On April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson of the Montreal Royals approached home plate after hitting a home run at Roosevelt Stadium, home of the Jersey City Giants, the opening game the 1946 International League season. There to greet him was teammate George «Shotgun» Shuba. https://www.wkbn.com/news/local-news/statue-of-first-interracial-handshake-at-mlb-game-to-be-built-in-youngstown/ Shuba shook Robinson’s hand, known as the «Handshake of the Century.» https://www.wkbn.com/news/local-news/statue-of-first-interracial-handshake-at-mlb-game-to-be-built-in-youngstown/
George Shuba (center) shakes Jackie Robinson’s (right) hand, April 18, 1946. Photo credit: www.spectrumnews1.com and www.robinsonshuba.org
Montreal’s 1946 manager was 43-year-old Clay Hopper, in his second season managing in the Dodgers organization with the backing and support of Branch Rickey, who had known him since 1926. Hopper was born in Porterville, Mississippi, an unincorporated town in Kemper County, East Central Mississippi, on October 3, 1902. He excelled at baseball, his favorite sport, and football. Part II will focus on Hopper’s final ten years as a minor-league manager (1947-1956), among other details and highlights. Part I concludes with Hopper leading Montreal to the 1946 Junior World Series title and shaking hands with Jackie Robinson’s spring training in 1947.
Hopper: Stellar Mississippi A&M Baseball and Football Student-Athlete, 1924-1926
He was a star outfielder for Mississippi A&M, 1924-1926, under legendary coach Dudy Noble. The 1924 team was 17-7 overall and won the Southern Conference with a 12-3 record. In 1925, they finished 19-7 (9-5 in conference play), followed by 18-12 in 1926 (10-8—conference play). A&M Aggies won eight of their 12 baseball games versus arch-rival Ole Miss between 1924 and 1926, including a 6-4 victory in 1924, helped by a grand slam by infielder Charles Solomon (C.S.) «Buddy» Myer, who had a distinguished 1925-1941 major league playing career.
The 5’11,» 178-pound Hopper was a two-sport athlete at A&M, also starring in football, as a fullback, for coach Earl Abell, in 1924 and 1925. In 1924, the 5-4 Aggies (3-2 Southern Conference) blanked Ole Miss, 20-0, and bested Tennessee, 7-2. In 1925, A&M dropped to 3-4-1, edging Ole Miss, 6-0, and losing, 6-0, to undefeated (10-0 overall, 7-0 conference) Alabama. The 1924 Southern Conference included 22 football teams, ranging from Alabama (8-1 overall, 5-0 conference) to Maryland, Vanderbilt, Virginia Military Academy, Washington and Lee, the University of Georgia, Mississippi A&M, and Ole Miss. They were down to 20 teams in 1925.
Player, Player-Manager, and Manager, St. Louis Cardinals Organization (1926-1942)
Hopper signed his first pro contract with 1926 Ft. Smith Twins, Class C Western Association. Ft.
Smith was one of four minor-league affiliates of the St. Louis Cardinals, whose G.M. was Branch Rickey Sr. (Only three major league clubs had farm team affiliates in 1926—Cardinals (4), Detroit (3), and Boston Braves (1). Rickey was the architect of the Cardinal’s farm system. He pioneered the big league farm system—whereby the parent club could have access to a multitude of players at relatively low prices. By 1937, the Cardinals had 33 minor-league clubs! In 1940, the number was 31, before it dropped to 22 in 1942.
In 104 games, Hopper challenged 1926 Ft. Smith teammate, Louis Benson for the batting title, posting a .374 B.A., to Benson’s .391. Hopper’s .608 SLG was impressive, with 36 doubles, 12 triples, and 13 homers. Rickey kept tabs on Cardinals’ affiliates and took notice of the 23-year-old Hopper. And Rickey earned plaudits when Rogers Hornsby, his St. Louis player-manager, led the Cardinals to the National League (N.L.) pennant and 1926 World Series win over the New York Yankees.
By 1927, Hopper was married to Marie Franklin Hopper, who grew up in Eupora, Mississippi. She was the sister of Webster Cromwell Franklin, aunt of Webster «Webb» Franklin—a future (1983-1987) U.S. Congressman, Second District, from Mississippi—and great-aunt of Webster C. Franklin, Executive Director, Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau. (Webb and Webster grew up in Greenwood, Mississippi, home to Donny Whitehead, Greenwood’s baseball historian.) Donny’s summary in nominating Hopper for induction into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame included: «In 1927, as a member of the Danville Veterans, [Class B], Three-I League, he (Clay Hopper) hit four home runs in one game.» Hopper batted .315 for Danville, with a .512 SLG, 20 doubles, 16 triples, and 13 homers.
