Ebbets Field, the home ballpark of Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers, is long gone. But Dodgertown, the franchise's long-time Spring Training complex, is alive and well.
Dodgertown, located in Vero Beach, Florida, served as the Dodgers' Spring Training home from 1948 through 2008. The 80-acre facility, now known as "Historic Dodgertown" has since found a second life as a multi-sport training and tournament venue. But, once a year, Dodgertown returns to its professional baseball roots with the Florida State League's Jackie Robinson Celebration Game.
The 2015 Jackie Robinson Celebration Game took place on April 15, the day on which Robinson's legacy is celebrated throughout professional baseball. The game's participants were the Brevard County Manatees and St. Lucie Mets -- the Florida State League teams located nearest Vero Beach -- and a near-capacity crowd of 5,915 was on hand at Dodgertown's Holman Stadium to witness it. Holman Stadium, which last hosted a Minor League Baseball team in the form of the Vero Beach Devil Rays in 2008, was built on the Dodgertown grounds in 1953. The first player to hit a home run in the stadium was none other than Jackie Robinson.
It is not an exaggeration to say Dodgertown would not have been built if not for Jackie Robinson, who broke the pro baseball color barrier as a member of the 1946 International League Montreal Royals. Originally a World War II naval base, Dodgertown was transformed into a baseball training site under the guidance of Branch Rickey as a means to circumvent the Jim Crow policies of the South. As such, it was the first racially integrated Spring Training complex in the United States, a sprawling "baseball campus" designed to accommodate all of the Dodgers' athletic, educational and social needs.
The participants in Wednesday's ballgames, the majority of whom were born in the 1990s, therefore had the opportunity to take a step back in time to see what life was like for Robinson and his Brooklyn Dodgers comrades.
"The emotions were pretty high, being able to go to Dodgertown and walk where Jackie Robinson used to walk through every day," said 19-year-old St. Lucie Mets first baseman Dominic Smith, a first-round Draft pick in 2014. "And to be able to experience it with my teammates was a lot of fun and a tremendous opportunity. I really did enjoy it."
Smith continued, "For the players back then, it was kind of different. They had the dorms on the same street, they had the basketball court, little areas to hang out," he continued. "It would be neat to see stuff like that nowadays, the dorms right there and everybody being together. It just looks like everyone was able to bond together. They really got to know each other, so it was more like they were a family. To be in that environment -- to build a brotherhood -- makes everybody like each other so that they can all work toward the same thing, which is to win a championship."
St. Lucie Mets pitching coach Phil Regan, who is nearly 60 years older than Smith, can speak to that experience first hand. Regan's 13-year Major League pitching career included a three-year stint (1966-68) with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"First of all, everybody ate together, and I think that was a big thing with the Dodgers' success, because you might sit down with Koufax or Drysdale and you might be a Class A player," said Regan. "Tommy Lasorda was there, Walt Alston -- everybody was there. They'd bring music in, have entertainment there -- it was just so unique. Everything was there. It was something I don't think I've ever seen before or since, and I'm sure it all came about because of Jackie Robinson. ... I woke up [Wednesday] morning and I was pretty excited about going back there to see it. It was an emotional thing because you think of all the players who had played there."
The Jackie Robinson Celebration Game, instituted in 2014, was the brainchild of Historic Dodgertown vice president Brady Ballard, who previously served as general manager of the Florida State League's Daytona Cubs franchise.
"With my background in Minor League Baseball, and then getting the opportunity to come down here to Historic Dodgertown, I thought it would be awesome to get a regular-season game here," said Ballard. "And I was close with [Kyle Smith], the general manager of the Brevard County Manatees, who took it a step up because I would have been happy to get a July game. I mean, you're asking a team to give up a home game and take it to a neutral site. He said, 'Well, let's do an April game. If we move a home game there, we'll have a Jackie Robinson Night.' So it started from there and really snowballed. We've gotten a lot of support from Minor League Baseball, from the Florida State League.
"It goes up to the top on the Major League side as well, because you're asking teams to come to a field they're not familiar with and isn't part of the regular rotation. But we're a facility that is active -- we've hosted 1,700 games and practices combined on all our fields just since January. We've got a top-notch grounds crew."
There is a strong philanthropic element to the game as well, as all ticket sale proceeds benefited the United Way of Indian River County (of which Vero Beach is a part). Additionally, Minor League Baseball donated tickets and food vouchers to the local Gifford Youth Achievement Center. The end result was a ballpark filled with nearly 6,000 people, an impressive accomplishment in a league that has an average game attendance of approximately 1,500.
"We've got a great community that is very active, and the people in general have been behind it. We've been on every radio station, television station, putting up posters and fliers all over," said Ballard. "This is all the Minor League Baseball promotions you can do wrapped into one. You're calling Little League teams, churches, companies -- anybody that can bring out 20 or more, you can have them out."
The positive reaction with which the Jackie Robinson Game has been received virtually ensures it will take place on an annual basis for years to come. This is the message Minor League Baseball President & CEO Pat O'Conner iterated while taking in the ballgame Wednesday night.
"It's great for this city to relive a night in Dodgertown to this magnitude," said O'Conner, whose Minor League Baseball career began as an intern with the 1981 Vero Beach Dodgers. "It's a situation that's encouraging on a lot of fronts -- socially, economically and athletically. ... Commissioner Selig always used to remind us that we are a social institution, and we have to make sure that we don't let the story, success and accomplishments of Jackie Robinson be forgotten or downplayed. This game, this country and the world would not be what it is today, or have become as quickly what it is today, if he had not shown the intestinal fortitude."
Video: Pat O'Conner at Jackie Robinson Celebration Game
The likely long-term viability of the Jackie Robinson Celebration Game also guarantees young Minor League players like Smith will gain a better understanding of who Jackie Robinson was and the sporting environment in which he honed his skills.
"Growing up, [Robinson's] number was already retired. And when I looked on the field, there were already African-Americans on the field," said Smith. "Some people take it for granted, but to have that day puts everything back into perspective and shows how powerful and amazing he really was."