In the history of Major League Baseball, there were men who glorified the game. These men are the ghosts of a time when baseball did not stall to argue money and the benefits of greed. These men are the idols, the true kings of summer and most importantly the ones who set the stage for the game we know today. None of this would be possible without the legacy of one man in particular – a man who faced great uncertainty, racism and hostility. That man was the indisputably talented Jack Roosevelt Robinson, better known as Jackie Robinson.
Over 70 years ago, Robinson made history in front of 26,263 spectators at the age of 28. Before that fateful day in 1947, Robinson was born on January 31, 1919 to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia. The youngest of five children, his parents gave him the middle name Roosevelt in honor of Theodore Roosevelt, who died 25 days before Robinson’s birth.
His father left in 1920 and his family moved to Pasadena, California. His mother worked various jobs to support her children, but the family still teetered on the edge of poverty. Robinson faced the challenges of being a part of the minority in his community, resulting in him joining a neighborhood gang – which would not last long after his friend persuaded him to abandon the idea.
His brothers Mack and Frank inspired Robinson to pursue an interest in sports. His brother Mack would go on to become a silver medalist during the 1936 Summer Olympics. While at John Muir High School, he played several sports: football, basketball, track and baseball. He found himself playing at shortstop and as a catcher, the quarterback of his football team and as a guard on his basketball team. While being a member of the track team, Robinson won several awards in the broad jump. He also had a stint with the tennis team. By 1936, Robinson earned a place on the Pomona annual baseball tournament all-star team, which included future Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Lemon.
After graduating high school, Robinson went on to attend Pasadena Junior College, continuing his athletic career in basketball, baseball, football and track. In 1937, he was elected to the All-Southland Junior College Team and was eventually selected as the region’s Most Valuable Player. That same year, he was one of 10 students named to the school’s Order of the Mast and Dagger – awarded to students performing “outstanding service to the school and scholastic and citizenship record worthy of recognition.” While at Pasadena Junior College, he was also elected to the Lancers, a student-run police organization responsible for patrolling various school activities.
It wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine for Robinson at PJC. On January 25, 1938, he was arrested after vocally disputing the detention of a black friend by police. Toward the end of his tenure at PJC, his brother Frank was killed in a motorcycle incident. Robinson was then motivated to pursue his career closer to Frank’s family and found himself attending UCLA.
Robinson became the first athlete in UCLA history to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. He was one of four black players on the Bruins’ 1939 football team – the others were Woody Strode, Kenny Washington and Ray Bartlett. At the time, only a few black students played mainstream college football, and this made UCLA college football’s most integrated team – with four players.
Ironically, baseball was Robinson’s worst sport at UCLA – hitting .097 in his only season despite going 4-for-4 and stealing home twice in his first game.
During his senior year at UCLA, he met his future wife Rachel Isum who was a freshman at this time. He went on to play football during his senior year, but his team only won one game. Despite his mother and Isum’s reservations and concern, he took at a job as an assistant athletic director with the National Youth Administration in Atascadero, California.
Once the government ceased operations for the NYA, he traveled to Honolulu in the fall of 1941 to play football for the semi-professional and racially integrated Honolulu Bears. He would quickly return home after a short season and pursue a career as a running back for the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League. By that time, the attack on Pearl Harbor had taken place, drawing the United States into World War II and ultimately ended Robinson’s 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 which was then located at Fort Riley. The Army’s initial July 1941 guidelines for OCS had been drafted as race neutral, unfortunately, few black applicants were admitted into OCS until after subsequent directives by leadership – due to this, the applications of Robinson and his colleagues were delayed for several months. After protests by Joe Louis, who was also stationed at Fort Riley and the help of Truman Gibson, the men were accepted into OCS. Once finished, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1943. Shortly after, Robinson proposed to Isum.
An event on July 6, 1944 changed everything for Robinson. While awaiting results on his ankle that he had injured in junior college, Robinson boarded an Army bus with a fellow officer’s wife although the Army had commissioned its own unsegregated bus line, the driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus – Robinson refused. The driver eventually backed down but summoned the military police who took Robinson into custody. Later, he confronted the investigating duty officer about racist questioning by the office and his assistant, the officer recommended that he needed to court-martialed. His commander in the 761st, Paul L. Bates refused to authorize the legal action, which ended up with Robinson being summarily transferred to the 758th Battalion, where the commander consented to charge Robinson with multiple offenses which included public drunkenness – even though Robinson did not drink.
By the time of the court-martial in August of 1944, the charges had been reduced to two counts of insubordination during questioning. Robinson was acquitted by an all-white panel of nine officers. While his former unit, the 761st Tank Battalion became the first black tank unit to see combat in World War II, Robinson’s proceedings prohibited him from being deployed. He would never see combat action.
