April 15, 1947 is now a date that will live in infamy. Not for the efforts of one man on any given day or of scores of men today but of the significance of the trials and lessons learned during the interim and their inexorable effect upon human history.
This is not just about baseball, rather it is the way that a baseball player managed to change the world. Every schoolchild hears the story of Jackie Robinson, American hero, revolutionary icon, immutable figure of 20th century and social pariah-turned-savior. The story is rife with layers and repercussions and socioeconomic advances, all of which are amazing when hearing the story for the first time or the hundredth. America changed as the world climate was evolving while history chose a baseball field in Flatbush, Brooklyn as the stage. Many influences were involved, some famous and others forgotten. None of this would have been possible without a brave but seemingly unremarkable man who simply had the courage to step onto a baseball field and change history.
Telling the whole Jackie Robinson story is too large a task for this venue. Since 1997, thanks to the efforts of Major League Baseball and the blessings of Robinson’s widow (Rachel Robinson), the anniversary of Jackie’s landmark debut would become a celebration. Fifty years after Jackie Robinson quietly took the field with his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates, players from 50 countries throughout the world would stand on baseball fields and salute a pioneer. Mrs. Robinson and the Commissioner participated in a ceremony in New York commemorating the event. Major League Baseball retired his uniform number, 42, across all major league teams – an unprecedented display of respect and admiration.
Today, all 30 franchises display Robinson’s retired number year round but on April 15, players are permitted to further honor him by wearing his number. This began when Ken Griffey, Jr. requested permission to honor Robinson in this way and has expanded across the game. Replica Robinson Brooklyn Dodger jerseys are sold at all 30 venues and all players sport the number 42 in honor of the legend.
Six days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues. With Eddie Stanky entrenched at second base for the Dodgers, Robinson played his initial major league season as a first baseman. On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his major league debut at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, including more than 14,000 black patrons. Although he failed to get a base hit, the Dodgers won 5–3. Robinson became the first player since 1880 to openly break the major league baseball color line.
Black fans began flocking to see the Dodgers when they came to town. When Larry Doby debuted with Cleveland the following year and subsequent Negro League players (such as Satchel Paige and Roy Campenella) joined the Majors, black fans began abandoning their Negro league teams. Sadly, reaction from fans, opposing players, managers and society was not as harmonious as Robinson’s major league debut. He was subject to persecution in all forms both on and off the field – even struggling to gain the respect and acceptance of his own teammates – notably shortstop and team captain Harold Henry “Pee Wee” Reese. Reese, a Kentucky native, was famous for refusing to sign a petition threatening a player boycott and for an incident in Cincinnati, Ohio. During pre-game infield practice, Reese went over to Robinson, engaged him in conversation, and put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder in a gesture of support which silenced the Crosley Field crowd. This gesture is depicted in a bronze sculpture of Reese and Robinson, created by sculptor William Behrends, that was placed at KeySpan Park in Brooklyn and unveiled Nov. 1, 2005.
Throughout that difficult first year in the major leagues, Reese helped keep Robinson’s morale up amid the abuse. As the 1947 season wore on, there was tacit acceptance of the fact that blacks were now playing big league ball and were probably there to stay. Robinson still got pitches thrown at him, but, as Reese recounted “I told him, ‘You know Jack, some of these guys are throwing at you because you’re black. But others are doing it just because they plain don’t like you.’” His role in nurturing Jackie Robinson aside, their rapport soon led shortstop Reese and second baseman Robinson to become one of the most effective defensive pairs in the sport’s history.
In addition to his cultural impact, Jackie Robinson had an exceptional baseball career. Over ten seasons, he played in six World Series and contributed to the Dodgers’ 1955 World Championship. He was selected for six consecutive All-Star Games from 1949 to 1954, was the recipient of the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 (at age 28) and won the National League MVP Award in 1949 – the first black player so honored. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, having retired relatively suddenly in spring 1957. The Dodgers were planning to trade Robinson to the Giants and a year later both teams would relocate to California establishing a new era of transcontinental major league baseball. Robinson would not be part of that, retiring as a Brooklyn Dodger after a decade of groundbreaking and breathtaking efforts that would always be part of baseball lore.
Robinson was also known for his pursuits outside the baseball diamond. He was the first black television analyst in Major League Baseball, and the first black vice-president of a major American corporation. In the 1960s, he helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned financial institution based in Harlem, New York. In recognition of his achievements on and off the field, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia. Jackie was the youngest of five children and his middle name was in honor of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who died twenty-five days before Robinson was born. Robinson’s father left the family in 1920, they moved to Pasadena, California where the extended Robinson family established itself on a residential plot at 121 Pepper Street. Robinson’s mother worked various odd jobs to support the family. Growing up in relative poverty in an otherwise affluent community, Robinson and his minority friends were excluded from recreational opportunities. As a result, Robinson joined a neighborhood gang, but soon was persuaded to abandon it.
