Following a year of playing with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues, Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 23, 1945 and was assigned to the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate – the Montreal Royals.
Five months later, the players in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization reported to the 1946 spring training in Jacksonville, Florida. This was two years before “Dodger Town” in Bradenton, Florida was completed and opened. After a couple weeks of drills and inter-squad games, the major league Dodgers were ready to play a game against Robinson and the Royals.
Segregation was still pervasive in Florida and throughout the South at this time. When the day of the scheduled game arrived, the ballpark in Jacksonville was padlocked shut. Inquiries to fields in nearby Sanford and DeLand were met with resounding refusals.
But City Island Ball Park in Daytona said yes, so Jackie Robinson’s first game against a major league team was played there on March 17, 1946. The ballpark, built around 1915, was renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1990. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
It was on this sacred ground that I stood and sang the National Anthem for the Daytona Cubs prior to their game against the Tampa Yankees on August 29, 2014.
During the day I worried whether or not the game would even be played.
My son Connor and I drove to Daytona that Friday afternoon, having spent the night before at my sister Maria’s house outside of Atlanta. As we drove east from Ocala on Highway 40 through the Ocala National Forest, we passed through a dark thunderstorm with rain so thick we almost had to pull over. We finally got through it, but in my rearview window I could see it moving east towards us and Daytona.
When we arrived in town, we went straight to the studios for WNDB-AM News 1150. I had been invited to be a guest on the Marc Bernier Show. Marc is one of the Top 100 Talk Show Hosts in America and the former husband of my dear friend and high school classmate Melodye Browning Bernier.
It was a pleasure to talk to Marc about my quest to sing for all of the Cubs’ teams, my work and my writing. You can listen to the interview here.
After the interview, Marc, Connor and I walked three blocks to Jackie Robinson Ballpark, locally known as “The Jack.” It sits on the island on the Halifax River right off downtown Daytona. Outside the stadium is a statue of Jackie Robinson talking to two small boys, both of whom are literally and figuratively looking up to Robinson.
After we got the tickets left for us at the Will Call window, we found our seats behind home plate. I then left to find Jim, the on-field game coordinator. He told me they were postponing the beginning of the game for fifteen minutes because of the rain, which was starting to come down. I returned to my seat and chatted with Connor while we waited.
Before I ever get to a ballpark or stadium to sing the National Anthem, I know the exact time and place I need to be prior to the singing. On-field game coordinators especially like to know I’m there on time so that they don’t have to put Plan B into action when the singer doesn’t show up.
Knowing the time to be there and the time to sing also helps me to prepare mentally for the event. I like to visualize in my head what it will be like to sing at the park. As the time ticks down: 30 minutes before singing, 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 5 minutes… the adrenaline starts flowing and I try to focus more and more on what’s about to happen.
It’s like the pre-game activities before our Friday night football games in the Stone Castle at my high school in Bristol, Tennessee. From the pep rally near the end of classes to the pre-game meal, from the equipment checks to pre-game drills, from Coach Bingham’s last speech and prayer to the walk to the stadium, there was an orchestrated set of activities we did leading up to that kick-off at 7:30.
So when I hear that the first pitch of this ballgame has been pushed back fifteen minutes, with the possibility of it still being rained out, I have to put my pre-game mental preparations on hold. This is not my favorite way to spend the time before singing. I don’t like to wait.
I watched as the grounds crew hurriedly unrolled the tarp to cover the infield and the mound. Suddenly, they stopped and looked up at the sky. One of them was talking by phone to someone in the press box. After a couple of minutes, the crew began rolling the tarp back up. The rain was stopping and moving away from the stadium. The grounds crew picked up the last covers off the mound and plate and then rolled out the sharp, white chalk lines down the foul lines and around home plate. “We will have baseball tonight” I think to myself.
As the teams prepared for the game in the dugouts, Connor and I made our way down to the field through the gate behind home plate. He was my videographer for this game, so we discuss where we both will stand, when to start, etc. (He was great!)
After a half dozen ceremonial “first pitches” by representatives of area companies and schools (it’s Catholic Schools Night at The Jack), it was my turn to stand behind home plate with the microphone. The players and umpires on the field and in the dugouts stood at attention as I am introduced by the public address announcer.
I believe that the National Anthem is best sung by everyone in attendance because it’s The Song for Our Country, not some tune to help a soloist get a record deal. The more people who sing with me, the better. I’m glad to be the song leader and to start with the invitation “Everyone, please join with me” just as I start singing.
After I finished, Connor and I made my way back to our seats where the smiling Berniers were waiting. Along the way, I received many acknowledgements from the fans in the stands, especially the older ones. “That’s the way it should be sung,” said one. “Well done,” said another.
Later in the game, I left my seat for a tour of the ballpark to take the photos you see above, to talk to Annette Bismarck in the Cub House and to sample the local ballpark hotdogs.
After the long, busy day of driving, finding the right route to Daytona, emerging from the thunderstorm, getting to the radio studio in time, walking to get our tickets at the park and my nervous anticipation for the rain to stop, the day ended well with an enthusiastic, crowd rousing rendition of the National Anthem.
It was worth the wait.
P.S. The Daytona Cubs enjoyed the evening as well. Led by Kyle Schwarber, Billy McKinney and Marco Hernandez, the Cubs beat the Tampa Yankees 8-4 to clinch the 2nd half championship and qualify for the playoffs.
P.P.S. 2014 was the 21st and final year for the Cubs in Daytona. On September 16 the Cubs announced that they were moving their Class A-Advanced team to Myrtle Beach. Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona will now be the home of a team in the Cincinnati Reds organization.