Every March, American and National League Teams descend on cities and towns in Florida to prepare for the baseball season and to determine which players will make their big-league squads and get in shape for the long season ahead. For Black players, spring training in the decades after integration put them squarely in the sights of Florida’s Jim Crow laws, where they were forced to navigate substandard accommodations, limited public transportation and other daily indignities.
Jackie Robinson with teammates at Dodgertown, Vero Beach, Florida, circa 1950. Getty Images.
By 1948, Jackie Robinson had largely been accepted in Flatbush as the first Black major leaguer, and many more Black players were working their way through the expansive system of Dodger farm clubs. But to have all the Dodgers train in Florida, decisions would need to be made to accommodate the growing roster of African American players.
The solution came in the form of abandoned Navy barracks in the town of Vero Beach. Branch Rickey and the Dodgers purchased it in 1948 and quickly christened it “Dodgertown.” As Black players joined the Dodgers and their minor-league affiliates, they would have a place to stay with the team as equals.
Images of Dodgertown, 1948-1955. Walter O'Malley Collection, Indian River Historical Society, Getty Images.
Compared to the difficulty of 1946, when Jackie Robinson and fellow Black player Johnny Wright stayed with a local family in Daytona, this was an improvement. Gone were the days of shuttling back and forth from distant neighborhoods to the ballpark. At Dodgertown, players and their families were able to eat in a well-appointed, integrated canteen on-site. Later, Dodgers ownership added a movie theater and a pitch-and-putt golf course as well, offering further opportunities for recreation for players. Jackie’s wife Rachel and toddler son Jackie Jr. were able to visit and spend time in the sun, away from both the cold northeastern winter and segregated Florida restaurants and hotels. Jackie Jr. would play on the fields, wave to fans in the stands, and drink fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Despite the care taken by the Dodgers to minimize the harm to their players from Florida’s Jim Crow laws, they were not protected when they left the base. In his autobiography, Jackie described how Rachel was unable to get her hair done in predominantly white Vero Beach. Not wanting to get lost on public transportation, she called a cab to take her and Jackie to a beauty shop in a Black neighborhood. The driver refused to serve her, telling her she needed to call a “colored cab.” Soon, she realized there was no such thing, and was forced to take a dilapidated bus across town.
Jackie Robinson and his son Jackie Jr. practice hitting at spring training at Dodgertown, 1949. Bettmann Archive, Getty Images.
Such humiliations were a part of the annual ritual of spring training in Vero Beach. After all, despite the improvements, Black players like Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, and Jim Gilliam were limited to the amenities at Dodgertown or “Black only” venues offsite . Dodgers ownership even provided Gilliam with a car so that he could take other Black players to the nearby town of Gifford for off-base recreation.
(L to R) Unidentified, Roy Campanella, Herb Scharman, Barney Stein, Unidentified, and Joe Black after a day of fishing near Dodgertown, ca. 1952. Walter O’Malley Collection
The Dodgers remained in Vero Beach until 2008, when the team’s spring training headquarters moved to Arizona. For many team personnel, the move represented the end of a nostalgic era. Others, like Don Newcombe put it more bluntly. “I have no good memories of Vero,” he later said. For many Black players, Dodgertown represented both hope for the future of integration of baseball and despair at the realities of their segregated present.
After the 2008 move, the facility owned by the Indian River community was initially managed by minor league baseball, but in 2014 management was returned to former Dodgers’ owners Peter and Teri O’Malley and their partners Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park, both former Dodgers’ pitchers. In 2019, Major League Baseball took over operations and renamed the site the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, which plays host to a number of tournaments each year for young players looking for high levels of competition. The ball fields and batting cages have been put to new use –giving younger generations a chance to hone their skills on hallowed ground.