After high school, college and military service during World War II, Robinson found himself realizing what many Americans of the time saw – their world was evolving and progressing all around them. World War was over, America was becoming a superpower, opportunity was at the hands of nearly anyone who wanted it and the horizon of success seemed boundless. Tired of war, tyranny, destruction and cruelty, America turned its focus toward the homefront, nurturing hopes and dreams into domestic tranquility. A new sense of manifest destiny took hold of America as they built superhighways, schools, cars and suburban sprawl was rampant. The next decade would see the greatest population expansion and migration of Modern Times quadrupling the size of the middle class and changing forever the status quo for the pursuit of happiness.
For most, this was an Age of Opportunity. Socioeconomic schisms still existed despite the aftereffects of the Great Depression and Second World War, which had seen camaraderie at its zenith. Separate but equal had been accepted for a long time but that didn’t make it fair, right or just. Every revolution needs a spark but this one required someone with the moral fortitude, social consciousness and personal temerity to withstand the resistance of an entire society.
Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. As the first black man to play in the major leagues since the 1880s, he was instrumental in bringing an end to racial segregation in professional baseball, which had relegated black players to the Negro leagues for six decades. That journey began in 1945, ten years after Robinson’s days at Muir Tech (Robinson lettered in varsity football, basketball, track and baseball and also participated on the track and field squad and tennis team). His first taste of competition was in 1936, when Robinson won the junior boys singles Tennis championship in the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament earning a place on the Pomona baseball all-star team – which included future Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Lemon. In late January 1937, the Pasadena Star-News reported that Robinson “had been the outstanding athlete at Muir, starring in football, basketball, track, baseball and tennis.” He went on to Pasadena Junior College, where he continued to excel at sports and in the classroom on a larger stage.
In 1938, Robinson was elected to the All-Southland Junior College Baseball Team and selected as the region’s Most Valuable Player. Robinson was one of 10 students named to the school’s Order of the Mast and Dagger (Omicron Mu Delta), for performing “outstanding service to the school with scholastic and citizenship record worthy of recognition.” On January 25, 1938, he was arrested after vocally disputing the detention of a black friend by police. Toward the end of his PJC tenure, Frank Robinson (closest among his brothers) was killed in a motorcycle accident. The event motivated Jackie to pursue his athletic career at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to remain closer to Frank’s family.
At UCLA, Robinson became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. He was one of four black players on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team (Woody Strode, Kenny Washington & Ray Bartlett). At a time when only a handful of black players existed in mainstream college football, this made UCLA college football’s most integrated team. Robinson won the 1940 NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship (long jumping 24’10.5”). Baseball was actually Robinson’s “worst sport” at UCLA; he hit .097 in his only season, although in his first game he went 4-for-4 and twice stole home. While a senior at UCLA, Robinson met his future wife, Rachel Isum, a UCLA freshman familiar with Robinson’s athletic career at PJC. In the spring semester of 1941, Robinson left college just shy of graduation for a job as an assistant athletic director with the government’s National Youth Administration (NYA) in Atascadero, California.
After the government ceased NYA operations, Robinson traveled to Honolulu in fall 1941 to play football for the semi-professional, racially integrated Honolulu Bears. After a short season, Robinson returned to California in December 1941 to pursue a career as running back for the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League. By that time, however, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had taken place, drawing the United States into World War II and ending Robinson’s nascent football career.
In 1942, Robinson was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. Robinson and several other black soldiers applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School (OCS). Although the Army’s initial July 1941 guidelines for OCS had been drafted as race-neutral, few black applicants were admitted into OCS. Robinson and his colleagues were delayed for several months. After protests by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (then stationed at Fort Riley) and the help of Truman Gibson (then an assistant civilian aide to the Secretary of War), the men were accepted into OCS. Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943. Shortly afterward, Jackie Robinson and Rachel Isum were formally engaged to be married.
Needless to say by 1945, Jackie Robinson was an accomplished scholar, athlete, husband and military officer. Due to an incident, Robinson found himself subject to a court-martial in August 1944. The charges against Robinson had been reduced to two counts of insubordination during questioning. Robinson was acquitted by an all-white panel of nine officers. Although his former unit, the 761st Tank Battalion, was the first black tank unit to see combat in World War II, Robinson’s court-martial proceedings prohibited him from being deployed overseas, thus he never saw combat action.