With the Laurel (Mississippi) Cardinals, 1928 Class D Cotton States League, he posted a .321 B.A. and .539 SLG. Branch Rickey was OK with Hopper managing the 1929 Laurel Cardinals, one of seven Cardinals’ farm teams, one more than the rest of the N.L., with six farm clubs split among Brooklyn (3), Braves (1), Cubs (1), and Giants (1).
Hopper’s 1930 season with the Greensboro Patriots, Class C Piedmont League, featured 37 doubles, 15 triples, and 23 homers, a .355 BA and .616 SLG. From 1931 to 1941, he was a player-manager with eight different minor-league clubs in the Cardinals organization. The first (Cooperstown) Hall of Famer Hopper managed was Johnny Mize, 1932 Elmira Red Wings. (Mize barnstormed in Puerto Rico with minor-league teams, 1932-33 winter, and briefly played for the Concordia Eagles ballclub, based in Venezuela, circa 1934, with Martín Dihigo, Josh Gibson, Tetelo Vargas, and others.) https://beisbol101.com/vidal-lopez-el-muchachote-big-kid-de-barlovento-and-the-babe-ruth-of-venezuela/
In 1934, Hopper earned his first managing crown with the Greensburg Trojans, Class D, Pennsylvania State Association, defeating the Washington Generals (New York Yankees affiliate) in the finals. St. Louis won the 1934 World Series versus Detroit. Hopper managed third baseman Walter Alston, with the 1935 Greenwood Chiefs, another Cooperstown inductee. Alston had a .326 B.A. and .483 SLG, compared to Hooper’s .321 B.A. and .488 SLG!
From 1936 to 1942, Hopper led two teams to championships: the 1937 Springfield Cardinals, Western Association, and 1940 Columbus (Georgia) Red Birds, South Atlantic League. His tenure in the Cardinals organization ended after managing the 1942 Houston Buffaloes in the Texas League. Table I includes his minor-league hitting stats, with Table II his 1929-1942 managing record.
Table I: Clay Hopper’s Available Minor-League Hitting Stats, St. Louis Cardinals Organization
|1926||Ft. Smith||Western Association||C||104||423||158||36||12||13||.374||.608|
|1934||Greensburg||PA State Assn.||D||94||307||100||18||13||13||.326||.596|
|1936||Greensburg||PA State Association||D||88||279||101||18||7||6||.362||.541|
Table II: Clay Hopper’s Managing Record, Cardinals Affiliates, 1929, 1931-1942
|1932||Mobile||19-13||.594||1st||League disbanded, May 21, 1932.|
|1932||Elmira||30-39||.435||8th||Managed Johnny Mize.|
|1934||Greensburg||57-45||.559||1st||All-Star MGR; won finals, 4 games (G) to 2.|
|1935||Greenwood||52-84||.382||8th||Managed Walter Alston.|
|1936||Greensburg||64-44||.593||2nd||Lost finals, 3 G to 4.|
|1937||Springfield||76-67||.531||4th||Won semis, 3 G to 1; won finals, 4 G to 3.|
|1938||Springfield||79-56||.585||2nd||Lost semis, 2 G to 3.|
|1939||Columbus GA||83-55||.601||1st||Lost semis, 3 G to 4.|
|1940||Columbus GA||88-63||.583||2nd||Won semis, 4 G to 0; won finals, 4 G to 2.|
|1941||Columbus GA||68-69||.496||3rd||Lost semis, 4 G to 0.|
|Totals||877-793||.525||Three championships: 1934, 1937, 1940.|
Branch Rickey Brings Hopper to the Brooklyn Dodgers Organization
Rickey was introduced as G.M. with the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 29, 1942. Hopper, out of baseball, with Marie and two children to support—Jimmy and Janice—spent 1943 and 1944 in Greenwood, Mississippi, working as a «cotton factor.» The «factor» worked with area farmers in selling cotton. Hopper benefitted from Greenwood’s Staplcotn entity, one of the largest cotton-marketing cooperatives in the U.S. Founded in 1921, Staplcotn is owned and operated by and for the members it serves. https://www.staplcotn.com/ Webb Franklin noted that Greenwood’s Cotton Row once had 50-60 cooperatives, with Staplcotn the largest and busiest one.
