George “Shotgun” Shuba

Episode 4,  Sep 15, 2021, 04:01 AM

Mike Shuba tells the story of the first interracial handshake in professional sports — one between his father, George “Shotgun” Shuba and Jackie Robinson. Called “a handshake for the century,” the moment was captured in one of baseball’s most famous photos, and inspired a newly unveiled statue in Shotgun’s home town of Youngstown.

On April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson — signed by Brooklyn Dodgers’ executive and Ohioan Branch Rickey — effectively broke professional baseball's color barrier when he suited up for the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers’ farm team. Many, including teammates, wanted to see him fail. Opposing pitchers often aimed for his head. And, Robinson even dealt with death threats.

In the third inning that afternoon, against the home team Jersey City Giants, Robinson hit a home run over the left field fence — the first ever by a Black man in a minor league baseball game. The two men on base at the time crossed home plate and made a beeline for the dugout without a nod to Robinson. But standing on deck, ready to bat next, was Youngstown's own George “Shotgun” Shuba. Shuba earned the nickname Shotgun for his compact, effective swing — he was only the second person in history to pinch hit a home run in the World Series (1953 vs. the New York Yankees).

Noticing nobody was coming around to congratulate the rookie, Shotgun warmly welcomed him at home plate by reaching out his hand and saying, “That's the way to hit ’em, Jackie.”

It was the first interracial handshake in a professional sports game. Captured by a photograph, it would come to be known as “a handshake for the century” and serve as a beacon of civility and unity long before the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Lives Matter movements.

Acclaimed artist Marc Mellon sculpted a seven-foot statue commemorating the joy and significance of the event. It was unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the handshake in downtown Youngstown in 2021.

Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947, which now is celebrated as Jackie Robinson Day and observed by all players across the league by wearing Robinson's number 42. Shuba would join Robinson on the Dodgers major league roster in1948 and go on to play eight seasons for “Them Wonderful Bums” before retiring in 1955.

Both played on the 1955 World Series championship team against the crosstown rival Yankees. The Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles the following year.  That magical era was the subject of Roger Kahn’s seminal book The Boys of Summer. Kahn was so impressed with Shuba that he devoted and entire chapter to him recalling a trip to Youngstown to visit George, speaking with him about his time in baseball and the secret to how he had obtained such a beautiful and powerful swing.

Returning to Youngstown, Shuba lived a simple life, working for the U.S. Postal Service and raising a family in the city he loved. He put into storage all the baseball glitz and glamor and moved on, save for one item. Hanging above his recliner in the living room was the legendary black-and-white photo of a Black man and white man shaking hands — one, perhaps, that Shuba himself knew was one of the greatest contributions to baseball, and maybe humanity.

Shuba summed up the moment with this quote now flanking the newly minted statue, “If you are ever put on the spot, just do the right thing and everything will work out fine.”

George Shuba was born in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1924. He died there in 2014 at age 89.