BY CHRISTINE DAVIDSON | METRO MONTHLY STAFF WRITER
George “Shotgun” Shuba of Austintown sits at his Royal manual typewriter, watching the chickadees that alight on feeders outside the glass doors to the family room, and reflects on his life. To the right of where he sits hangs an enlarged photograph of a moment in his life that forever changed the game of baseball and life in the United States.
The black-and-white photo captures a 21-year-old Shuba extending his hand to 27-year-old Jackie Robinson just as he’s crossing home plate. Robinson, smiling broadly, appears to be floating on air as a smiling Shuba congratulates him. The New York Times called the greeting, “a silent, seminal moment in baseball history.” The Taipei Times labeled it “the first black-white home run handshake”; the Beacon Journal described it as “a simple gesture that bridged baseball’s racial barrier.”
It was April 18, 1946 as the Montreal Royals of the International League took on the Jersey City Giants. In his second at bat of his Minor League debut, the Royals’ Robinson smacked a 335-foot home run over the left field fence at Roosevelt Stadium. Shuba, hitting third and waiting in the on-deck circle, said his reaction to Robinson’s homer had nothing to do with race. He recalled the exact moment, “It didn’t matter that Jackie was black, he was the best guy on the team, and he was my teammate. He could have been Technicolor, it didn’t matter to me.” But it did matter to sportswriters and the American public. Wikpedia reports Shuba is most often remembered for “his role in breaking down Major League baseball’s tenacious color barrier.” Shuba stepped into history 61 years ago this month as America’s conscience before a New Jersey sell-out crowd of 25,000 and a gaggle of sports reporters and photographers.
Robinson went on to his spectacular career as the Brooklyn Dodgers first and second baseman, winning the National League’s “Rookie of the Year” award in 1948 and the National League’s MVP in 1949.
Shuba joined Robinson at the Dodgers in 1948 and by that time had earned the nickname “Shotgun” because, according to sportswriter Bill Bingham, ‘he sprayed line drives as if they were buckshot.” This nickname is rated as one of the all-time favorites by baseball fans.
Over his career, Shuba batted .259 with 24 homers and 125 RBIs. Shuba was the first National League pinch hitter to pinch hit a home run in World Series history. He helped the Dodgers win pennants in 1952, 1953 and the World Series in 1955. In addition, a chapter of Roger Kahn’s novel, “The Boys of Summer,” is devoted to Shotgun.
Shuba said his favorite baseball movie is 1949’s “It Happens Every Spring.” It’s one of those wacky sports comedies released by 20th Century Fox. Welsh actor Ray Milland plays a chemistry professor who accidentally develops a concoction that repels wood. Shuba slapped his knee and laughed as he further explained the plot. “So, of course, he breaks into the majors because nobody can hit his pitches.”
It was anything but an accident that Shuba landed in the majors. A passage in Adam Kahn’s self-help book, “Stuff That Works,” details a ritual Shuba began as a youngster and continued through his playing career and it’s one of the reasons Shuba became a success. “George ‘Shotgun’ Shuba tied a rope to the ceiling, and made knots in the rope where the strike zone was, and every day he swung a bat at the rope 600 times. He swung that bat 600 times a day until he was in the Major Leagues. That’s how he got his great ‘natural’ swing,” Kahn said.
The youngest of 10 children born to Slovak immigrants, Shuba grew up on Youngstown’s West Side. He attended Holy Name School where a classroom encounter with a nun would affect his future life.
“I was sitting in the last row and my buddy is sitting next to me and somebody misbehaved so the nun gave everybody homework for the weekend. So, I said to my buddy, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ The nun said, ‘Who said that?’ Nobody answered and I’m bluffing her. She says, ‘Well, I’m not going to let the class go home until that person raises his hand.’
So, I raised my hand and I said ‘Patrick Henry.’ She came down [the row] and hit me, really hit me. I went home but didn’t tell my mother how it happened and she put a hot water bag on my ear, but then I went to swim at Borts Pool. I dove into the deep water and wow! It was like somebody put a nail in my ear.
That kept me out of the Army, that perforated eardrum. So, it was a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, I might still be in Germany.” Shuba now can only hear with the assistance of an aid, and Mike, his son, said he and his dad are starting a foundation to help children suffering from hearing loss.
The younger Shuba handles his father’s schedule for speaking engagements, interviews and trips. In March, they spoke to 600 Canfield students and another group at Ohio Wesleyan. Last year, during the 60th anniversary of the historic handshake, he and his dad raised $7,800 for a charity event sponsored by the Ottawa Lynx Minor League baseball club in Canada.
The younger Shuba called it a promotion for doing the right thing. “It’s a celebration of what George and Jackie stood for that day. They’ll have two young kids, one wearing dad’s uniform number and one wearing Jackie’s uniform number and they reenact the homer and the handshake.”
After a bout with Graves disease, Shuba retired from baseball in 1957 and returned to Youngstown. He’s been married to his wife, Kathryn, since 1958. More recently, he’s been writing his memoirs with the help of newspaper clippings compiled by his sister, Helen. She has saved everything ever written about her brother in nine big scrapbooks.
At 82, Shuba still exhibits the easy grace of an athlete and remains at his playing weight. His voice is strong and laced with the Eastern European flavor of Youngstown’s West Side.
Although his Web site http://www.georgeshuba.com is still under construction, Shuba said it should be up in the next few weeks and his book will be available soon.
© 2011 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.