George Shuba was the last of the 'Boys Of Summer', the Brooklyn Dodgers whose 1955 season, when they won their only World Series title, was memorialised in Roger Kahn's book of that title. But Shuba's claim to immortality rests on something that occurred a decade earlier, in a single moment that happened to be recorded by a wire-service cameraman in a photograph whose simple beauty and impact made it a 'shot heard round the world' every bit as much as Bobby Thompson's home run was a few years later. It's a rare thing, to have your life encapsulated in single frozen instant, but it was something Shuba never regretted.
The moment came at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, New Jersey,
on 18 April 1946. It was the home opener for the Jersey City Giants,
the top farm team of the New York Giants. They were playing the
Montreal Royals, the top farm team of their arch-rival
Dodgers. Making his debut for the Royals was Jackie Robinson, the
first black player in 'organised' baseball since the 19th
In the third inning, Robinson hit a home run. As he toured the
bases he got a slap on the back from his manager, Clay Hopper, who
came from Mississippi. But his two teammates whom he'd driven in
didn't wait for him at the plate, as is traditional; instead they went straight back to
the dugout. So as Robinson approached home plate, Shuba, the
next hitter, came up to the plate and shook his hand, before Robinson had even touched home. Look at the second, reverse angle photo: Jackie is still in the air.
George Shuba, of course, was white. And
he understood what he was doing. 'When he hit the home run, everyone
was looking to see if a white guy would shake his hand,' Shuba
recalled in 1996. 'It didn't make any difference to me that Jack was
black. I was just happy to have him on our team.'
Look at the famous picture. Robinson's pure joy at hitting that shot, at
belonging, at being part of this thing that was major league baseball, which had
been closed off to him and those like him. Look at the umpire's disgruntled reaction. And look at the packed crowd and the patriotic red white
and blue bunting, and realise how significant this was for a country
who'd gone to war with a segregated military, and had
court-martialled Lieutenant Jack Robinson for refusing to move to the
back of a segregated Texas bus.
Shuba was nicknamed 'Shotgun' for the way he sprayed line-drives
off his bat. He played for the Dodgers in the late 40s and early 50s;
he was a good-hitting outfielder but not a great fielder, especially
after he hurt his knee in 1952. He usually found himself stuck behind
someone Dodger general manager Branch Rickey thought was better, no doubt he would have had
a better career with some other team. In fact, his main to claim to
fame on the diamond would be as the answer to the trivia question '
who batted for Don Zimmer in game 7 of the 1955 World Series?'. Shuba
didn't get a hit, and in the bottom of the inning Junior Gilliam
moved from left field to second base, and Sandy Amoros, not Shuba,
replaced Gilliam. Amoros then made a spectacular catch of a sure
double off the bat of Yogi Berra. Three innings later, Brooklyn won their
only World Series.
Shuba was the son of immigrants from what is now Slovakia. He saw
baseball as a way to avoid a lifetime in the steel mills of
Youngstown, Ohio. He grew up playing sports with blacks as well as
whites in the integrated mill town. As a kid he hung ropes from the
ceiling of his bedroom, with knots to mark off the strike zone, and
swung a bat through the zone 600 times a day. He signed with the
Dodgers aged 19, after a tryout camp in 1944. With the war on players
were in short supply, but Shuba was exempt because of a burst eardrum
suffered when a nun slapped him during lessons at Catholic school.
He hit well in what was then class A in
1945, and began the '46 season with AAA Montreal. Jackie Robinson got
four hits on that opening day, but the next day Shuba hit three home
runs. Nevertheless, he was sent down to AA Mobile by the end of the
month. He would not make the Dodgers until 1948, but for the next
three years he shuttled between the big team and their farm clubs.
His stats in part-time minor league ball are impressive (.389 batting
average in '48, 28 homers in '49) but need to be put into the context
of a hitters' era. And of course into the context of the likes of
Duke Snider and Carl Furillo, and only 16 big league clubs, you can
understand why Rickey stockpiled talent in his system and kept
it away from other teams. As Shuba told Roger Kahn, 'As long as he
could option me, you know, send me down but keep me Dodger property,
Rickey would do that so's he could keep some other guy whose option
ran out. Property, that's what we were. But how many guys you know
ever hit .389 and never got promoted?'
Ironically, he was having his best year when he injured his knee
in 1952: in about half a season he hit .305 with 9 homers and 40
rbis. He came back to mediocre stats for the next two years, and in
'55 hit .275 (with a .422 on base pct) but had only 64 plate
appearances. He was back in the minors in '56, and in the Cubs'
system in '57, when he finally hung up his spikes. He returned to
Youngstown, got married, and worked as a postal inspector.
Shuba kept only one piece of baseball memorabilia: a copy of that
AP photo. As his son Michael told the press after his father died,
when he came home from school complaining about bullying, his father
would say 'Look up at that photo. I want you to remember what that
stands for. You treat all people equally.' It was only an instant, but it was one that should live forever.