The Jackie Robinson Scrapbook, recently digitized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and HistoryIT, is a collection of photographs, newspaper clippings, and even baseball cards compiled by a fan, Jack Donovan, during Robinson’s career. Among the many illustrations is a photograph that is perhaps the most famous photos ever from a minor league game.
It was taken on April 18, 1946 in the top of the third inning of the season opener for the Montreal Royals and the Jersey City Giants. Jackie Robinson is stepping on home plate, smiling broadly, and he is shaking hands with teammate George Shuba, the next batter.
Behind them, the umpire glowers, bottom lip protruding, looking at Robinson’s foot to make sure the tally counts. The Giants’ catcher, Dick Bouknight, a hulking 6’2″, 230 pounder from South Carolina, stands with his hands on his hips.
Robinson has just hit a three-run home run, his first homer—in fact, his first hit—in integrated, professional baseball. That fact alone makes the photograph historically significant.
But the image is culturally significant as well.
Many had wondered how Robinson’s teammates would treat him. Would there be division in the locker room? Would he face taunts not only from opponents, but from his own dugout? Would he be ignored, left alone at the far end of the dugout? How would white men respond to a black teammate?
Shuba grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, the son of Slovak immigrants, his father a worker in the steel mill. They were devout Catholics, saving up enough money to send George, the youngest of ten children, to a parochial Catholic school. Before every meal, the family recited a Slovak prayer together, something George would continue to do throughout his life. One brother even became a priest. Shuba would later say, “My Catholic faith taught me to treat all people equal . . . bottom line.”
So when Shuba, waiting on the on deck circle, saw Robinson’s drive disappear over the wall, he did a little dance (according to one newspaper), and as Robinson stepped on home plate, Shuba reached out his hand.
Dick Bouknight, the Giants catcher, had spent most of his minor league career playing in the Jim Crow South. Just two innings before, he had angrily demanded that his pitcher, Warren Sandel, throw at Robinson. But Sandel refused. Now Bouknight watches Robinson score; if the angle of his head is any indication, he may well be looking at that handshake.
Shuba didn’t give the handshake much thought. It was a natural reaction. As he later recounted, “Our teammate hit a home run, so I shook his hand.” But culturally, it was a watershed moment. Some would call it the “Handshake of the Century,” a white man extending his hand to congratulate a black man on a professional baseball field. Something that no one had seen before.
Shuba had some success in the Major Leagues, in spite of struggling with an injured leg that would eventually require surgery. He played for seven years with the Brooklyn Dodgers, mostly as a left-handed pinch hitter and backup outfielder. His ability to spray line drives to all fields earned him the nickname “Shotgun,” and he hit .305 in 1952 in 94 games. The next season, he became the first National League player to hit a pinch hit home run in the World Series off the Yankees’ great Allie Reynolds. He was part of the 1955 “Boys of Summer” Dodgers team that brought Brooklyn its only World Series.
Long after he retired, he thought back to the hand he extended to Robinson at Roosevelt Stadium in 1946. “I was 21 years old,” he recalled. “I didn’t think much about it. As pros, we were focused on beating the other team. I didn’t care if my teammate was white, black or Technicolor.”
Shuba was a modest man, but he did keep one memento of his playing career. Framed in his living room, above his favorite arm chair, was a photograph of him reaching out his hand to a grinning Jackie Robinson.