In 1945, Rickey hired Hopper to manage the Mobile Bears in the Southern Association and led them to a post-season title after a third-place regular season. Mobile bested the Chattanooga Lookouts in the semis before downing the New Orleans Pelicans in the finals. Little did Hopper know what Rickey had in store for him in 1946—a chance to make baseball history. Rickey built the Dodgers farm system into 21 affiliates by 1946, the most in the majors.
1946 Montreal Royals (100-54), a Magnificent Ballclub
Herman Franks was a dependable 32-year-old catcher with the 1946 Royals, trying to «catch on» with another big league team to qualify for a major league pension. The author and Franks communicated regularly in the late 1990s when the latter wrote the Foreword for his (author’s) book on the Santurce Crabbers, a Puerto Rico Winter League team with a rich history. «Clay Hopper was one of the best managers I ever played for,» recalled Franks. «He was calm and polite, with a knack for addressing players’ issues. If given the opportunity, Hopper would have been a fine big league skipper. He platooned me with Dixie Howell behind the plate. (Franks and Howell combined for 20 homers and 108 RBI.) Jackie Robinson, by far, was our best player. We were a veteran team with a few prospects.» Table III includes hitting stats for Jackie Robinson and 12 Royals teammates. They scored 1,004 runs (6.5/game); hit 106 homers; stole 188 bases; had a .289 BA and .389 OBP.
Table III: Contributors (Hitting) to 1946 Montreal Royals
Herman Franks remembered that in 1946 Montreal had a «solid, but not outstanding» pitching staff. Table IV highlights records of the club’s 11 «primary» hurlers. Based on available data, the staff had 71 C.G. and eight SHO, while posting a 4.02 team ERA.
Table IV: Contributors (Pitching) to 1946 Montreal Royals
Table V: 1946 International League Standings
|Rochester||65-87||.428||34||172,125||Burleigh Grimes & Benny Borgmann|
|Jersey City||57-96||.373||42.5||200,096||Albert Betzel|
Source: Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Third Edition, Edited by Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, Baseball America, Durham, North Carolina, 2007.
Hopper was named International League Manager of the Year. Jackie Robinson’s .349 B.A. led the league, and he was the All-Star second baseman. Herman Franks got the nod as the League’s All-Star catcher. In the semis, Montreal defeated the Newark Bears before winning the finals over Syracuse. Bobby Brown, a future cardiologist and A.L. President, was Newark’s All-Star shortstop. He opined, via a phone conversation with the author, that Hopper put together a «cohesive unit.» Montreal won the 1946 Junior World Series over the Louisville Colonels (American Association), four games to two.
William Marshall’s book—Baseball’s Pivotal Era, 1945-1951—noted that Robinson «came into Louisville in a hitting slump…one hit in eleven at-bats, as the Royals lost two of three to the Colonels. Each time he came to bat, he was met with boos, off-color remarks, and foul language.» Montreal swept the next three games at home, with Robinson getting seven hits. Fans at Montreal’s Delorimier Stadium went «nuts» after the Royals’ 2-0 win in Game Six, on October 4, 1946. John Kalbfleisch wrote: «They cheered. They clapped. They stamped their feet. Finally, manager Clay Hopper and Curt Davis, the winning pitcher, stepped out from the dugout, still in their uniforms.» https://montrealgazette.com/sponsored/mtl-375th/from-the-archives-robinson-and-montreal-were-a-perfect-match Jackie Robinson appeared and was mobbed… Montreal’s fans «paraded winning pitcher Curt Davis, manager Clay Hopper, and Robinson on their shoulders,» per Marshall, who wrote: «Hopper was an excellent baseball man who had worked in the Rickey system since 1929. Rickey respected Hopper for his baseball knowledge, his soft-spoken manner, and his ability to work with players.»
Hopper treated Jackie Robinson with fairness and courtesy, as did Robinson’s teammates. Rickey knew Hopper-Robinson’s «experiment» had «risks,» but Robinson earned Hopper’s respect during the 1946 International League season. Hopper was transformed by Robinson’s talent and demeanor and alerted Branch Rickey that Robinson was ready to play for Brooklyn in 1947.
Thanks to Dr. Bobby Brown, Webb and Webster Franklin, Herman Franks, and Donny Whitehead, who furnished a photo. Jorge Colón Delgado did the editing and photo placements.