After the acquittal, he was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, serving as a coach for army athletics until he received an honorable discharge in November of 1944. While at Camp Breckinridge, he met a former player of the Kansas City Monarchs, who encouraged him to write the Monarchs and ask for a try-out. Robinson took the advice and wrote to the co-owner Thomas Baird.
Robinson briefly returned to his old football club, the Los Angeles Bulldogs and then accepted an offer from his old friend and pastor Rev. Karl Downs to be the athletic director at Samuel Huston College in Austin, Texas – the job duties included coaching the school’s basketball team for the 1944-45 season. While it was a fledgling program, few students tried out for the team, leaving Robinson to insert himself into the lineup for exhibition games. His team would be outmatched by their opponents but everyone respected Robinson as a disciplinarian coach. Even growing the admiration of Langston University basketball player Marques Haynes, who would go on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters.
While at Sam Huston College, the Kansas City Monarchs sent Robinson a written offer to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. Robinson accepted the contract for $400 per month. He grew frustrated with his experience – used to a structured playing environment while in college, he was appalled by the disorganization and gambling. The hectic travel placed a giant burden on his relationship with Isum, only being able to communicate by letter.
He would play 47 games at shortstop for the Monarchs, hitting .387 with five home runs and 13 stolen bases. He went on to appear in the 1945 East-West All-Star Game, going hitless in his five at-bats. Throughout the season, Robinson pursued potential major league interests. There had not been a black man in the major leagues since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884, but that did not stop the Boston Red Sox from holding a tryout at Fenway Park for Robinson and other black players. The tryout was a farce chiefly designed to assuage the desegregationist sensibilities of the Boston City Councilman Isadore H. Y. Muchnick. Robinson left the tryout humiliated – it would be more than 14 years later, in 1959, when the Red Sox became the last major league team to integrate its roster.
Despite the tryout ending in a ridiculous manner, there were teams with serious interest in signing a black baseball player. By the mid-1940s, Branch Rickey, the club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers began to scout the Negro Leagues. Rickey selected Robinson from a list of promising players and interviewed him for possible assignment to Brooklyn’s International League farm club – the Montreal Royals.
In the infamous three-hour exchange between Robinson and Rickey on August 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face the racial animus without taking the bait and reacting angrily – a small concern given Robinson’s prior argument with law enforcement at PJC and in the military. Robinson was aghast. “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Ricky replied that he needed a player with guts enough not to fight back. After finally obtaining a commitment from Robinson to “turn the other cheek,” Rickey agreed to sign him to a contract for $600 a month. Rickey had previously discussed prospects with Wendell Smith, a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier, who according to the Cleveland Indians owner and president Bill Veeck influenced Rickey to take Robinson and was never given complete credit.
On October 23, 1945, it was publicly announced that Robinson would be assigned to the Royals for the 1946 season. Robinson was the first black baseball player in the International League since the 1880s. Talented men like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were upset and disheartened when Robinson was chosen over them. Larry Doby, who broke the color line in the American League the same year as Robinson once said, “One of the things that was disappointing and disheartening to a lot of the black players at the time was that Jack was not the best player. The best was Josh Gibson. I think that’s one of the reasons why Josh died so early – he was heartbroken.”
That September, he signed with Chet Brewer’s Kansas City Royals, a post-season barnstorming team in the California Winter League. He briefly toured with another team in South American while his fiancée pursued nursing opportunities in New York. On February 10, 1946, Robinson and Rachel Isum were married by the Rev. Karl Downs.
In 1946, Robinson arrived at Daytona Beach, Florida for spring training with the Montreal Royals of the Class AAA International League. Clay Hopper, the manager of the Royals, asked Rickey to assign Robinson to any other Dodger affiliate, but Ricky ultimately refused. Robinson’s presence was extremely controversial in a racially charged state of Florida. He was not allowed to stay with his white teammates at the team’s hotel and instead had to lodge at the home of Joe and Dufferin Harris, a politically active African American couple who would introduce the Robinsons to civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune.
Since the Dodgers organization did not own a spring facility at the time, scheduling was often done on a whim with local areas. This ultimately led to many areas turning down any event that involved Robinson or Johnny Wright, another black player whom Rickey had signed to the Dodgers’ organization. The Sanford police chief threatened to cancel games if Robinson and Wright did not cease training activities there – this sent Robinson back to Daytona Beach. In Jacksonville, the stadium was padlocked shut without a single warning on game day by order of the city’s Parks and Public Property director.
After Rickey stepped in, the Royals were allowed to host a game involving Robinson in Daytona Beach. He made his debut at Daytona Beach’s City Island Ballpark on March 17, 1946, in an exhibition game against the Dodgers. He became the first black player to openly play for a minor league team 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 his professional debut and the first time the color barrier had been broken in a game between two minor league clubs.
