Years ago, when I became interested in the story of Jackie Robinson, I wondered what must have been going through his mind when he took the field in his first game in Major League Baseball.
What he was doing, unfortunately, to this point in time was unprecedented. African American players had been banned from the game until April 15, 1947. To become the first player to kick down this wall, Robinson had to have determination and perseverance to see it through. Because he did, baseball rosters began to reflect change.
Throughout history, baseball has been in a number of positions to affect social change in dramatic ways. In 1947, baseball began something it would take years for the rest of the nation to catch up to — integration.
But who was Jackie Robinson? Robinson was born in 1919 in the rural South. Less than six months after his birth, Robinson’s father left the family never to return. Robinson’s mother packed up her five children and moved to California in 1920.
Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College where his athletic skills were showcased. He was accepted into UCLA and became the first athlete to ever letter in four sports — baseball, basketball, track and football. He built a reputation as being unwilling to allow anyone to insult him over his skin color.
Robinson was drafted into the Army following the attack on Pearl Harbor. And, in the Army, he found himself facing another race-based situation. Robinson faced court-martial over an incident involving himself and a white officer. He held his ground and, in the end, all charges against Robinson were dismissed. On Nov. 28, 1944, he was released from the Army because of a football injury.
He found his way to baseball the next year, playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Robinson was rumored to have not fit in with the harder-living members of his team. Despite those ups and downs, Robinson excelled on the field. In his only season with the team, Robinson had recorded stats of a .387 batting average with 5 HR, 23 RBI and 13 stolen bases.
In 1945, an event happened that would set the course for Jackson’s historic moment. Happy Chandler succeeded the late Kennesaw Mountain Landis as baseball commissioner. Chandler, when asked about African American players in the game, said that if black soldiers could fight and die in the war overseas, then they could play baseball at home.
Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey saw an opportunity. Under the guise of fielding his own Negro League team, Rickey began to scout talented black athletes. He was looking for someone who would be able to play but would also be able to withstand the racial backlash that would undoubtedly follow.
For Robinson, this was an opportunity. “I felt unhappy and trapped. If I left baseball, where could I go, what could I do to earn enough money to help my mother and to marry Rachel?,” Robinson asked. “The solution to my problem was only days away in the hands of a tough, shrewd, courageous man called Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers.”
As a result, Rickey found Robinson. The two had a conversation in 1945 with Rickey telling Robinson he was looking for a player with the courage not to fight against what was happening to him on the field. Robinson agreed to that. One of the factors in the decision for Rickey was the way that Robinson held his composure during his court martial hearing.
In 1946, Robinson became a member of the Montreal Royals, the top team in the Dodgers’ minor league system. Robinson made a strong case for playing in the majors by hitting .349 with 113 runs scored to lead the International League.
Then came the day that started the change for the sport of baseball. On April 15, 1947, Robinson stepped on the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He didn’t get a hit in his first game, but he scored the game’s winning run. Immediately, he demonstrated that he was as talented as the other players on the field.
He played the season at first base (the only position open that year in the Dodgers’ lineup) and faced incredible racism and odds. Robinson hit .297 with 12 home runs, 48 RBI and a league-leading 29 stolen bases. He was named baseball’s first-ever rookie of the year.
Robinson’s entry to the team was not without conflict. Some members of team wanted Robinson gone. Others began to embrace him. Pee Wee Reese, the shortstop for that Dodgers team, described Robinson this way, “To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
At the start of the 1949 season, Rickey told Robinson that the condition about not fighting back was over. Robinson now had the chance to fight for his rights and make statements against racism. He made a statement on and off the field. In the process, Robinson had one of the best seasons of his career. He hit .342 with 16 home runs, 124 RBI and 37 SB and was named National League MVP.
In World Series play (1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956), Robinson collected 32 hits with 2 home runs, 12 RBI and 6 stolen bases.
After a decade in Brooklyn, Robinson was traded to the Giants in 1956. He retired a month later and never took the field for the Giants. With his baseball career over, Robinson turned to working in business and politics. He died of a heart attack on October 1972 at the age of 53.
Robinson was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962. Major League Baseball honored Robinson in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of his first game. His number was retired on all teams (although players wearing the number at the time are allowed to keep it until they retire.) He was also named the baseball’s All-Century Team in 2000.
Robinson described his life this way, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Sources: The Negro Leagues Book, ESPN Classic, Baseball Encyclopedia, baseball-reference.com