Jackie Robinson ranks among the most important players in Major League Baseball history, best known for breaking the color barrier in 1947 as the first black player in baseball He also was an elite player who helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the only World Series the franchise won while playing on the East Coast.
If you’re looking for a true profile in courage, Jackie Robinson in 1947 is a good place to start. Movies, books and many magazine and newspaper accounts have focused on what Robinson endured as the first black player in the majors. But his composure and toughness changed baseball (and even American culture), paving the way for many black players to follow, some of them transferring into the majors from the Negro Leagues.
Robinson himself played in the Negro Leagues for a short time, part of an amazing career that started in the Los Angeles area and involved pivotal moments not just in baseball but in race relations.
Jackie Robinson’s Early Life
Jackie Robinson was born on Jan. 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, the youngest of five children in a poor sharecropper family. When his father left the family in 1920, his mother, Mallie Robinson, moved along with her five children to Pasadena, Calif., looking for a better life. Her youngest child ended up finding it through sports.
Robinson lettered in four sports at John Muir High School in Pasadena: football, basketball, track and baseball. He later attended the University of California – Los Angeles, where he became the school’s first athlete to earn varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track. He also won the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump. However, he left school “due to financial difficulties,” according to the Jackie Robinson website. He initially moved to Honolulu to play semi-pro football with the Honolulu Bears, but joined the U.S. Army with the outbreak of World War II.
Robinson served two years, rising to the level of second lieutenant, but never saw combat. While in boot camp in Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson was arrested and court-martialed for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of a racially segregated bus. He eventually was acquitted of all charges and received an honorable discharge.
Negro Leagues and the Minor Leagues
After leaving the Army in late 1944, Robinson worked briefly as the athletic director at what was then called Samuel Huston College in Austin, Texas. He also coached the basketball team. However, in 1945, he received an invitation from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League to try out for the team. This started a fast-moving cascade of events.
In 1945, Robinson started playing for the Monarchs. Used to the discipline and order of collegiate sports, Robinson did not enjoy the disorganization he saw, according to “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy” by Jules Tygiel. He likely welcomed a call he got from Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Rickey is one of the most influential figures in baseball history. Best known for hiring Robinson, he also was a leader in data collection, scouting and other areas of baseball. Rickey and Robinson had a famous three-hour meeting on Aug. 28, 1945, where, according to many accounts, Rickey wanted to be sure Robinson could take the racist abuse he was sure to face.
Rickey wanted Robinson to have a “turn the other cheek” mentality. Robinson reportedly said, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” to which Rickey responded, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
Robinson signed. He played with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League club, for the 1946 season. While in training in Florida, local officials locked a stadium in Jacksonville and threatened to shut down any place where Robinson played. It was just the beginning of the challenges Robinson would face.
Jackie Robinson’s MLB Career
Much has been written about Robinson’s first season in the majors in 1947,a year in which he won Rookie of the Year honors. He also changed the lives of thousands of players and fans to come over the subsequent decades.
Robinson made his debut on April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field. His first season was fraught with difficulties. For example, the Philadelphia Phillies team took special delight in hurling racist remarks at him from the dugout. Some players from the opposing teams threatened to not play against Robinson. Even some Dodgers threatened not to play with him.
Robinson’s demeanor and character – not to mention, fantastic play – got him through the season. He also got key support from manager Leo Durocher, who stood by Robinson against the other players, threatening to trade them if they didn’t want to play with Robinson. Rickey’s support remained solid. And in a famous incident in Cincinnati, when white fans hurled racist comments at Robinson, shortstop and team captain Pee Wee Reese walked over and put his arm around Robinson in a show of solidarity – although many now question if that last one ever happened.
Sometimes lost in all of this is that Jackie Robinson was one heck of a baseball player. In 1947, even with all the turmoil, he hit .297, led the league in sacrifice hits (28) and steals (29) and had a .427 slugging percentage.
In 1949, he hit .342 and led the league with 37 steals. He also had 124 RBI and scored 122 runs. Not surprisingly, he won MVP honors that year.
He also played second base on the 1955 Dodgers club that beat the New York Yankees (finally) in the World Series. Robinson tripled and scored in Game 1 (off a Don Zimmer single), scored a run in Game 2 off Jim Gilliam’s single, doubled and scored in Game 3 (off a Sandy Amoros single) and knocked in a run in Game 5. However, he did not play in Game 7, with manager Walter Alston going with a different lineup.
Retirement and Life After Baseball
Robinson was traded to the New York Giants in 1957, but retired from baseball. In 1962, he became the first black player ever inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1972, the Dodgers retired his number.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Robinson a “a legend and a symbol in his own time.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Robinson’s efforts “were a monumental step in the civil-rights revolution in America” and that his playing in MLB “allowed black and white Americans to be more respectful and open to one another and more appreciative of everyone’s abilities.”
Robinson broke another color barrier by becoming the first black person on ABC’s Game of the Week broadcast. He also became the first black person to serve as vice president of a major company, doing so for the Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee brand from 1957 to 1964.
Robinson stayed true to his beliefs until the end of his life. Robinson threw the first pitch out at Game 2 of the World Series. In his speech, Robinson said: “I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but I must admit I will be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”
Nine days later, Robinson died at the age of 53 on Oct. 24, 1972. Complications from diabetes and a heart attack had weakened him physically through the years. While he didn’t live to see it, his wish came true in 1975, when the Cleveland Indians made Frank Robinson (no relation) the first black manager in baseball.
On his tombstone, it reads: “A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.”