TSH: Police chief tells Jackie Robinson to leave city field

Today in Sanford history (TSH), future hall-of-famer Jackie Robinson was told to quit a minor league game because the city of Sanford did not allow integrated teams to use city-owned fields. It was April 7, 1946.

Robinson was trying to integrate Major League Baseball and was in Sanford for spring training with the Montreal Royals, the AAA farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, who held spring training that year in Daytona.

The Royals were playing the St. Paul Saints, another Dodger farm team, at the old Sanford stadium, which was located at the northeast corner of Mellonville and Celery avenues. Today it’s the vacant lot just south of the water tower and the stadium we know as Historic Sanford Memorial Stadium, which was built in 1951.

Robinson started the game at shortstop and had two hits at the end of two innings. It was at that point that Sanford police Chief Roy G. Williams entered the Royals dugout and told manager Clay Hopper that Robinson would have to leave the stadium or the game would be called off.

It wasn’t the only trouble Robinson and Johnny Wright, the other black ballplayer on the Royals squad, had during their time in Sanford. Earlier that spring, Robinson and Wright were staying at the home of D.C. Brock (612 S. Sanford Ave.) a black businessman who opened his home because neither player was allowed to stay in the whites-only Mayfair Inn.

They weren’t in town but a few days when word got back to Brock that the Ku Klux Klan planned to retaliate for Robinson and Wright integrating baseball. The two were snuck out of town in the middle of the night to stay at an undisclosed location.

I’ve been using old copies of the Sanford Herald to document a lot of these “Today in Sanford history” articles, but in this case, that’s not possible.

You see, while the police chief ordering a ballplayer not to play ball was a newsworthy item in a lot of newspapers across the country, it didn’t earn a single word of coverage in the Sanford Herald.

The Herald sports editor at the time was Julian Stenstrom, whose brother Douglas was a judge, state senator representing Sanford, and the “Stenstrom” of the Stenstrom, Macintosh law firm that still exists today.

I was lucky enough to serve on the Salvation Army Board of Directors with Doug. I asked him why Julian never wrote about the Robinson incident.

Julian Stenstrom didn’t write the story, Doug told me, because it happened between innings and none of the fans in the stands knew anything had happened, so he didn’t think it was newsworthy.

I have the utmost respect for Doug Stenstrom, but I found it hard to believe that no one noticed that the one black guy on the field didn’t play after the second inning. Also, did the police chief regularly visit the dugout during a game?

After doing some research for this article, I have a slightly better sense of why Julian might have thought the incident not worthy of an article. Here’s the part of the story that rarely, if ever, gets told – in Sanford, Robinson actually played, albeit briefly. The game would eventually be completed. That wasn’t the case in other Florida cities.

In Jacksonville, the gates to the stadium were padlocked when Robinson and the Royals showed up for a scheduled game. In DeLand, a day game was cancelled because of “electrical problems” with the lights.

For some context, the first World Series game played under the lights happened in 1971, yet somehow DeLand in 1946 couldn’t host an early afternoon exhibition game unless the lights were on. There was a blackout, for sure, it just didn’t have anything to do with electricity.

Seven cities cancelled games where Robinson was scheduled to play that spring. In fact, with the exception of Daytona, where Robinson actually broke the baseball color barrier on March 17, 1946, Sanford is one of the few Florida cities where Robinson played in an actual game that spring.

That’s what frustrates me. I’m not exonerating Julian Stenstrom. The fact that Robinson played at all was a story he ignored. I also don’t condone the actions of Chief Williams or the racist attitudes in Sanford that led to Robinson and Wright being run out of town in the middle of the night.

I do think, however, that when it comes to the story of Jackie Robinson and his time in Central Florida, Sanford is forced to carry 100% of the shame that DeLand, Jacksonville and others need to share.

Lord knows Sanford has its issues we need to reconcile with, but I mean really, cancelling a day game because the lights don’t work is even more ridiculous than the police chief kicking Robinson off the field for PWB – playing while black. How come that story doesn’t make the movies?

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