A Day In Wrigley Field History: May 18, 1947


This was a momentous day for Wrigley Field, and for the city of Chicago.

The Cubs got off to a good start in 1947 and were in first place in mid-May.

But that's not why a record paid crowd of 46,572 (47,101 total in the house according to the boxscore) showed up at Wrigley Field for a game against the Dodgers on Sunday, May 18.

The huge crowd was because Jackie Robinson was making his first appearance at Wrigley Field. I wrote a bit about this when the movie "42" came out last spring; the reason this game was so important is noted in this ChicagoSide Sports article, also from last spring:

In 1947, black and white Chicagoans never mixed. Not like this.

If you were a white Chicagoan in 1947 and you interacted with a black man, it was probably to give him your drink order, or to tell him you wanted the pitching wedge, not the putter. You didn’t rub elbows with him at the ballpark. You didn’t sit politely while black men and boys seated around you cheered like wild for the Dodgers to beat your beloved Cubs.

Jackie Robinson changed all that. This was a year before the military integrated, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, and eight years before Rosa Parks refused to step to the rear of a Montgomery bus. Jackie Robinson wasn’t nudging people out of their comfort zones; he was shoving them with both hands. Some of his own teammates initially refused to take the field with him, and among the Cubs, too, there was talk of a boycott.

Fay Young, writing in the Chicago Defender, reminded black fans that they were on trial as much as Robinson. He urged them to behave. "The telephone booths are not men’s wash rooms," he wrote. "The sun and liquor, even if you drink it before you head north, won’t mix…. The Negro fans can do more to get Jackie Robinson out of the major leagues than all the disgruntled players alive."

Bud Selig told me he had never seen so many black people in one place. He sat in the upper deck feeling for the first time in his life like a minority. It was thrilling, he said. A completely new experience.

Another article from last spring, from the Tribune, quoted the late Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who had attended the game when he was 15 years old:

Black fans attended the game decked out in their Sunday best, noted columnist Mike Royko. As a teenager, he was at that game and recounted the experience on the occasion of Robinson's death in 1972. His black seatmates, Royko recalled, "didn't wear baseball game clothes. They had on church and funeral clothes: white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes and straw hats. I'd never seen so many straw hats."

So it's not surprising that when Robinson came to bat in the first inning, he was greeted with an outpouring of pent-up emotion, as if just seeing him in a major league uniform tapped a storehouse of joy awaiting an opportunity for expression.

"I remember the sound," Royko recalled, a quarter-century later. "It wasn't the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt."

What did the Tribune of the time say? Not much other than the facts. Here's what Edward Burns wrote in his game recap:

The largest National league crowd that ever paid to see a game in Wrigley field -- 46,572 cash guests -- yesterday jammed all available spaces to see Jackie Robinson, his fellow Dodgers and the Cubs. Those who were rooting for the Dodgers got the greatest satisfaction for the Dodgers won, 4 to 2, with little help from Robinson and much help from the Cubs.

The crowd, by the way, was the second largest in Wrigley field for a league game, being topped only by the gathering of 51,556 in 1930, under the old bleacher setup, when overflow crowds were tolerated. That crowd, however, included 30,476 ladies day crasherettes.

There was no doubt that the new paid record was set because Robinson, the much discussed Negro athlete, was making his first appearance in Chicago, as a big leaguer. Jackie tried like everything to function for the Dodgers' cause, but he was twice called out on strikes, the second time with the bases full and none out in the seventh, when Brooklyn made all its runs. Robinson also saw his consecutive game hitting streak stopped at 14 and was charged with one harmless error.

And that was it. Just the details, no commentary, no interviews with fans, quite different from what we'd expect from such an event today. The attendance record will never be broken, since Wrigley Field's official seating capacity is now 41,159 and in general, the largest announced attendance including standing room is around 42,000.

Here's some video, taken by a fan, at the game (the last few seconds appear to be from some other location):

1947 was a pretty poor year for the Cubs as a team, but there was one other event in that year at Wrigley Field worth noting. That will be the subject of tomorrow's post in this series.

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