Jackie Robinson and Alfred Duckett, I Never Had It Made (New York, Putnam, 1972)
Ross Newhan, “It Wasn’t the Happiest Camp for Everybody,” Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2008
Ross Newhan, “Dodgers Headed Way Off-Base,” Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2008
Ray McNulty, “Dodgertown Looks Great Worthy of Its Glorius Past,” Vero News, June 17, 2021
On June 16, 1964, Jackie Robinson visited St. Augustine, Florida at the urging of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). A crowd of 600 had gathered at St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church that evening to hear him deliver a speech that kicked off a month-long direct-action campaign targeting the city’s segregationist policies at local businesses, beaches, and swimming pools. He blasted his critics, especially those in the white press who admonished Black superstars for joining the movement. He told stories of how Willie Mays could not buy a home in San Francisco and how Nat King Cole was beaten in Birmingham for trying to perform in front of an integrated audience. “There is not one Negro, not one that I know of in this country, that has it made,” he declared, “until the most underprivileged Negro in St. Augustine, Florida has it made!” The crowd burst into applause.
Jackie Robinson Speaks at St. Paul's A.M.E. Church in St. Augustine, Florida. Courtesy of ABC News
Robinson understood that the sleepy tourist town of St. Augustine was of critical importance to national politics. Local leaders in St. Augustine had spearheaded a massive voter registration drive the year before, and with the November election looming, Robinson was keen on delivering those votes to the candidate that would provide the firmest support to future civil rights legislation, Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, in the upcoming November election.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act was also working its way through Congress and St. Augustine was to host a celebration of the 400th anniversary of its founding a year later. With the spotlight already on the city, SCLC organizers and NAACP advisor Dr. Robert Hayling, the first African-American dentist to be elected to the local and national posts of the American Dental Association, were eager to use the media attention garnered by the upcoming celebration to their advantage as they led a month of rallies and marches. Robinson praised the protestors in his speech that evening, “You have taught me and I’m sure many people up north the kinds of accomplishments that can be made with the determination such as you have exhibited. I think the fact that people like this are willing to give up their freedom to go to jail is an indication exactly what they believe about America.”
The SCLC’s gambit worked: tourism in the summer of 1964 collapsed, forcing the hand of a remarkably conservative business community to endorse the creation of a biracial commission to combat racism in the city. The bravery of the marchers in Saint Augustine, combined with the national spotlight on the events unfolding there, helped keep civil rights at the forefront of American minds. The Civil Rights Act was signed into law less than three weeks later, banning segregation in public places.
While the protests in St. Augustine may have been a success in terms of publicizing civil rights pressure when it was most politically valuable, the on-the-ground results of the marches within the city itself were much less tangible. Businesses reluctantly integrated but found few Black customers after the sheer vitriol with which they had been previously refused. Establishments that were more public or reconciliatory about integration were met with pickets by an invigorated Ku Klux Klan. After Jackie and the SCLC left, local organizers felt abandoned by the national organization.
St. Augustine would not be Robinson’s last stop. His activism took him across the country where he spoke in churches, in auditoriums, and at protests. Just weeks after this speech, he wrote in his syndicated newspaper column “One wonders how we will ever be able to enforce the new Civil Rights Act when, so often, the fate of accused culprits is left in the hands of friends and neighbors who would rather uphold the doctrine of white supremacy than to discharge the demands of justice.” But Robinson remained undeterred, continuing to point to successful actions like St. Augustine and using his celebrity to bring the eyes of the world onto the Civil Rights Movement.
Civil Rights Library of St. Augustine, https://civilrights.flagler.edu/.
“Jackie Robinson Urges Action,” Daytona Beach News Journal, June 16, 1964
Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998
David R. Colburn, Racial Change and Community Crisis: St. Augustine, Florida, 1877-1980. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985
Robert W. Hartley, “A Long, Hot Summer: The St. Augustine Racial Disorders of 1964,” in St. Augustine, Florida, 1963-1964: Mass Protest and Racial Violence
HOURS: 11 AM - 6 PM, Thu - Sun