Jackie Robinson and Sanford, Florida

by Bob Schwartz

Last week marked the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first major league game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, on April 15, 1947. This event was covered, though far short of the saturation coverage of stories such as the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. But there is important common ground between the two stories—Sanford, Florida.

What brought this up was watching The Jackie Robinson Story, a biopic released in 1950 and starring Jackie Robinson as himself, while he was still one of baseball’s biggest stars.

It is not much of a film (though it includes a sweet performance by a young Ruby Dee as Robinson’s wife). But as a social document, it is essential, both for its candor about the obstacles he faced and for its occasional softening of history. One of those softened spots is Sanford.

In the spring of 1947, Robinson was playing for the Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal. Spring training was held in Sanford. There were concerns about what the reaction would be, and in fact some people in Sanford who denied Robinson the opportunity to stay there during spring training; he ended up living in Daytona Beach. In the movie, this episode is represented less heatedly, with a black lawyer simply meeting the bus in Daytona and taking Robinson to arranged housing.

Some take current events as proving that things haven’t changed, in Sanford and in general. But the year that Jackie Robinson transformed baseball, he became one of the most popular people in America—people, not just baseball players. It’s still pretty striking to watch the real Jackie Robinson standing one-of-a-kind in a fake clubhouse filled with white actors playing white players. The scene has now been replaced by clubhouses where that is unthinkable, for performance alone, if not for higher reasons of fairness and humanity. There’s little time to be comforted by achievements when faced with evidence of continuing race issues, in Sanford and elsewhere. But it’s okay to take a moment to appreciate progress where you find it, and then move on to the next fight.