On this date 65 years ago Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and became the first black Major League Baseball player of the modern era. Even though Jackie Robinson went hitless in his debut (a 5-2 win over the Boston Braves) by stepping between the lines of Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York on April 15, 1947 Robinson became the first player since 1880 to break the color line and paved the way for players of all races and ethnicities to have an opportunity to play baseball at its highest level. Today, in what has become a traditional event since its inception in 2004, Major League Baseball honored Robinson for his memorable career. Every player who participated in games today wore #42, Robinson’s number, which was universally retired by Major League Baseball in 1997 and is currently only worn by one player, Mariano Rivera the closer of the New York Yankees.
Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson became one of the most influential and inspirational individuals to ever come through the game of baseball and his impact touched more than just the sports world. Jackie was born January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia and was the youngest of five children. He was named in honor of former President Theodore Roosevelt who had died 25 days prior to his birth. After Robinson’s father left the family in 1920, they moved to Pasadena, California, where Robinson grew up in relative poverty. As a child he joined a neighborhood gang, but thankfully one of his friends persuaded him to abandon it, and then in high school Jackie’s older brothers persuaded him to pursue his interest in sports. At Muir Tech in Pasadena, Robinson played several sports and lettered in four of them: football, basketball, track and baseball. Robinson was also a member of the school’s tennis team and in 1936 he won the junior boys singles championship in the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis tournament while also earning a spot on the Pomona annual baseball tournament all-star team which included future hall of famers Teddy “Ballgame” Williams and Bob Lemon. Robinson continued his athletic career, moving on to Pasadena Junior College and then ultimately UCLA, where he again lettered in four sports and became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. Surprisingly while at UCLA baseball was Robinson’s worst sport as he hit only .097 his freshman season with the Bruins. He continued to play though, up until the spring semester of 1941 where he left college just shy of graduation to take a job as assistant athletic director with the government’s National Youth Administration.
In 1942 athletics were forced to take a back seat in Robinson’s life. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, Robinson was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. After delays and protests by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (who at the time was also stationed at Fort Riley) Robinson and several other black soldiers were selected for admission to Officer Candidate School. Upon completing the school Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943 and reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas. Texas is where Robinson’s military career was derailed, when on July 6, 1944 while awaiting hospital results on an ankle injury he had hurt in junior college, Robinson boarded an Army bus with a fellow officer’s wife although the Army had a separate unsegregated bus line. The bus driver that day ordered Robinson to the back of the bus (much like Rosa Parks) and Robinson refused. The driver eventually backed down, but when he reached the end of the route he requested military police, who took Robinson into custody. As a result Robinson was transferred to another battalion and charged with multiple offenses of which he was later acquitted by an all-white panel of nine officers. After his acquittal he was again transferred, this time to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky where he served as a coach for Army athletics until receiving an honorable discharge in November 1944.
After the military Robinson returned to football briefly, playing for his former club, the Los Angeles Bulldogs, and then accepted an offer to be athletic director at Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas. While still at Sam Huston College, Robinson received a letter from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and he accepted a contract to play professional baseball for $400 per month. Robinson was not satisfied with the hectic scheduling and the general disorganized nature of the Negro League and he pursued potential major league interest. The Boston Red Sox were one team he looked into, and he attended a tryout at Fenway Park on April 16, 1945. Boston, like many other cities at the time, was still a very racially motivated city, and Robinson left the tryout feeling humiliated after being subjected to racial epithets. Thankfully for Robinson, and for baseball as a whole, other teams had more serious interest in signing a black ballplayer and Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the perfect man to make something happen.
Rickey began scouting the Negro Leagues during the mid 1940’s and from a list of promising black players he decided to interview Robinson about possibly being added to the Dodgers’ roster. During a famous exchange between the two men on August 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face racial issues without taking the bait and reacting angrily, a move that would surely set minorities in professional baseball back many years. Robinson at first did not understand why Rickey wanted someone to just let the comments brush off them, asking “are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”. Rickey then informed Robinson that he was looking for a player with “the guts not to fight back”. Once Rickey received a commitment from Robinson to not let the hatred and racism lead to him to responding negatively, Rickey signed Robinson to a contract for $600 a month.
Robinson arrived in spring training with the Montreal Royals (a triple-A affiliate of the Dodgers) at Daytona Beach, Florida in spring 1946. Florida was still a racially charged state and Robinson’s prescence was very controversial. He was not allowed to stay with his teammates at the team hotel nor eat at local restaurants. Daytona Beach, Florida is also where Robinson made the shift from shortstop to second base, where the shorter throws would be easier for him. In Robinson’s first season of minor league baseball he proceeded to win the International League’s Most Valuable player award, batting .349 and fielding .985. He often faced hostility while on road trips, and whether fans supported or opposed him he was a boom to attendance at league game’s as over a million people went to games involving Robinson in 1946.
Six days before the 1947 season was to begin, professional baseball as everyone had known had changed, the Dodgers had called up Robinson to the major leagues. With Eddie Stanky as the Dodgers second baseman, Robinson began his major league career as a first baseman. On April 1947, Robinson made his debut at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators and the Dodgers won 5-3. The rest is history as Robinson went on to have an exceptional baseball career. Over ten seasons he played in six World Series (winning the 1955 World Championship), was named an MLB All-Star 6 times (in additional to one Negro League All-Star selection), won the 1947 MLB Rookie of the Year award, the 1949 National League Most Valuable Player selection, and was named to the Major League Baseball All-Century team and had his number #42 retired by all MLB teams.
Jackie Robinson once said that “a life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives”. Well, Jackie, your life and your achievements both on and off the diamond inspired a countless number of people to reach their dreams. Without a man as strong-willed and strong-minded as Robinson who knows how long it would have taken for baseball to become integrated and for society to begin to see that skin color is just that, a color, and not something and not something to discriminate about. As a society we still have a long way to go, but what Robinson accomplished through the vision of Branch Rickey and the Dodgers’ organization is something that should be recognized more than just once a year. Robinson has also been quoted as saying “as I write these words I cannot stand and sing the National Anthem….I have learned that I remain a black in a white world” and to be candid with you I really cannot stand that those words still ring true to this day. Hopefully one day racism will not be an issue that I feel compelled to write about, but until then let’s continue to remember and honor the accomplishments of Jackie Robinson and hopefully learn something through the struggles he faced. Thank you, Mr. Robinson.