Robinson proceeded to lead the International League that season with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage. He would be named the league’s Most Valuable Player as well. Despite facing hostility while on road trips, including the time when the Royals had to cancel a Southern exhibition tour, the Montreal fanbase supported Robinson. More than one million people went to games involving Robinson in 1946.
In 1947, six days before the start of the season, the Dodgers called Robinson up. On April 15, Robinson made his major league debut at the age of 28 at Ebbets Field. He walked and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory. Becoming the first player since 1884 to openly break the color line, black fans began to flock to see the Dodgers when they came to down, often abandoning their Negro League teams.
The promotion of Robinson was met with a generally positive and somewhat mixed reception among newspapers and white players. Despite the generally positive reactions, racial tension existed in the clubhouse. Some of the Dodgers insinuated that they would sit out rather than play alongside Robinson. Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”
Robinson was also treated unfair by opposing teams. According to a press report, the St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike if Robinson played and they planned to spread the walkout across the entire National League. The Cardinals players would later deny that they were planning to strike. On April 22, 1947, Phillies players and manager Ben Chapman used racial slurs against Robinson and Rickey would later recall that Chapman did more than anyone else to unite the Dodgers when he poured out the unconscionable abuse toward Robinson.
Robinson did receive significant encouragement from several other major league players. Lee “Jeep” Handley, who played for the Phillies at the time, was one of the first opposing players to wish him well. Pee Wee Reese once came to his defense with the famous line, “You can hate a man for many reasons – color is not one of them.” While the year is often debated between 1947 and 1948, Reese is said to have put his arm around Robinson in response to fans who were shouting racial slurs at Robinson before a game. Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg also encouraged Robinson – advising him to overcome his critics by defeating them in games.
Robinson finished the season having played in 151 games for the Dodgers – a batting average of .297, an on-base percentage of .383 and a .427 slugging percentage. With 175 hits, he scored 125 runs, hit 31 doubles, five triples, 12 home runs and drove in 48 runs. Robinson led the league with 28 sacrifice hits and 29 stolen bases. His performance earned him the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award.
In 1948, Robinson took over second base where he would log a .980 fielding percentage during the season. He had a batting average of .296 with 22 stolen bases over the season. In a 12-7 win against the St. Louis Cardinals on August 29, 1948, he hit for the cycle with a home run, triple, double and a single in the same game. Racial pressure that rested on his shoulders didn’t weigh as heavily in the 1948 season with a number of black players entered the leagues – Doby, Paige and three other men who played for the Dodgers. He signed a contract of $12,500 with the Dodgers, which was less than he made in the off-season from doing a vaudeville tour where he answered questions about baseball.
For the spring of 1949, Robinson turned to George Sisler for batting help – with his suggestions, he spent hours at a batting tee, learning how to hit the ball to right field. Sisler would go on to teach Robinson how to anticipate a fastball. It helped Robinson raise his batting average from .296 in 1948 to .342 in 1949. He went on to steal 37 bases that season and was second place in the league for both doubles and triples. He earned the Most Valuable Player Award for the National League and was voted as the starting second baseman for the 1949 All-Star Game – the first All-Star Game to include black players.
The summer of 1949 brought an unwanted distraction for him. He was called to testify before the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities concerning statements made by black athlete and actor Paul Robeson. Robinson was reluctant to testify at first but agreed to do so, fearful that it might negatively affect his career.
In 1950, he led the National League in double plays made by a second baseman with a total of 133. He would also earn the highest salary paid to a Dodger at that point with $35,000 – $371,929 in 2019. He finished the year with a total of 99 runs scored, a .328 batting average and 12 stolen bases. That same year, the biographical film The Jackie Robinson Story was released. Robinson played himself and Ruby Dee played Rachel Robinson. His Hollywood exploits did not sit well with Dodgers co-owner Walter O’Malley, who called Robinson, “Rickey’s prima donna.” By late 1950, Rickey’s contract as the team president had expired – he cashed out his one-quarter financial interest in the team and left O’Malley in full control. Robinson was ultimately disappointed by the turn of events.
During the 1951 season, Robinson once again led the National League in double plays made by a second baseman with 137. Despite his regular-season heroics, the team lost the pennant on Bobby Thomson’s famous home run, known as the Shot Heard ‘Round the World. Vin Scully would later note that the incident showed how much of a competitor Robinson was. He finished the season with 106 runs, an average of .335 and 25 stolen bases.
In 1952, Robinson challenged the Yankees’ general manager George Weiss on the racial record of his team, a team which had yet to sign a black player. The 1952 season was the last year Robinson was an everyday starter at second base – he would play in various positions from first base to the outfield while Jim Gilliam took over second base duties.
