To Make Room for Jackie, “Big” Ed Stevens Sold to Pittsburgh

Here’s a little known chapter from the great Jackie Robinson’s baseball history. Robinson has a connection, albeit an indirect one, to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In 1947, when Robinson was called up to Brooklyn, “Big Ed” Stevens held down first base. Remember that Branch Rickey ordered field manager Leo Durocher (before he was suspended) to play Robinson at first  and leave Eddie Stanky at second. Rickey thought Robinson would be safer at first from the possibility of national league rivals intentionally spiking him or bowling him over. Robinson didn’t move to second base until 1948.

Before the season began, Durocher called a team meeting and announced: “The old man says he’s going to bring the black man up.” What Durocher didn’t add is that Robinson would be inserted as the first sacker. Since Robinson played his minor league career as a second baseman, Stevens didn’t realize that his job was on the line. But when the time rolled around for rosters to be cut to 25, Rickey told Stevens that he was being returned to Montreal in the Dodgers’ best interests.

Rickey said to Stevens:

“If you would let me pull you off the roster and send you down to Montreal, I’m going to put Jackie Robinson in your spot. This will give me enough time to get rid of Stanky who isn’t good for the ball club and Jackie belongs at second anyway. I’ll shake hands with you on a gentleman’s agreement and make the solemn promise to you that you’ll be back as soon as I can get rid of Stanky.”

Rickey swore to Stevens that the young first baseman figured prominently in the Dodgers’ long term plans.

Stevens, who said he was speechless and felt like he “had the rug pulled out from under him,” said he first sensed his ultimate fate when, during a stretch of several early games, Robinson went 0-26 but continued to play.

Rickey never kept his promise. Although Rickey bought Stevens up in September, it was too late to qualify for the World Series. During the few games Stevens played he, like Jackie, endured fans’ and opposing players’ barbs. From the grandstand: “There’s Jackie Robinson’s caddy” and from the visitor’s dugout “How did you let a nigger take your job.”

By the end of his rookie year, Robinson played 151 games and had hit a solid .297. Stevens, on the other hand, was hit .154 in 5 games and the Dodgers sold him to the Pirates.

During the off season, Stevens and his family returned to his native Galveston, Texas where the taunting about being the first white man ever replaced by a black man continued all winter. By spring training 1948, Stevens eagerly joined the Pirates where, as he recalled, “he worked harder than ever” and learned from Ralph Kiner and Honus Wagner. In 1948, Stevens hit .254 with ten home runs (in cavernous Forbes Field) and knocked in 64. But toward September, nagging injuries to Stevens’ hips and shoulders took their toll. In 1949 and 1950, his last year as a major league player, Stevens warmed the bench.

Stevens, who says that to this day people ask him if he resents Robinson for taking his job, remembers Jackie this way:

“I hold no hard feelings against Jackie in any shape or form. At ball games, my wife Margie and his wife Rachael sat together and visited. There were no hard feelings in any way. Jackie showed himself to be a fine player and a good man.”

Stevens, 87, lives in Galveston.

3 Replies to “To Make Room for Jackie, “Big” Ed Stevens Sold to Pittsburgh”

  1. My first thought on reading this story was: If Rickey had wanted Stanky gone, why didn’t he just make it happen, by demoting him or cutting him? As GM, Rickey was in charge of roster moves, after all. After doing some searching, I learned that in March of ‘48, Stanky was traded to the Boston Braves.
    Joe, do you have any insights into whether Rickey had tried to trade Stanky during the ’47 season and just couldn’t put together an acceptable deal?

  2. @ Brendan:
    I suspect Rickey was blowing smoke. He wanted Robinson at 1st; Stevens was the odd man out. I also assume that with a rookie at first and the Dodgers pennant contenders. Rickey would be unlikely to trade a seasoned veteran that would then give the right side of his infield a complete overhaul.

  3. Thanks, Joe. It’s odd that Rickey would tell Stevens that having Stanky around was bad for the team, but this is fully consistent with your “blowing smoke” interpretation.

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