A handshake from a white teammate signaled Jackie Robinson’s arrival in America’s game
George Shuba’s defining act as a ballplayer came in a minor league contest 75 years ago
The letter from St. Christine School to Mike Shuba’s parents said their son had teased another kid in his kindergarten class for being overweight.
When Mike got home, his father, George “Shotgun” Shuba, pointed at the wall above his recliner to the only memento displayed in the house from his 14-year professional baseball career. “I want you to look up at that photo,” he said to his young son. “That’s me and Jackie Robinson and I want you to understand what it means: ‘You treat all people equal.’ Do you understand?”
The framed black-and-white image showed the two teammates from the Montreal Royals shaking hands at home plate on April 18, 1946. It was Robinson’s first regular-season game in the formerly all-white minor leagues, a milestone for baseball and for America that came a year before Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The handshake appeared in newspapers across North America the day after the game, then was virtually forgotten for half a century – except in the family room of the Shubas’ home. In the late 1990s, when the elder Shuba was in his 70s, Mike Shuba embarked on a mission to have others see the principled man an adoring son saw in a long-cherished photo.
Mike Shuba’s efforts continue today, seven years after his father died. And there’s a new chapter to the Robinson-Shuba story. The Shubas’ hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, will unveil a bronze statue this summer memorializing Robinson and the unheralded outfielder who gave him a hand one day 75 years ago.
A writer bestowed Shuba with the nickname Shotgun in 1945 after seeing him hit line drives to all fields like buckshot for the Dodgers’ Double-A farm team in Mobile, Alabama. (Home run great Hank Aaron would say years later that Shuba was his favorite player when he was growing up there.)
Shuba, 21, and Robinson, 27, were on the Triple-A Royals for the 1946 season opener, an afternoon game on the road against the Jersey City Giants, a dozen or so miles from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. Robinson had just finished a miserable six weeks of spring training in Jim Crow-era Florida after his historic signing by Dodgers president Branch Rickey.
That day in Jersey City, New Jersey, he became the first Black player in white organized baseball in the modern era. Reporters and photographers from mainstream white newspapers, wire services and the Black press arrived to chronicle the moment.
Frank Hague, Jersey City’s legendary mayor, declared a half-day municipal holiday and orchestrated more than 50,000 ticket sales for 25,000 seats at Roosevelt Stadium. Despite plenty of no-shows among locals who had been obligated to buy tickets, the park was packed, due in part to Black fans who came from out of town to see Robinson make history.
Wearing No. 9, Robinson was starting at second base and batting second. How would he perform? How would he be treated by the crowd and the other players?
Robinson told Carl Rowan in the 1960 book, Wait Till Next Year: The Story of Jackie Robinson, that during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “I stood on the baseline with a lump in my throat and my heart beating rapidly, my stomach feeling as if it were full of feverish fireflies with claws on their feet.”
“We went over the hitters before the game and nobody knew a thing about him,” recalled Giants third baseman Larry Miggins, now 95 and the last surviving player from the game. “Our manager said he watched him during batting practice and he was a long ball pull hitter, so I played back.”
That would burn Miggins in the fifth inning when Robinson beat out a bunt. But earlier in the game, the 11th-hour scouting report proved accurate.
In the third inning, Robinson came to the plate for his second at-bat, after having grounded out in the first. Pitcher Barney DeForge, a Jersey City native, and outfielder Marv Rackley were on base with nobody out and the Royals leading 2-0. Giants pitcher Warren Sandel said in the 1994 book, Dugout to Foxhole, that he saw Montreal’s third-base coach flash the bunt sign, so the left-hander said he took a little off his first-pitch fastball to allow himself to get in good fielding position.
But Robinson did not square to bunt.
The right-handed batter, who was homerless in spring exhibition play, smacked that first pitch over the fence 330 feet away in left for a three-run home run.
“It felt so good I could tell it was a beauty,” Robinson said in his 1972 memoir, I Never Had it Made.
“I remember as soon as he hit it, I knew it was a home run,” Bill Donohue, now 83, told The Undefeated of his perspective from a seat down the left-field line.
A jubilant Robinson rounded third, got a congratulatory slap on the back from Royals manager and third-base coach Clay Hopper, and headed for home as the on-deck hitter approached.
In his 1948 autobiography, Jackie Robinson: My Own Story, Robinson recalled the moment: “When I crossed home plate, George Shuba was waiting for me. ‘That’s the way to hit that ball, Jackie,’ Shuba said. ‘That’s the old ballgame right there.’ He shook my hand.”
Newspapers all over carried a baseball image like none before, of the two smiling Royals face to face, one Black and one white, right hands interlocked.
Headlines, such as Negro Robinson Breaks In With A Bang in the Miami News, and game stories rightly focused on Robinson’s marvelous start. He had four hits – including two bunt singles – four runs batted in, four runs scored, two stolen bases and two balks provoked by his daring, disconcerting basepath machinations in a 14-1 Montreal win.
The Amsterdam News, an African American weekly in New York, called it “the most significant sports story of the century,” and said, “an unassuming but superlative Negro boy ascended the heights of excellence to prove the rightness of the experiment.”
