Minor League Baseball has placed diversity and inclusion at the forefront of its growth strategy. We strive to create an industry where all identities are represented, welcomed, valued and empowered to enhance our league's culture, creativity, innovation and comprehensive service to the communities we occupy. We strive to be the
Minor League Baseball has placed diversity and inclusion at the forefront of its growth strategy. We strive to create an industry where all identities are represented, welcomed, valued and empowered to enhance our league's culture, creativity, innovation and comprehensive service to the communities we occupy. We strive to be the most fun and inclusive league in all of sports and entertainment.
The goal of this series is to spotlight the people, programs and stories in the baseball industry that champion diversity and inclusion and advance the mission of Minor League Baseball's diversity initiative. This week, we profile the Daytona Tortugas.
Most baseball fans know that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball when he stepped onto a field with his white Brooklyn Dodgers counterparts in 1947. While Major League Baseball teams celebrate his debut every year in mid-April with Jackie Robinson Day, what many fans may not know is that Robinson technically broke the color barrier one year prior on March 17, 1946, not in Brooklyn, but in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Robinson played five innings at second base for the Triple-A Montreal Royals, going 1-for-3 with a stolen base and a run scored in a 7-2 loss to the Royals parent club, the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Those five innings are a blip in baseball's history, and many fans remember his Dodgers debut the next season more. For Daytona Beach, however, those five innings would prove to be some of the most impactful in the city's baseball history.
"Had Branch Rickey not signed Jackie Robinson and relocated his 1946 Spring Training to then-City Island Ballpark as the only field in Florida that would allow an integrated team to play, who knows if baseball would have left town," said Daytona Tortugas Assistant General Manager Austin Scher. "Baseball integrated before the rest of the country, and Daytona Beach integrated baseball before any other city in the country. It all began with Jackie Robinson."
Today, the Daytona Tortugas honor the life and legacy of Robinson in a variety of ways. In 1989, the team's stadium was renamed to Jackie Robinson Ballpark with a statue of the Hall of Famer erected outside the venue. Inside the ballpark, a small open-air museum tells the story of Robinson's impact.
In addition to the season-long recognition, Daytona has hosted special nights in the past three seasons to further highlight their stadium's namesake, beginning with Jackie Robinson Day in 2017 and evolving into Jackie Robinson Weekend starting in the 2018 season. This season's festivities will be April 17-19.
"This has quickly become one of our top promotions of the season from an attendance standpoint. Our community rallies behind Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the Daytona Tortugas and the impact that he has had on all of us locally. We are so blessed to have an unbelievable fan base , one that truly understands what Jackie Robinson meant to Daytona Beach and the game of baseball," Keur said.
Using Robinson's storied past in Daytona Beach as their inspiration, the Tortugas take great measures throughout the weekend to pay homage to the Dodger great. Highlights of the promotion include Robinson jersey shirts handed out to fans as they enter the gates, live music performances from local Bethune Cookman University students and guided tours of the Jackie Robinson Museum. The team has welcomed ceremonial first pitches from the bat boy for the 1946 Montreal Royals and relatives of prominent civil rights activist and Daytona Beach resident Mary McLeod Bethune, who knew both Robinson and then-Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey. Most notably, in the first three seasons of the promotion, the Tortugas all wore the No. 9, Robinson's number with Montreal when he made history. This season, Daytona players will all wear No. 42, Robinson's more well-known number with Brooklyn.
"In celebrating Jackie's life and telling the story of his time in Daytona Beach, we hope the complex history of Daytona's place in African American heritage and the civil rights movement starts to become more commonly understood and appreciated," Scher said. "As the saying goes, 'baseball is as American as apple pie.' Daytona Beach would not be the same without professional baseball being played at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, and it is important for us to continue to educate people on how and why we got to where we are today. Our hope is that Jackie Robinson Weekend tells that story."
Daytona takes the planning and execution of its promotions and theme nights seriously. The Tortugas' Bob Ross Night was honored with both the Best Theme Night and the Best Overall Promotion Award in 2017 as part of Minor League Baseball's annual Golden Bobblehead Awards. The team has also participated in ongoing MiLB initiatives including Copa de la Diversión and MiLB Pride and plans to do so again this season.
"When we sit down to plan an event, a single promotion or an entire season, we always ask ourselves whether we can generate local attention and excitement," Scher said. "If we aren't going to authentically speak to the people who live here, work here, have children in school here, pay taxes here, and have a genuine investment in the wellbeing of our community -- what are we actually accomplishing?"
That community is important to the Tortugas, who like any sports team would not exist without the continued support of its fans. As a result, the Tortugas feel a responsibility not just to play baseball, but to play an active role in the Daytona Beach community.
"As the lone professional sports team here, it's important that we act as strong community stewards and are constantly being positive role models and community leaders," said Tortugas President Ryan Keur. "The Daytona Beach and Volusia County community is a vibrant community that is focused on building a prosperous quality of life for our fans and residents. Jackie Robinson Ballpark and the Daytona Tortugas hopefully can play an active role every day in enhancing that quality of life."
Minor League Baseball, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the Josh Gibson Foundation are also celebrating the Negro Leagues Centennial throughout the 2020 season, paying homage to the history and creation of the Negro National League and the many whose lives were changed by the Negro Leagues. Robinson's history in Daytona Beach is a flashpoint moment, but not the extent of the city's connection in the struggle for civil rights.
"What a lot of people outside of our local community do not know is the role that this city and community have played in African American heritage and the civil rights movement. Some of Volusia County's earliest settlers came to Freemanville -- a community founded by abolitionists and freed slaves in the late 1800s. Dr. McLeod Bethune lived much of her adult life in Daytona and the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, whose works and words influenced civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr, was also a Daytona Beach native," Scher said.
Daytona, much like 41 other MiLB communities, faces a time of uncertainty. Without knowing what the future holds, the community is rallying around the Tortugas, but in the interim, the team will continue to plan for 2020 and beyond as it has in years past. The Tortugas will hold events like Jackie Robinson Weekend and honor their past, while preparing for an unknown future.
"Over the past three months, our community and much of the baseball universe has rallied around Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the Daytona Tortugas and 41 other communities," Keur said. "'Stand With the Jack' is a motto that was phrased early in the process internally with our office and has resonated to our fans locally and nationally. The way that our community has responded to the news is truly amazing -- we will fight for our ballpark, our team and our community."
Ben Boynton is an Associate, Communications with Minor League Baseball.