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Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Position(s):
1B, 2B, 3B, OF, SS, LF, RF
Born:
January 31, 1919
Bats:
Right
Throws:
Right
Height:
5' 11"
Weight:
195 lbs
Major League Debut:
4-15-1947 with BRO
Allstar Selections:
1947 ROOK, 1949 MVP
Hall of Fame:
1962

"A life is not important," Jackie Robinson said, "except in the impact it has on other lives."

Jackie Robinson is not generally considered to be among the very greatest players in baseballhistory.  He holds no cherished records in the manner of a Hank Aaron or a Joe DiMaggio, and his career numbers fall far short of the statistical milestones by which we currently measure “greatness.”  But, as former Negro League star Buck O’Neill once observed, Robinson may not have been the best player of his era, but he was the right player for the task history set before him.  As such, Jackie Robinson is the pivotal figure in baseball’s narrative, and he is perhaps its greatest hero.  Only a man with Robinson’s singular mix of talent, tenacity, and temperament could have taken up the lonely task of breaking baseball’s color barrier.  No player either before or since has had to perform under the weight of such a great burden.  On one shoulder, Robinson bore the hopes and future aspirations of a people too long denied their share of the American promise; on the other, he endured the fierce scorn and violent enmity of those who preferred that baseball, and American life in general, remain a segregated affair.  That he rose to the challenges that stood before him and somehow managed to thrive under the intense pressure he faced every day he took the ballfield was an affirmation of America’s founding principle – the proposition that all men are indeed created equal.  Robinson's triumph, coming a full seven years before Rosa Parks’ defiant “sit,” can be seen as the first great victory of the modern civil rights movement.  Martin Luther King Jr, who followed Robinson’s exploits as a teenager, hailed him as “a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom… a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” Furthermore, Robinson's success paved the way for a new generation of superstars – Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Frank Robinson, to name but a few - who went on to revolutionize the game and help redefine American culture.

 

 Jackie RobinsonStill, Robinson’s arrival in the major leagues would have amounted to little more than empty symbolism were he not also a major force on the field.  When he burst onto the scene in that epochal rookie season of 1947, Robinson brought with him a new, aggressive style of play that turned the game on its ear.  After a first month of starts and stops, Robinson excelled throughout the remainder of his rookie campaign, displaying an almost unnatural ability to get on base.  And, once aboard, Robinson's baserunning skills made him one of the game's premier run-scorers, frequently enabling him to create runs all by himself.  He ended the season as the recipient of the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award, an honor that now bears his name.  Robinson captured the MVP title a mere two years later when he led the league in stolen bases and won the N.L. batting crown with a sterling .342 average.  He remained a perennial MVP candidate in the years that followed, and over the course of his 10-year career with Brooklyn, the Dodgers reached the World Series six times.  Robinson was a key veteran presence on the 1955 club that finally captured the only world championship the Dodgers ever won in Brooklyn.

Biography

The thing that makes Robinson’s accomplishments on the diamond all the more impressive is that, by all accounts, baseball was not even his strongest sport.  Born in 1919 into a poor, single-parent family in rural Georgia, Robinson was inspired by the athletic exploits of his older siblings.  His brother Mack, a silver medalist in the 1936 Olympics, encouraged Jackie to make the most out of his God-given natural ability.   After the Robinson family relocated to southern California, Jackie became a star high school athlete, earning varsity letters in basketball, football, baseball, and track.  He duplicated that feat as a standout football player at UCLA, before relocating to Hawaii to play semi-professional football with the Honolulu Bears.  Robinson planned to return to the mainland to further pursue his football career, but his plans were interrupted by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

 Drafted by the United States Army in 1942, Robinson was one of only a handful of black candidates to be accepted to Officers Candidate School at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he trained alongside heavyweight champion Joe Louis.  Upon graduating OCS as a second lieutenant, Robinson was transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, where he soon ran afoul of the local brass for refusing to move to the back of a desegregated Army bus. Though Robinson was within his rights to do so and committed no clear offense, he was brought under court-martial. He was eventually acquitted, but the lengthy proceedings prevented his deployment abroad.  Robinson received an honorable discharge in 1944 and, acting on the advice of an Army buddy, he subsequently tried out for and won a spot as a shortstop on the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.