After his acquittal, he was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, KY, where he served as a coach for army athletics until receiving an honorable discharge in November 1944. While there, Robinson met an ex-player for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, who encouraged Robinson to write the Monarchs and ask for a tryout. Robinson wrote Monarchs’ co-owner Thomas Baird and would eventually play for the Monarchs, prior to his first meeting with Branch Rickey in 1945.
In early 1945, while at Sam Huston College, the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs sent Robinson a written offer to play professional baseball. Robinson accepted a contract for $400 ($4,882 in 2011 dollars per month, a boon for him at the time. Although he played well, Robinson was frustrated with the experience. He had grown used to a structured collegiate playing environment, so the Negro leagues’ disorganization and embrace of gambling interests appalled him. In all, Robinson played 47 games at shortstop for the Monarchs, hitting .387 with five home runs, and 13 stolen bases. He also appeared in the 1945 Negro League All-Star Game, going hitless in five at-bats.
During the season, Robinson pursued potential major league interest. The Boston Red Sox held a tryout at Fenway Park for Robinson and other black players on April 16. The tryout proved a farce chiefly designed to assuage the desegregationist sensibilities of powerful Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick. Players were subjected to racial epithets and left the tryout humiliated. More than 14 years later (July 1959), the Red Sox became the last major league team to integrate its roster. Other teams had more serious interest in signing a black ballplayer.
In the mid-1940s, Branch Rickey, president and GM of the Brooklyn Dodgers, selected Robinson from a list of promising Negro League players, and interviewed Robinson. Rickey was especially interested in making sure his eventual signee could withstand the inevitable racial abuse. In a famous three-hour exchange on August 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face the racial animus without taking the bait or reacting angrily. Robinson was aghast: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” After obtaining a commitment from Robinson to “turn the other cheek” to racial antagonism, Rickey agreed to sign him to a contract for $600 a month ($7,322 today). Although he required Robinson to keep the arrangement a secret for the time being, Rickey committed to formally signing Robinson before November 1, 1945. On October 23, it was publicly announced that Robinson would be assigned to the Royals for the 1946 season. That same day, with representatives of the Royals and Dodgers present, Robinson formally signed his contract with the Royals.
In what was later referred to as “The Noble Experiment“, Robinson became the first black baseball player in the International League since the 1880s. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and other Negro League stars were upset when Robinson was selected first – not because he was the best player but because he was the best choice for what lay ahead. Robinson left the Monarchs to return home to Pasadena. On February 10, 1946, Robinson and Isum were married by their old friend, Rev. Karl Downs.
In 1946, Robinson arrived at Daytona Beach, Florida, for spring training with the Montreal Royals of the Class AAA International League (the designation of “AAA” for the highest level of minor league baseball was first used in the 1946 season). Robinson’s presence was controversial in racially charged Florida. As he was not allowed to stay with his teammates at the team hotel, he lodged instead at the home of a local black politician. Since the Dodgers organization did not own a spring training facility (the Dodger-controlled spring training compound in Vero Beach known as “Dodgertown” did not open until spring 1948), scheduling was subject to the whim of area localities, several of which turned down any event involving Robinson or Johnny Wright, another black player whom Rickey had signed to the Dodgers’ organization in January. In Sanford, Florida, the police chief threatened to cancel games if Robinson and Wright did not cease training activities there; as a result, Robinson was sent back to Daytona Beach. In Jacksonville, the stadium was padlocked shut without warning on game day, by order of the city’s Parks and Public Property director. In DeLand, a scheduled day game was called off, ostensibly because of faulty electrical lighting.
After much lobbying of local officials by Rickey himself, Robinson made his Royals debut at Daytona Beach’s City Island Ballpark on March 17, 1946, in an exhibition game against the parent Dodger club. Robinson simultaneously became the first black player to openly play for a minor league team and against a major league team since the de facto baseball color line had been implemented in the 1880s. On April 18, 1946, Roosevelt Stadium hosted the Jersey City Giants‘ season opener against the Montreal Royals, marking the professional debut of the Royals’ Jackie Robinson. In his five trips to the plate, Robinson had four hits, including a three-run home run. He also scored four runs, drove in three, and stole two bases in the Royals’ 14–1 victory. Robinson proceeded to lead the International League that season with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage and he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Although he often faced hostility while on road trips (the Royals were forced to cancel a Southern exhibition tour, for example), the Montreal fan base enthusiastically supported Robinson. Whether fans supported or opposed it, Robinson’s presence on the field was a boon to attendance; more than one million people went to games involving Robinson in 1946, an amazing figure by International League standards.
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org