The last day of January each year marks the birth of one of the most influential athletes of all time, Jackie Robinson. Though his life was short– he died at the age of 53– his contributions to sports and his courage in being the first to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball in particular are enormous. Robinson’s talents and work ethic go well beyond sports, however, he was also one of the first African American vice presidents in a major corporation.
Born in Georgia into a family of sharecroppers, Jackie was the youngest of five children and just about a year after his birth, his father left the family and Jackie moved with his mother to Pasadena, California. Jackie’s older brothers were also incredibly accomplished and athletic and in fact, his older brother, Mack (Matthew), was a silver medalist at the 1936 Summer Olympics. Mack broke the Olympic record for the 200 meter run in 1936, but still came in second to famed runner, Jesse Owens.
Jackie was a star athlete at UCLA where ironically according to Wikipedia, baseball was his “worst” sport. While in college, he won varsity letters in baseball, football, basketball and track. After spending time in the military during World War II and playing for various other leagues including the Negro baseball leagues and an international league, Jackie was signed by Ricky Branch, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers to first play for the Montreal Royals with the hope that he would be called up to play for the Dodgers after his first season.
He ended up playing one season in 1946 with the Montreal Royals before playing his first official major league game with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. It is interesting to note that while Jackie Robinson is a household name, over in the American League at the exact same time, African American player, Larry Doby was also breaking the color barrier by playing for the Cleveland Indians. Doby started about eleven weeks after Robinson and thus was the second African American to play major league baseball and somehow has been forgotten by history. But Doby and Robinson helped each other and reportedly talked on the phone often about how to endure the criticism and harassment they each received.
Speaking about Ricky Branch on April 15, 1947, New York Times sportswriter, Arthur Daly said at the time, “he…has a ball club whose new first baseman is making a bit of history. That young man is Jackie Robinson, the first Negro in modern times to get a chance to become a big-leaguer.”
Later in the article, Daly mentions the “deft manner” that Ricky slid Jackie into the line up without trying to draw attention to him.
“It is merely an attempt to lighten the pressure on Robinson’s shoulders. In like fashion the Mahatma [Ricky Branch] waited until the Montreal Royals were in Panama before he ordered that Jackie be switched to first base. Yet nothing actually can lighten that pressure, and Robbie realizes it full well. There is no way of disguising the fact that he is not an ordinary rookie and no amount of pretense can make it otherwise.”
The pressure on Jackie to endure the taunting and protesting was immense, and that is in addition to the extraordinary pressure to play the game well.
And of course there were supporters and opposers, and as pioneers always do, Jackie’s presence in the league not only challenged the game itself, but helped to bring change to all of the businesses associated with the league like the segregated hotels, training facilities and restaurants that baseball teams used. It was an immensely large burden to bear, but Jackie persisted and changed so many things.
He famously said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
An interesting fact that is often left out of historical discussions of this event is that Jackie brought in the crowds, and he also brought in a more integrated audience to baseball. According to Wikipedia, when “Robinson made his major league debut at the relatively advanced age of 28 at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, more than 14,000 of whom were black.”
And Jackie continued to draw in the crowds throughout his spectacular sports career.
What I really found interesting about Jackie was his dedication to the game and to improving his performance. He worked tirelessly with Hall of Famer “Gorgeous George” Sisler in 1949 to improve his batting.
Jackie’s baseball accolades are nearly too long to list, he earned the Rookie of Year Award for his performance in 1947 (awarded in 1948), was named Most Valuable Player in 1949 and to the All Star Team among many other awards both before and after these years including in 1955 when the Dodgers won the World Series and his induction as the first African American Player in the baseball Hall of Fame.
All in all, his major league career spanned 10 years, and when he retired in 1956, he took an executive position with Chock full ‘o Nuts as the vice president of personnel where he worked until 1964. He pursued many business and political interests and was also the first African American to serve as a news analyst for the major networks commenting on baseball.
Jackie, along with his brothers, suffered from diabetes at a time when the medications and treatments were not sufficient to extend his life. He died early, in 1972, from complications of diabetes and heart disease.
The greatest quote about Jackie’s life in my opinion came from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he described Jackie as, “… a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
Cheers to you Jackie Robinson on your 102nd birthday, thank you for all that you contributed to our world.
Here are some resources to help you learn more about Jackie Robinson:
- Wikipedia: Jackie Robinson
- Major League Baseball: Martin Luther King Jr. and Jackie Robinson: Friends and civil rights icons
- New York Times: Play Ball! SPORTS OF THE TIMES, April 15, 1947