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Daytona stadium houses history02/15/2007 10:00 AM ET
By Lisa Winston / MLB.com
On June 17, thousands of Minor League baseball fans will flock to Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida, to watch the 2007 Florida State League All-Star Game.
Most of them will come to catch some of the game's top rising stars squaring off as they enjoy watching so many fine young prospects in the early stages of their careers at the showcase event.
And hopefully, by the end of the evening, these fans will also know that whatever they see on the field that night, its magnitude will not compare to an event that took place on that same field on March 17, 1946.
On that afternoon, Jackie Robinson took the field at what was then called Daytona City Island Ballpark. He was the starting second baseman for the Montreal Royals, the Triple-A farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, as they faced the parent club in a Spring Training contest.
And while the date April 15, 1947, is the one engraved in most history books as the first integrated Major League baseball game, this March game in Daytona was the first integrated professional baseball game since 1884, when the color line was officially installed.
Ironically, 1946 was the only year that the Dodgers held Spring Training in Daytona. They'd spent the last three springs at Bear Mountain in New York, and would move to Havana and then the Dominican Republic in 1947 and 1948 before moving to their current digs at "Dodgertown" in Vero Beach.
Daytona was not originally the planned site for this landmark event, but history will show that perhaps fate was kind, since it was the most deserving.
The Royals' Minor League camp was held several miles west in Sanford, but exhibition games that had been planned for that city's stadium were canceled due to threats from local fans and the town's police chief.
In nearby Deland, a day game was canceled due to "faulty electrical wiring," and scheduled games in Jacksonville were canceled three separate times, with the stadium actually being padlocked on the day of one of those games.
Daytona, despite being in the heart of Jim Crow country, was more welcoming to the Dodgers and the Triple-A Royals throughout the brief tenure of the association.
It was already known that the Dodgers had signed not just one, but two African-American players to their Triple-A Montreal club and the pair would be on hand for Spring Training.
While Robinson's name is known to all, he was joined on that team by pitcher John Richard Wright.
Local Florida historian and teacher Jean West related the story of the Spring Training events in her essay, "The Unconquerable Doing the Impossible: Jackie Robinson's 1946 Spring Training in Jim Crow Florida."
"Daytona Mayor William Perry, approached by Rickey before the black ballplayers' contracts were signed, viewed the prospect of landing the Spring Training of a Major League organization as a matchless opportunity to help the local economy," West wrote. "Once the signings were official, Mayor Perry announced, 'No one objects to Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright training here. We welcome them and wish them the best of luck!' City officials guaranteed that Jackie Robinson could play at the ballpark. In return, Rickey promised that Robinson would not challenge any of the city's segregation laws outside of the ballpark."
On March 17, the park was packed with several thousand fans, including 1,000 African-American fans in the segregated section of the grandstand.
While Wright did not take the mound that day, Robinson started at second base, going 0-for-3 with a stolen base and a run scored in five innings of errorless ball. Among his opponents on the Dodgers were Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Stanky and Dixie Walker, all of whom would be his teammates one year later.
Daytona continued to host Royals games that spring without incident or cancellation and, in fact, tended to be at the forefront of the breaking down of the Jim Crow Laws throughout the South over the next two decades.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, was just 90 miles to the north and would not host a desegregated game for another seven years. The Minor Leagues were not fully integrated until 1964.
The Daytona stadium has existed, in some form or another, since 1914, when it was built on the small island off the coast of Daytona. In 1920, it was put into use as the home stadium for the Daytona Beach team in the fledgling Class D Florida State League.
The original structure was a grandstand with wood bleachers. Soon added were a press box and additional grandstand areas, including a segregated section to comply with Florida's Jim Crow Laws.
Expansion continued bit by bit over the years. Two hurricanes (Donna in 1951 and Floyd in 1999) did their share of damage, with the first one raising the possibility of actually tearing down the structure completely. The City Commission voted to restore the stadium and history lives on.
The park currently holds an estimated 4,800 fans, though during events such as Education Days where local school kids pile into the bleachers, the count is probably slightly higher.
Over the years, the Minor League club would operate as the farm team of an assortment of parent clubs such as the St. Louis Cardinals, the Dodgers, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago White Sox, the Kansas City Athletics, the Detroit Tigers and the Houston Astros. It's also served as the Spring Training home for several clubs, most recently the Montreal Expos.
At this point, however, Daytona is the only active club in the current Florida State League lineup of 12 teams without a Major League Spring Training club.
After being left dark for five years in the late '80s and early '90s, the stadium found new life in 1993 when the Chicago Cubs moved into the Florida State League (now designated as Class A Advanced), an affiliation that thrives to this day.
But even when the park was not in use by a professional team, the stadium's place in history was not forgotten. In fact, it was in 1990 that the stadium was officially renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark.
Eight years later, the stadium was added to the National Register of Historic Places and efforts continue to this day to have it declared a National Landmark.
"It looks like it's going to happen, though as to when, who knows?" said Derek Ingram, the Daytona Cubs' director of media relations and broadcasting.
City and club officials have been busy filing "affidavit after affidavit" to the powers that be, and handling the voluminous paper work that accompanies the quest for such an honor.
"There are restrictions on certain historic areas of the facility where we can't add on or build permanent additions," Ingram said. "For example, we can't build a permanent shelter over the picnic area, because that's located at the exact spot where the African-American fans sat."
When the stadium was renamed in Robinson's honor in 1990, a bronze statue was unveiled, created by an artist from Montreal, Jules LaSalle. It depicted Robinson, not at bat or fielding a grounder, but rather talking with two children, one black and one white, who look up at him adoringly. The Daytona Cubs continue to honor their park's namesake.
Last season, in honor of the 60th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in the Minors, they retired his number. Not 42, the number which he wore in the Majors and was retired through all of professional baseball, but the No. 9, which he wore during that Spring Training campaign.
And in a fitting tribute, the 2006 Daytona Cub who was wearing that number was the team's manager, former Major Leaguer Don Buford.
On Jan. 31, in honor of the late pioneer's birthday, staff and friends, including former Negro Leaguer Doc Graham, participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the stadium in Robinson's memory.
And needless to say, there will be tributes planned in Robinson's honor when Daytona welcomes fans and league dignitaries for the Florida State League All-Star Game on the weekend of June 17.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.