‘The Handshake’ on Jackie's 100th
Today was Jackie Robinson Day across the Major Leagues
April 15, 2021
This post originally appeared on January 31, 2019, at eriklundegaard.com
Today, Jackie Robinson would've been 100 years old. He was born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, and moved to Pasadena, Calif., at a young age. He died at 53. I’m older than he ever got to be. One wonders how long he would‘ve lived if he hadn’t had to endure, and swallow, so much.
My friend Jerry, a great writer and better person and huge baseball fan, recently pointed me to this song by Chuck Brodsky called “The Handshake.” It's worth a listen or two or 12:
The song is about April 18, 1946, a day Jules Tygiel felt important enough to make the first story in the first chapter of his seminal book, “Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.” It's Jackie's first day of professional MLB baseball. He's in the minors, sure, but he's the only non-white guy in the entire system. Branch Rickey had signed him, amid much fanfare, the previous October, and this was his debut. It took place at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, NJ, and all eyes were upon him. So what did he do?
- Grounder to short
- 3-run HR
- Single, SB, bluff to third, and balk home
- Single, SB
- Single, another balk home
He went 4-for-5, with 4 runs scored and 3 RBIs in a 14-1 Montréal Royals win. He stole two bases and got balked home twice. Astonishing, considering the pressure he was under.
Chuck Brodsky's great song is about that second at-bat. Jackie homers with two men on, and as he's crossing home plate, the next hitter, George Shuba, is waiting for him and shakes his hand. An AP photographer took a photo, and boom: It became a symbol of racial tolerance in professional sports.
This is what Shuba said about it later:
“We'd spent 30 days at spring training, and we all knew that Jackie had been a great athlete at U.C.L.A. As far as I was concerned, he was a great ballplayer—our best. I had no problem going to the plate to shake his hand instead of waiting for him to come by me in the on-deck circle.”
My favorite part of Brodsky's song is the by-the-way nature of it; the shrugging “well, that's what you do” nature of it:
It's just something that happened
It was nothing he'd planned
A guy hit a homer
So he stuck out his hand
That part almost always makes me tear up.
Fun fact: the next day, Shuba hit three homeruns. Soon enough, though, he was sent down to AA ball, and while Jackie made the Majors the following year, Shuba had to wait until ‘48 and was basically a journeyman throughout his career. Over seven years, he had nearly 1,000 plate appearances, and hit .259 with a .779 OPS. The handshake is what he became known for. When he died in 2014, this was the headline in his New York Times obit:
George Shuba, 89, Dies; Handshake Heralded Racial Tolerance in Baseball.
He didn’t mind, either. It's the part that mattered to him:
Shuba kept only one baseball memento from his playing days in his living room, the photograph of that handshake when he was a minor leaguer. He carried a print with him when he visited schools in the Youngstown area to speak about racial tolerance.
Apparently we still need Shuba's talks.
Thanks, Jackie. Thanks, George. Thanks, Chuck. Thanks, Jerry.