The reports said the crowd cheered Robinson’s sensational performance, celebratory Black and white fans mobbed him and the clubhouse was a madhouse – but there was no mention of the handshake beyond the photo captions.
Donohue and four other boys from the area who were there, all now between the ages of 83 and 90, shared with The Undefeated recollections of Robinson and that special day, but none recalled Shuba – who went hitless – or a handshake. The Giants’ Miggins also said he doesn’t remember the home run’s aftermath.
Many years later, a story spread with no apparent evidence to support it that unlike Shuba, baserunners DeForge and Rackley shunned Robinson after he reached home plate. The only available photos of them show both in the foreground, having scored, looking back toward the plate from several feet away as Robinson and Shuba shook hands.
Robinson said in his books that Rackley, a South Carolinian, and Californian Johnny Jorgensen offered congratulations in the dugout. And the Jersey Journal said that Robinson received “additional praise and a hearty handshake” postgame from DeForge. Likewise, the Daily Worker, long an advocate of baseball integration, reported that “the entire Montreal team rushed out of the dugout to pump his hand as he crossed the plate.”
Shuba never discussed whether any Royals gave a hard time to Robinson or, for that matter, to him for the icebreaking handshake. He did tell the Montreal Gazette years later that Robinson called to thank him because he’d feared his own teammates wouldn’t shake his hand: “And I said: ‘What for? Are you on our team? Are you on our side? OK then.’ ”
“This was the day the dam burst between me and my teammates,” Robinson said in his ’72 memoir, released the year he died at age 53. “Northerners and Southerners alike, they let me know how much they appreciated the way I had come through. All these good and positive things generated a tremendous kind of power and drive inside of me.”
Robinson continued to have success at the plate, leading the International League with a .349 average and scoring 113 runs as the Royals ran away with the regular season, then won the playoffs and the minors’ version of the World Series. But after Opening Day, he had just two home runs the rest of the year.
Shuba hit three homers in the Royals’ second game and joked in his 2007 book, My Memories as a Brooklyn Dodger, that he waited until game No. 2 because he “didn’t want to rain on Jackie’s parade.” He was with the Royals for only 20 games in ’46, then got demoted back to Mobile. But two years later Shuba reached the majors with Brooklyn and reunited with Robinson.
By then, Robinson had built on his success in Montreal with a rookie of the year season for Brooklyn’s ’47 pennant winner, while turning the other cheek through torrential abuse and threats.
His accomplishments led to a feature film in 1950, The Jackie Robinson Story, in which he played himself. (Ruby Dee was cast as his wife, Rachel.) A six-minute section on the fateful Jersey City game took liberties with the order and substance of events, presenting his first run and handshake on a balk, and then a post-homer handshake with a baserunner, not the next hitter.
Shuba, meanwhile, developed into a dependable lefty bat off the bench through 1955, when the Dodgers won their only championship in Brooklyn. His individual highlight came in 1953 when he hit the National League’s first pinch-hit World Series home run.
His son says that like most of his father’s memorabilia, the baseball from the historic home run was hidden away, in this case in a plastic bag in the attic of a relative’s house. “Material things really never meant a lot to him,” Greg Gulas, who co-wrote Shuba’s memoir, told The Undefeated. “But that handshake being captured in that photograph really meant a lot to him.” Mike Shuba, now 60, says he asked his dad repeatedly about the stories and context behind the handshake, and to see other mementos from his playing days, but was rebuffed.
About all the elder Shuba would convey was that on Robinson’s momentous day, his own move was a basic one, the right one and an example of how Mike and others should behave.
In 1996, as media outlets began their lead-up to the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s barrier-breaking appearance for the Dodgers in 1947, Shuba was one of the go-to voices, lauding his old teammate’s inner strength and abilities.
When I interviewed him for ESPN in 1996, I knew nothing of the handshake. Early in the conversation, Shuba said he believed 1946 was as important as ’47 – because Robinson might not have gotten a shot as a Dodger if he had been a mediocre hitter for the Royals. Then he described Robinson’s minor league debut and told the handshake story in 30 concise seconds.
“I happened to be the next batter in the rotation as he came around third base,” he said on camera.
“Everybody’s watching to see if I was going to shake his hands, which I did, but I have that picture, it’s such a great picture of Jackie, the expression of happiness on his face, that you could see he was so happy that he had a great day that day.”
Shotgun deflected a follow-up question and we moved on to other topics. He would share similarly sparse characterizations with other interviewers in the years that followed.
Mike Shuba says he had an epiphany about the handshake and his dad soon after the golden anniversary of Robinson breaking MLB’s color line, when an Apple promotional poster caught his eye. It showed Robinson stepping on home plate, head down, as he shook the hand of a faceless white Dodger teammate (outfielder Tommy Tatum), whose depiction was cropped just above the elbow. The picture had been taken on April 18, 1947, after Robinson hit his first big league home run in an away game against the New York Giants, Jersey City’s parent club. Imprinted in the upper left of the poster was Apple’s logo and the slogan, “Think Different.”
