward veneer of the photos is stripped away and viewers are made keenly aware the men were feigning a truce, doing what each felt was best for himself and for the game they both loved, albeit in different ways.

The photos made their rounds in the press, rhetorically and publicly closing the lid on the feud between Chapman and Robinson, but Chapman did not surrender the ideas or managing practices that had helped him earn his reputation, and in 1948, the Phillies fired him. Robinson continued to draw ire from some corners of the baseball landscape, but overall, Rickey’s “noble experiment” was successful and more black baseball players were signed by Major League teams in the subsequent years. The Philadelphia Phillies, as it happened, were Major League Baseball’s last team to integrate, and it took them ten years after the iconic photo was taken to do so.

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