Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson (January 31, 1919 – October 24, 1972) was the first African-American player in modern major league baseball. His debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 ended approximately 60 years of baseball segregation.
Robinson, the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper, was not only a baseball player. In high school, he played shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, and guard on the basketball team. He was also a member of the tennis team and the track and field squad and won awards in the broad jump. In junior college, he played basketball, football, and baseball, and participated in the broad jump. Transferring to nearby University of California at Los Angeles, he became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track.
In 1945, Robinson joined the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. The president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, began to scout Robinson, who played shortstop and had a batting average of .387. Rickey eventually selected him from a list of promising African-American players and assigned him to the Montreal Royals (the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Triple-A farm club) as a prelude to bringing him to the Dodgers. Rickey told Robinson he was looking for a Negro who had “guts enough not to fight back” when faced with the inevitable race baiting that would occur. Rickey signed him with the Dodgers six days before the start of the 1947 season. On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his debut before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, 14,000 of whom were black.
During his first season with the Dodgers, Robinson encountered racism from fans and players, including from his own teammates. Before Robinson arrived for his first season, some Dodger players insinuated they would sit out rather than play alongside Robinson. The brewing mutiny ended when Dodger management took a stand for Robinson. Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, ” 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.”
On their first road trip, Robinson was heckled by fans in Cincinnati, Ohio during pre-game infield practice. Pee Wee Reese, the captain of the team, went over to Robinson, engaged him in conversation, and put his arm around his shoulder in a gesture of support which silenced the crowd. When other teams, notably the St. Louis Cardinals, threatened to strike if Robinson played, National League President Ford Frick let it be known that they would be suspended. Robinson handled the racial verbal and even physical abuse with a calm dignity that played a large role in helping whites to reassess their attitudes.
Although Robinson played every game of his rookie season at first base, he spent most of his career as a second baseman. He had a .311 career batting average, a .409 career on-base percentage, and substantially more walks (740) than strikeouts (291). Robinson led the league in fielding in 1948, 1950 and 1951. He had 197 steals during his career, including an almost incredible 19 times to home base.
In 1947, Robinson won The Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award and the first MLB Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, he won the National League MVP Award—the first black player to do so. Robinson played on six World Series teams and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He earned six consecutive All-Star Game nominations and won several other awards during his career.
Robinson retired from baseball on January 5, 1957. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility, and became the first African-American so honored. In 1965, Robinson served as an analyst for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts, the first black person to do so. From 1957 to 1964 Robinson was the vice president for personnel at “Chock full o’Nuts”; he was the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation. He chaired the NAACP’s million-dollar Freedom Fund Drive in 1957, and served on their board until 1967. In 1964 he became one of six national directors for Nelson Rockefeller’s Republican presidential campaign and later became special assistant for community affairs when Rockefeller was re-elected governor of New York in 1966. In 1970, Robinson established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for families with low incomes.
On June 4, 1972, the Dodgers retired his uniform number 42, and on April 15, 1997, the 50-year anniversary of his debut, Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s jersey number 42 across all MLB teams in recognition of his accomplishments in a ceremony at Shea Stadium.
Peter Dreier, writing on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, wrote in Tikkun Magazine:
… the dismantling of baseball’s color line was a triumph of social protest in the pre-King era… …the Negro press, civil rights groups, and progressive whites waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball that involved demonstrations, boycotts, political maneuvering, and other forms of pressure that would gain greater currency the following decade. Martin Luther King once told Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, ‘You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job.” [Campanella, half Italian and half Black, joined the Dodgers one season after Jackie Robinson. His career was tragically cut short in 1958 when he was paralyzed in an automobile accident.]
Jackie Robinson died at age 53 from complications of heart disease and diabetes.