The 1953 season left Robinson with 109 runs, a .329 batting average and 17 steals – leading his Dodgers to another National League pennant. His continued success spawned a string of death threats. That year, he served as editor for Our Sports magazine, a periodical focusing on Negro sports issues. Robinson also openly criticized segregated hotels and restaurants that served the Dodgers organization – this included the five-star Chase Park Hotel in St. Louis.
In the 1954 season, Robinson scored 62 runs, held a .311 batting average with seven steals. On June 17, he hit two home runs and two doubles. He would go ahead and win his only championship with the Dodgers in 1955, defeating the New York Yankees. The 1955 was the worst year of Robinson’s career. He hit .256 and stole only 12 bases. The Dodgers moved Robinson in the outfield and as a third baseman at 37-years-old. He missed 49 games and did not play in Game 7 of the World Series. That season, the Dodgers’ Don Newcombe became the first black major league pitcher to win 20 games in a year.
By 1956, the effects of diabetes began to take over and the interest in playing or managing professional baseball began to dwindle. That season would be Robinson’s last – he finished with 61 runs scored, a .275 batting average and 12 stolen bases. He ended his major league career when he struck out to end Game 7 of the 1956 World Series. In the off-season, the Dodgers traded Robinson to the New York Giants for Dick Littlefield and $35,000 cash. The trade was never completed, unbeknownst to the Dodgers. Robinson had already agreed with the president of Chock full o’Nuts to quit baseball and become an executive with the company. Since he had sold the exclusive rights to any retirement story to Look magazine, his decision was revealed through the magazine instead of through the Dodgers.
He retired from baseball on January 5, 1957 and was elected on the first ballot, becoming the first player inducted into the Cooperstown museum in 1962. He encouraged voters to his on-field qualifications rather his culture impact on Major League Baseball. The Dodgers retired his uniform number on June 4, 1972 along with those of Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax.
He served as an analyst for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week and was the first black person to do so in 1965. He went on to become the general manager for the short-lived Brooklyn Dodgers of the Continental Football League in 1966. And in 1972, he would serve as a part-time commentator on Montreal Expos telecasts.
He was also active in politics throughout his post-baseball life. He identified himself as a political independent despite holding conservative opinions on several issues which included the Vietnam War. He became one of six national directors for Nelson Rockefeller’s unsuccessful campaign to be nominated as the Republican candidate for the 1964 presidential election. He later became special assistant for community affairs when Rockefeller was re-elected governor of New York in 1966. In 1968, he switched his allegiances to the Democrats, supporting Hubert Humphrey against Nixon.
Robinson also protested against the major leagues’ lack of minority managers and central office personnel – turning down an invitation to appear in an old-timer game at Yankee Stadium in 1969. His final public appearance would be on October 15, 1972, throwing the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the World Series at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. He accepted a plaque honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of this debut, commenting, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black man managing in baseball.” This would come true after Robinson’s death when Frank Robinson became manager of the Cleveland Indians.
Complications from heart disease and diabetes would weaken Robinson and caused him to be almost blind by middle age. On October 24, 1972, Jackie Robinson died of a heart attack at his home in North Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 53. His funeral attracted 2,500 mourners which included many of his former teammates and other famous baseball players, serving as pallbearers. After his death, his widow founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
On April 15, 1997, Robinson’s jersey number was retired throughout Major League Baseball. Under the terms of the retirement, a grandfather clause allowed the handful of players who wore the number 42 to continue doing so in tribute to Robinson. MLB began honoring Robinson by allowing players to wear number 42 on April 15, known around the league as Jackie Robinson Day, which started in 2004. The gesture was originally the idea of Ken Griffey Jr., who had sought out Rachel Robinson’s permission through Bud Selig to wear the number – the Commissioner not only allowed Griffey but extended the invitation to all major league teams.
Outside of baseball, Robinson was recognized by the NAACP with the Spingarn Medal. President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 and President George W. Bush gave Rachel Robinson the Congressional Gold Medal in 2005. In 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that Robinson was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
Robinson’s debut brought an end to over 60 years of segregation in professional baseball. The breaking of the baseball color line symbolized broader changes and demonstrated that the fight for equality was not just a political matter. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that Robinson was a legend and a symbol in his own time, that he challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.
While he only played 10 seasons, Robinson left a monumental legacy for the game of baseball. He scored more than 100 runs in six of his 10 seasons, had a .311 career batting average, a .474 slugging percentage, and a .409 career on-base percentage. He was one of only two players from 1947-56 to have at least 125 steals while owning a slugging percentage of .425.
(Photo Credit: Getty)