The game-changing history Jackie Robinson made on April 15, 1947, in breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier – and its impact on America’s civil rights movement – is widely known. Every April 15 since 2004, Robinson’s accomplishments on and off the field are celebrated by MLB as Jackie Robinson Day.
Less is known about a simple but significant gesture involving the baseball legend that occurred a year before during a minor league game. The gesture: a handshake at home plate between Montreal Royals teammates Robinson and George Shuba on April 18, 1946, in a minor-league game against the host Jersey City (N.J.) Giants.
The Undefeated assigned award-winning ESPN reporter/producer Willie Weinbaum (Investigative/News Enterprise Unit) to examine the impact of what many regard as the first interracial handshake in a modern professional baseball game.
In advance of ESPN’s MLB doubleheader slate tonight (see sidebar) and Jackie Robinson Day on Thursday, The Undefeated published his text and 7-plus-minute video feature (see trailer above), “A handshake from a white teammate signaled Jackie Robinson’s arrival in America’s game.” The Black History Always project continues ESPN’s company-wide content initiative to highlight Black stories beyond the traditional Black History Month in February, led by The Undefeated managing editor Raina Kelley.
Weinbaum’s feature also chronicles how the handshake Robinson had in his minor league debut with teammate Shuba, 75 years ago this weekend, is to be depicted as a bronze statue in Shuba’s native Youngstown, Ohio.
Weinbaum worked with The Undefeated’s Clinton Yates and editors Steve Reiss (text), Anna Gramling (photo) and AJ Irish (video) on the project. Weinbaum discusses the project with Front Row.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in telling this story?
Weinbaum: The biggest challenges in telling a story of an untelevised event from long ago are to find strong visuals and firsthand information – preferably the words of the participants — about what occurred. I remembered having interviewed Shuba in 1996 for an Outside The Lines special about Robinson’s legacy but didn’t recall the handshake or whether he discussed it. It was very uplifting to watch the raw recording housed in the videotape library and hear him recount that moment. This “find” – along with learning what Robinson said and coming up with compelling images – made an important difference.
What makes this historic?
Robinson was the first African-American to play in the modern minor leagues, and there was no apparent precedent for an interracial handshake in professional baseball. The best testament to that scene with Shuba being momentous is that it appeared in newspapers across North America the next day, accompanying stories of Robinson’s remarkable four-hit, four-run, four-RBI, two-stolen base performance in a 14-1 win.
What is your most important takeaway from this story?
Doing the right thing can resonate forever. If there’s a photograph, as is commonplace today, a simple gesture can be especially meaningful and memorable.
Kiana Lowe contributed to this post.