Jackie Robinson, circa 1946
“I’ve sure been looking at some beautiful curves,” Robinson told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I just couldn’t hit ’em all.”
The Dodgers would play the Montreal Royals twice more in preseason exhibitions, with the last game on April 2 at City Island Ballpark.
Part of what happened that day has been recorded on film and will remain forever in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Library, as well as in the memory of George Bates.
In Florida, Robert S. Bates, George’s father, filmed some of their trip, which included parts of the April 2 game between Brooklyn and Montreal, along with a bit of the next day’s game between the Dodgers and Giants. George later donated that footage to the Hall of Fame.
The footage is significant in that it is perhaps the earliest known recording – in color, no less – of Jackie Robinson playing for Montreal. But the day held more significance for young George and his brother, Robert L. Bates. The two boys were the batboys for that game.
As it turns out, it was a completely random moment.
“They spotted us and told us we needed bat boys,” George Bates recalled. “(Dodgers manager) Leo Durocher canned us after the second day when they got their bat boys. I don’t know why they didn’t have them there the whole time.”
George Bates served as Montreal’s bat boy that day – in the film, he is the boy with the dark pants and plaid shirt. His brother, in dark pants and a white shirt, handled the chores for the Dodgers.
“It was our decision to choose which teams (we were bat boy for), and we switched the next day,” Bates said.
Being a bat boy has its perks – you can meet all your baseball heroes – but it also has its unique aspects.
“The whole team was there. Gil Hodges, [Pee Wee] Reese,” Bates remembered. “I met Pee Wee Reese. I went to the drug store across the street to get him chewing tobacco. I guess that wouldn’t happen today.”
But being the bat boy for the Montreal Royals also meant getting a chance to interact with Robinson, though in Bates’ case, it was rather limited interaction.
“In my early days down here, I was conscious, or thought I was, of a feeling of resentment among a few players but that has worn off,” Robinson said. “Only the other day one of the men who I thought resented us (meaning Robinson and John Wright, the other Negro in the Montreal camp) was over on the side of the field showing John some tricks of the pitching trade.
“If I can’t play with Montreal, I’ll try to play wherever they want to send me. I feel that I owe that much to Mr. Rickey for this opportunity.”
George Bates can also thank the Dodgers for his opportunity to be a part of history.
The film ends with some footage of the New York Giants during their game against the Dodgers at City Island Park on April 3. The elder Robert Bates is seen drinking water out of a cup.
Among the souvenirs George Bates took from his batboy experience was a baseball bat he received from the Giants, although he says the signatures are difficult to read. But the better souvenirs are the memories from being associated with such an historic moment.
More than 40 years after Jackie Robinson’s debut in Daytona Beach, the ballpark, which today remains in use for minor league baseball, was renamed for the Dodgers star. After the 1989 renaming, Bates had an opportunity to return to the vastly improved ballpark and throw a ceremonial first pitch before a game.
In the mid-1990s, Bates graciously donated his film footage to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball fans across the country will be able to view some of this footage in Florentine Films’ upcoming documentary on Robinson.
While those fans will be able to relive Robinson’s on-field feats, George Bates can see the film and know that he saw history unfold right before his very own young eyes.
Matt Rothenberg is the manager of the Giamatti Research Center at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum thanks George Bates for his donation and for his permission in allowing us to use the footage for this story.