WATCH: How Jackie Robinson’s path to integrating baseball ran through Central Florida

WATCH: How Jackie Robinson’s path to integrating baseball ran through Central Florida

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Before becoming the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson made history with the minor league system in Central Florida.

Daytona Beach is home to the Class A Cincinnati Reds affiliate Tortugas baseball team, and Jackie Robinson Ballpark.

“Baseball has been played here at City Island for over 100 years,” historian Bill Schumann says. “This is a very historic ballpark.”

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Schumann says the park was once segregated. He personally played a role in getting a statue of Robinson placed outside the park to mark the historic events of 1946.

Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey had just signed Robinson to the Montreal Royals, their minor league team, and Spring training was set to start in Sanford.

Jackie Robinson with Branch Rickey
Jackie Robinson with Branch Rickey

At the time, Plessy v. Ferguson segregation laws controlled the south.

While the Royals’ white players stayed at what was the luxurious Mayfair Hotel with a waterfront view, Robinson was forced to stay at the home of social activist D.C. Brock in Sanford.

Black people simply weren’t allowed to stay at the Mayfair.

According to Schumann, Robinson’s welcome in Sanford didn’t last long.

“After the second day of practice in Sanford, a racist giant was woken up,” Schumann says. “A group of white citizens put pressure on the city to reverse their decision to play at that municipal ballpark, and there was the potential for violence because, at that time, there were lynchings, and potential danger, so they took it seriously.”

Practices were moved to Daytona Beach where Mary Bethune had worked with prominent members of the white community to cultivate a different racial and cultural environment.

Mary Bethune with Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel in Daytona Beach
Mary Bethune with Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel in Daytona Beach

“The Daytona Beach City Commission made history by ignoring Plessy v. Ferguson,” Schumann says. “They made history in the south by allowing integrated baseball by choice. There was no federal ruling that allowed Jackie Robinson to play here.”

George Bates, now 86, was a 12-year-old batboy witnessing it all as Jackie Robinson took the field.

“As he walks by, I said ‘show ‘em, Jackie,’” Bates recalls. “I feel that is the number one thing that I did in my life. There aren’t many people who can say they were the batboy for Jackie Robinson.

Schumann says it had a cultural impact for people to see Jackie Robinson play baseball in Daytona Beach.

“This was the first time fans in the south accepted integrated baseball.”

Daytona Beach was the only city that spring training to allow Jackie Robinson to play without interruption.