Mike Shuba looked at the poster and decided he couldn’t allow his dad to be erased like Tatum or his handshake to remain an obscure piece of baseball trivia.
“I wanted to tell the world and all kids across the nation that in my photo of the handshake, that’s not just another white arm,” he said. “In the 1946 photo, that’s my father, George ‘Shotgun’ Shuba, and he was a better father than a baseball player and he always did the right thing.
“I decided that’s what I’m going to do in life and make Dad just do it, so we can make a difference on this planet.”
But at the time, the elder Shuba wasn’t willing to be the focus of an effort to popularize the handshake. “That’s not my moment,” he told his son.
About two years later, Mike Shuba was in his dad’s basement when he opened a book and two old photos fell out. One showed Robinson swinging with Shuba on deck in the background. The other was of the handshake, but it had been shot from the third-base side, unlike the photo on the wall upstairs and those widely seen in ’46. Shuba told his son that he’d bought the pictures for 25 cents from a guy in Jersey City on that season-opening trip in ’46.
The two pictures, hidden all those years, weren’t in great shape, so Mike had them restored. Then he started publicizing the “new” handshake photo – in which both of Robinson’s feet were off the ground, as if he were floating home – as A Handshake for the Century.
By 2004, Shuba had given in to his son’s entreaties and began speaking at schools, participating in reenactments of the handshake and entertaining audiences with stories of his life as the youngest of 10 children of Slovak immigrants, an altar boy and someone who didn’t see race as a reason to treat anybody differently.
Mike Shuba quit a career in the cellular phone technology field, instead traveling with his dad and carrying the handshake’s message of unity coast to coast in the U.S. and Canada. Shuba’s handshake became his defining act on a ballfield, described in a 2006 New York Times piece for the 60th anniversary as “a simple, silent, seminal moment in baseball history.”
Musical artist Paul Kaplan said the Times piece inspired him to write and record a song about it titled “Welcome Home” and baseball balladeer Chuck Brodsky wrote and recorded “The Handshake.” Brodsky said the ’46 photo “spoke to him like none other ever has.”
When Shuba died at 89 in 2014, the obituaries led with what he did in a minor league game 68 years earlier.
“A huge moment for baseball and an even bigger one for the country,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, in a tribute on his MSNBC program. “He’ll always be remembered for how he took racial injustice into his own hands.”
There’s another oft-told story about Robinson involving a white teammate reaching out to support him at a trying time. But unlike the handshake with Shuba, there’s no visual or contemporaneous reporting to confirm it.
Yet a statue erected in Brooklyn in 2005 shows Hall of Fame Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese with his arm around Robinson’s shoulder. It commemorates the story that on their first 1947 road trip to Cincinnati, with Reds in the dugout and fans in the stands hurling racist epithets at Robinson, Reese crossed the infield to encourage him.
The anecdote came to represent their deep friendship, but many say it either never happened or didn’t occur that year. Neither Reese, who died in 1999, nor Robinson addressed it publicly in sufficient detail to resolve its veracity.
Eric Planey, a New York bank executive raised in Youngstown, saw the Reese-Robinson statue and loved it for the humanity it symbolizes. Planey says when he later learned about the Robinson-Shuba handshake, and was captivated by the long-hidden photo of an elevated Robinson about to touch the plate, he thought it should be captured in a statue in Shuba’s hometown.
Planey contacted his friend, Youngstown councilman Julius Oliver, who said he’s an alumnus of the same high school Shuba attended but had never heard of the handshake. “Now that I know about it,” Oliver, 40, said, “I’d describe it as magical, as groundbreaking. It was like George was saying to Jackie, ‘I see you and I need everybody else to see you.’ ”
“For that brief moment, mankind was one,” said retired newspaper editor Ernie Brown, a co-chair of the Robinson-Shuba statue committee formed in 2019. Co-chair Herb Washington, a former player with the Oakland Athletics, said, “What he [Robinson] and Shuba did together was something that made us all stop in our tracks and say, ‘We can be better as people and this is how it starts.’ ”
After a successful $400,000 fundraising campaign, the statue is nearing completion at the storied Bedi-Makky Art Foundry in Brooklyn that cast the Iwo Jima Memorial. The dedication was planned for the handshake’s 75th anniversary, but the pandemic has delayed matters. The unveiling is now tentatively slated for sometime in July or August. Brooklyn-born sculptor Marc Mellon says crafting it is “one of the greatest opportunities of a 40-year career” and the finished product will communicate that “it takes just a little bit of effort to treat each other the way you want to be treated.”
David Falkner, author of Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson from Baseball to Birmingham, told The Undefeated, “The fight for reconciliation from whites toward the horrors heaped on Blacks in this country is just in the early stages.
“The [Shuba] handshake and the [Reese] arm around the shoulder are data points on the way, moments, but not justice. They’re points toward a time that’s greater than the terrible history in the country. And gestures are really important.”
Mike Shuba says, “It will be a very emotional day for me to see this statue standing 7 feet tall, to see Jackie smile and see George’s acceptance.
“I’ve been trying to immortalize this moment for 25 years and to see this happen now is very gratifying.”