 Robinson broke into black professional baseball shortly after Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey received the approval of Dodger management to begin scouting the Negro Leagues for “the right man.”  African-Americans had been unofficially banned from the American and National Leagues since the 1880s, but Rickey, a shrewd baseball man, saw in the Negro Leagues a goldmine of untapped talent.  Yet he recognized that the player he eventually chose to break that ban needed to possess the mental restraint and resiliency to endure the racist invectives and media scrutiny to which he would be subjected.  Robinson did enough in 47 games with the Monarchs to attract Rickey’s attention, and his .387 batting average and athletic pedigree further convinced Rickey to schedule an interview with the young infielder.  Rickey warned Robinson during their meeting of the abuse he unquestionably would face as the game’s first black player.  At the same time, the Dodger GM stipulated to Robinson that he had to agree not to fight back against his tormenters for a period of two years if he chose to accept that mantle.  Robinson accepted Rickey’s conditions, signing a contract on October 23, 1945 to play with the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate, the Montreal Royals.

 When Robinson joined the Royals for spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida, he was barred from staying with his white teammates at the team’s hotel, and many ballparks refused to host any games in which he was scheduled to play.  Although the fans in Montreal generally gave Robinson a warm reception at the team's home games, he was treated far more harshly on the road, especially in the Jim Crow South, where he was the target of a great deal of harsh verbal abuse.  Nevertheless, Robinson proved to be a box office smash, raising attendance wherever he played.  He also proved to be a sensation between the lines, batting .349 with 113 runs scored in 124 games over the course of the 1946 season.

 On April 10th of the following year, the Dodgers announced they had purchased Jackie Robinson’s contract from the Montreal Royals.  They also revealed that the 28-year-old former Negro League star would report to them immediately to begin the 1947 season as their starting first baseman. The announcement brought media and fan anticipation to a fever pitch, but the reaction of many major leaguers, including several Dodgers, was less than enthusiastic.  A group of Dodger players, led by 1946 MVP runner-up Dixie Walker, threatened to strike if Robinson were allowed to start; their sentiments were echoed by a number of other players, including virtually all of the St. Louis Cardinals team.  Dodgers manager Leo Durocher quelled the dissent within his own clubhouse by threatening that any player who refused to play with Robinson would be traded, and Major League Baseball backed up his claim by announcing that any player who chose to strike as a result of Robinson’s promotion would be suspended. 

Jackie Robinson made his major league debut amid this tense backdrop on April 15, 1947, batting second and playing first base before a near-capacity crowd at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.  Although he failed to get a hit in his first big-league game, Robinson displayed his ability to disrupt the opposing team's defense by using his speed to reach base on a throwing error and subsequently scoring the winning run in a 5-3 Brooklyn victory over the Boston Braves.           

Once the Dodgers left the relative security of Ebbets Field for their first extended road trip, Robinson was subjected to blistering attacks and almost constant harassment from all sides.  Death threats, by both mail and phone, became a daily nuisance, as did the vicious taunts from the grandstand.  The field itself offered little sanctuary, since opposing teams hurled a relentless stream of insults at Robinson, baserunners purposefully spiked him, and managers often threatened to fine pitchers who failed to throw at him.  Robinson, honoring the promise he made to Rickey during their initial meeting, did not respond in kind, choosing instead to take out his frustrations on the baseball and to wreak his own special brand of havoc on the basepaths.  By May, Robinson overcame his initial struggles, embarking on a 14-game hitting streak and establishing himself as a force at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths. 

The attacks on Robinson continued as the 1947 season progressed, although they diminished somewhat in volume as the Dodger first sacker gradually began to draw an ever-increasing amount of praise from his detractors for his all-around abilities.  With every hit and every stolen base, Robinson struck a blow against the notion that blacks could not compete on the same level as their white counterparts.  Furthermore, the example he set had far-ranging effects on American life in the years that followed. 

Robinson, though, was not completely alone in his fight against injustice and inequality at the major-league level.  Future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, who had himself felt the sting of racism as the game’s first Jewish star, voiced his support of Robinson.  When Greenberg’s Pittsburgh Pirates hosted the Dodgers at Forbes Field that spring, Greenberg encouraged the Dodger rookie to “stay in there” and “keep his head up.”  Dodgers captain Pee Wee Reese publicly supported his new teammate by putting his arm around Robinson's shoulder during a particularly horrific verbal assault directed at the beleaguered infielder one day.  Others in the Dodger clubhouse soon followed suit. Pitcher Ralph Branca convened a team meeting at which he urged his fellow players to get behind Robinson, pointing to him as a key to winning the pennant.  By the end of the year, Robinson had proven Branca right, leading the league in stolen bases, scoring 125 runs, and helping the Dodgers capture just their third National League pennant with his daring style of play.  Although Brooklyn subsequently lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in an all too familiar scenario, Robinson earned the National League's first Rookie of the Year Award for his accomplishments during the regular season.

