When baseball celebrated Babe Ruth Day in every ballpark, Jackie Robinson was making history

The Sporting News pointed out that the league-wide declaration to celebrate Ruth was the first time such an honor had been bestowed since the National League held a day for Harry Wright on April 13, 1896.
Babe Ruth Day, 1947
Babe Ruth Day graphic from the April 23, 1947, issue of The Sporting News.

Just when baseball should have been bracing for Jackie Robinson and the breaking of the color barrier, The Sporting News, the self-proclaimed “The Bible of Baseball,” was preoccupied with the home run king.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with honoring Babe Ruth, but in April of 1947, with Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn uniform and on the precipice of making history, TSN ran a huge-block-letter feature on the front page to promote “Babe Ruth Day.” The publication, based in St. Louis, was never known for being progressive. Until baseball’s barriers were kicked down by Robinson and others, the weekly newspaper held to a “separate but equal” stance on black baseball. If they ever mentioned the negro leagues, it was because white stars were playing exhibitions against them.

On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers, breaking the color barrier that had been in force since before 1900 and unofficially enforced by commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Babe Ruth Day was set for April 27, to be celebrated in all major and minor league parks hosting games that day. As TSN reported, from 1:50 PM to 2 PM EST on that Sunday, the Mutual Broadcasting System would broadcast a ceremony from Yankee Stadium, to be piped into every professional ballpark hosting a game.

The only other time all of baseball had celebrated one player on the same day was in 1896, when the National League honored Harry Wright, a pioneer in organized professional baseball. Babe Ruth Day, specifically honoring a player for his on-field contributions and fame, was unprecedented.

“Whether you rate Ty Cobb as the greatest player of all time, whether you incline toward Honus Wagner or any other exemplar, you must admit,” The Sporting News reported, “that in his all-round contributions to baseball, in colorful personality and dramatic achievement, in his appeal to the fans, to the players, to the club owners and writers, George Herman Ruth has had no match.”

Ironically, while Ruth was being acclaimed by the weekly paper for his impact on the sport (and deservedly so), the historic arrival of a black player to organized white baseball was relegated to second and third page news. In one article, The Sporting News wrote “Robinson has not done the work that he was expected and it is unknown how much he will play.” After Branch Rickey announced that Robinson would be on Brooklyn’s opening day roster, TSN reported that Jackie would “primarily be a pinch-runner.”

The breaking of the color barrier was a reluctant event to many, and Robinson’s chances were given as slim to none by many who observed the game. Babe Ruth Day went off without a hitch, but so too did Robinson’s arrival in the National League. Within weeks, Larry Doby integrated the American League. By mid-summer, even The Sporting News had to admit that Robinson was a star, rather than just a specialist or an oddity.

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