How close did Jackie Robinson come to playing for the Red Sox? Close enough for a perfunctory Fenway Park wartime tryout with two other black athletes that produced compliments but no contract. “We knew we were wasting our time,” Robinson said years later. “It was April 1945. Nobody was serious then about black players in the majors, except maybe a few politicians.”
It was a politician, Boston city councillor Isadore Muchnick, who’d pressured both the Sox and the then Boston Braves to give an opportunity to Negro League players or risk losing the Blue Laws waiver that allowed the clubs to play Sunday games.
So Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams were invited to try out with other hopefuls on the morning that the Sox were taking the train to New York for the season’s opener with the Yankees. The Globe called it “an interesting session of a noon-time baseball school” and Robinson was particularly impressive. “You never saw anyone hit the wall the way Robinson did that day,” Muchnick told the Globe’s Clif Keane in 1959. “Bang, bang, bang — he rattled it.”
“If I had that guy on the club we’d be a world-beater,” Muchnick remembered manager Joe Cronin telling him. With middle infielders Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr still in the military, the Sox definitely could have used Robinson, but none of the players was asked to return. “They said we’d hear from them,” Robinson said. “We knew we were getting the brushoff. We didn’t wait around to work out with the Braves. It would have been the same story.”
The Sox lost their first eight games that season and went on to finish seventh, but won the pennant in 1946 after their stars returned from the service. Robinson signed with the Dodgers that year and went on to play in six World Series, win a ring, and make the Hall of Fame, not to mention capture the attention of Hollywood, which again celebrates his legacy in the new movie “42.”
“It was a great mistake by us,” Cronin acknowledged to the Globe in 1979, two decades after the Red Sox suited up their first black player in Pumpsie Green. “[Robinson] turned out to be a great player. But no feelings existed about it. We just accepted things as they were.”
John Powers is coauthor of The Boston Globe’s “Fenway Park: A Salute to the Coolest, Cruelest, Longest-Running Major League Baseball Stadium in America.” He can be reached at