The offseason that followed offered Robinson little respite, as he soon found himself in high demand as a speaker and as a performer, while simultaneously rehabbing an ankle injury.  Yet, Robinson managed to turn in another fine season in 1948, batting .296 and scoring over 100 runs.  His burden was lightened somewhat by the arrival of other black players, including the Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby and Satchel Paige.  In fact, Doby stole some of the spotlight from Robinson by excelling during Cleveland's World Series victory over the Boston Braves.  But all eyes were once again on Robinson the following year when he put together his finest season in the big leagues.  Dissatisfied with his hitting performance up to that point, Robinson sought out the advice of Hall of Famer George Sisler, who helped the righthanded hitting Dodger infielder modify his approach at the plate.  Sisler’s tutelage and Robinson's diligence paid huge dividends in 1949, with the latter raising his batting average from .296 to a lofty .342, thereby capturing the N.L. batting title, while also leading the league in stolen bases.  With over 200 hits, 122 runs scored, and 124 runs batted in, Robinson was named to his first All-Star Team.  He also outpolled Stan Musial for the N.L. MVP Award at season's end.  The Dodgers edged out St. Louis for the league championship, but they once again fell to the Yankees in the World Series..

During the early 1950s, Robinson improved upon his uncanny knack for getting on base and scoring runs, annually placing among the league leaders in batting average, on- base percentage, runs scored, and stolen bases.  Shifting to second base after the departure of Eddie Stanky at the conclusion of the 1948 campaign, Robinson played well in the field, teaming up with shortstop Pee Wee Reese to form one of the more effective double-play combinations in baseball history.  The Dodgers consequently emerged as one of the elite teams in baseball, coming within one game of advancing to the World Series in 1951 and winning the N.L. pennant in four of the next five years.  In the waning days of Robinson's career, as age and injuries began to catch up with him, the Dodgers stunned the sporting world by beating the seemingly invincible New York Yankees and capturing the 1955 World Championship.  After one more year in Brooklyn, Robinson was traded to the Dodgers’ hated rival, the New York Giants.  However, unbeknownst to the Dodgers, Robinson had already accepted an executive position at the Chock Full O’ Nuts company.  Rather than joining the Dodgers' fiercest foes, Robinson elected instead to retire from baseball.  He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.  The Dodgers, who left Brooklyn for Los Angeles following the 1957 season, retired Robinson's number 42 ten years later.

Although Robinson found himself in poor health throughout much of his retirement, struggling with the effects of diabetes most of the time, he remained a vibrant force in the American Civil Rights movement, participating in the historic March on Washington in 1963.  Already one of corporate America’s first black executives, he served as an executive board member with the NAACP, and he also co-founded the black-owned and operated Freedom National Bank.  Until Robinson died in 1972 at only 53 years of age, he remained an outspoken opponent of racism wherever he saw it, and he was a constant champion of human rights and equality.  He has been posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest honors our country can bestow on a private citizen.  On April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of his major-league debut, Robinson’s jersey number 42 was retired by every team in Major League Baseball, an honor that had never been accorded to any figure in any professional sport.

Jackie Robinson, whom Martin Luther King described as a legend and a symbol in his own time, has grown even more in stature since his passing, gaining general recognition as one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century.  As the first African-American star to play in the major leagues, Robinson helped break down walls of ignorance, intolerance, and inequality that previously separated blacks and whites for centuries.  His courage, determination, and breathtaking ability helped usher in a new era of American history, and his struggle brought the cause of civil rights to the forefront of American society.  Robinson once said that “a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”  When one considers the seismic social changes he helped bring about and the trail he helped blaze for those who followed him, then, by his own standards, Jackie Robinson’s was a life very well lived.

Related Links

Jackie Robinson Foundation Official Website
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Tagged:
1955 World Series, Branch Rickey, Brooklyn Dodgers, Color line, Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson, Kansas City Monarchs, Montreal Expos, NL MVP 1949, Negro Leagues, Rookie of the Year Award, Second baseman, WWII
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