Quickly, what is the significance of today’s date, April 15? No, I’m not referring to Income Tax Day. It was on this date, April 15, 1947, 67 years ago, that Jackie Roosevelt Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. What, you may ask was the significance of that event? Well, Jackie was the first black man to play in a regular season Major League game since the 1880s! Before Jackie, blacks, if they played professional baseball at all, were forced to play in a separate league known as the Negro Leagues. Often, they barnstormed with major leaguers after the regular season; occasionally, they played exhibition games against them. But, they were never permitted to play in the Major Leagues, not openly, anyway, although it was rumored that a few light-skinned blacks managed to “pass” as whites. It was an extremely frustrating situation as it was apparent to many observers that a large number of the black players were as good as their major league counterparts and could have been successful if they had been given a chance. But, there was an unofficial “color barrier” that kept blacks segregated (consistent with the segregation practiced in all other areas of life in the country during that period). Jackie Robinson changed that, with an assist from Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who signed him and orchestrated the process of ending the color barrier.
Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919 into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, GA. He was the youngest of five children. He was given his middle name in honor of former President Theodore Roosevelt. Jackie was an all-around athlete, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track, at Pasadena High School, Pasadena Junior College and UCLA. At UCLA he played football with another famous person, the actor Woody Strode. (For those of you who are not movie aficionados, Strode appeared as a “heavy” in several John Ford westerns and played the gladiator who fought Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus.”) Interestingly, he was not the only star athlete in the family. His older brother, Mack was a silver medalist in the 200 meter dash in the 1936 Olympics, the one in which Jesse Owens, another black athlete, won four gold medals, embarrassing Adolph Hitler. During WWII Jackie took a break from athletics, serving in the Army. Afterwards, he played baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.
In the mid-1940s Branch Rickey, GM and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a man with a great deal of foresight, was looking to end the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He had been around the game his entire adult life as a player, manager, executive and part-owner. He was one of the most brilliant baseball minds of his time. He recognized that there was a plethora of talent in the Negro Leagues and that the time was ripe. After all, America had just won a war in which blacks had fought with much distinction and bravery, President Truman had integrated the armed forces, and life, in general, was changing. (A cynic might say that by signing the first black player Rickey was hoping to tap into a large share of this talent for the Dodgers. In fact, this is exactly what happened.)
He was looking for the right person, one who possessed not only the talent to play, but also the temperament to handle the copious abuse, which was sure to come. He realized that if the first one failed, it might be many years before the next one got a chance. (Talk about pressure! Jackie would not only be playing for himself and his team, but, to an extent, for all blacks everywhere.) Rickey saw that Jackie was not only a superior player, but also the right age (mid 20s), highly intelligent, well-educated and an ex-army officer. Baseball observers knew that Jackie was not the best player in the Negro Leagues at that time. Players such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, had better resumes, were more famous, and more experienced. In fact, Paige, a pitcher, and Gibson, a catcher, were arguably the best at their positions at that time, white or black. But, Rickey knew that with the combination of ability, maturity, age, intelligence and temperament, Jackie was the right choice. If Jackie was the right player at the right time, then Rickey was right executive at the right time. Together, they made history.
Sometimes, Jackie exhibited a short fuse, but if he could control it, he could succeed. In a famous meeting between the two men Rickey was warning Jackie of the abuse he was sure to face. Jackie reportedly challenged Rickey “are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey’s response: “I’m looking for a Negro with the guts NOT to fight back.”
Rickey, liking what he saw, signed Jackie. After a stint at the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate in Montreal in 1946, he made his Dodger debut. Jackie did, in fact, suffer major abuse, from teammates, opposing players and fans. His teammates came around after management threatened to cut or trade any “troublemakers.” In those pre-agent, pre-guaranteed contracts days, management had the upper hand over the players and could get away with this aggressive approach. Opponents were another issue. Jackie was called the “N” word as well as any other derogatory name you could imagine. After all, a majority of the players at that time were not college educated and came from Southern or rural areas where segregation was a way of life. One of the worst venues was Cincinnati, which was basically a city with Southern attitudes towards race. Before one game some fans were giving Jackie a particularly hard time when Peewee Reese, the Dodgers captain and a Kentuckian, went over to him and put his arm around him in a show of solidarity. Peewee was so well-respected that his action carried great weight and gave a significant boost to Jackie.
Jackie’s baseball statistics belied his abilities and significance to his team’s success. His lifetime batting average was .311 with only 137 home runs, 734 RBI and 197 stolen bases. But, he did win the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the NL MVP award in 1949, was named an all-star from 1949 through 1954 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. He was also one of the best base runners of his time. He would drive opponents to distraction on the base paths. He even stole home during the World Series. One had to actually see him play to appreciate his abilities. He was a leader and a winner. In his ten-year career his teams won six pennants and one World Series. As Rickey had foreseen, Jackie’s success led to a flood of other black players. Most of them have acknowledged that Jackie blazed the trail for them.
Jackie retired as a player in October 1956. (The impetus for his retirement was that the Dodgers traded him to the NY Giants. Rather than report to the hated Giants, he retired.) After retirement, Jackie dabbled in many jobs, such as television analyst, corporate executive and actor. But, his primary focus was in civil rights. He became a strong spokesman and advocate, using his notoriety for the benefit of minorities. Unfortunately, he was not a healthy man, suffering from diabetes and heart disease. Most likely, all the stress he endured did not help. He died in 1972 at the age of 53.
CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION
One cannot overestimate the considerable impact Jackie had not only on black people, but also on whites as well. With respect to baseball, he demonstrated that blacks, could, in fact, compete with whites. Strange as it sounds, there was doubt of that in some quarters at the time. Outside of baseball he used his stature to advance the quality of life for blacks socially and economically. He was a vociferous spokesman for civil rights. Martin Luther King called Jackie “a legend and a symbol in his own time” who “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.” His stature was such that in 1947 a survey identified him as the second most popular man in the US behind Bing Crosby. Picture that for a black man in 1947! In 1999 “Time” Magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Also in 1999 “The Sporting News” included him on its list of the 100 greatest baseball players. In addition, there are countless buildings, schools, plaques, roads and statues that bear his name. Finally, in 1997 in the ultimate tribute, Major League Baseball permanently retired his number, 42, and each year on April 15 players pay the ultimate homage to Jackie. On that day, every player on all teams wears #42. Yes, Jackie was truly a great man, a transcendent figure.