Jackie Robinson: Born to Change the Game and the World

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 Robinson at UCLA, Maurice Terrell, LOOK magazine, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1954, Photo by Bob Sandberg, Look photographerRestoration by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“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:

Stick with Love: Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 2021, what ode can we write, what words can we say that will adequately honor the legacy of civil rights activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?  

We can talk about the basic facts of his life– that he was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia and was descended from ministers and farmers, that he attended Morehouse College in the tradition of his father and maternal grandfather, that he earned his doctorate at Boston College and married Coretta Scott in 1953.

But it all seems inadequate when compared to what he really meant to history.

We can remember that moment in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama– where King was serving as the pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church– when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and was arrested. This was the second incident of its kind and the catalyzing event that led to the 365-day Montgomery Bus Boycott.

And it was this moment that brought him from a very gifted pastor to a global symbol of the fight for equality and civil rights.

We can stop and ponder what it meant to walk to work or to the grocery store or to church, regardless of the distance for one full year.  That meant getting up early and staying up late and enduring threats along the way.  

King said of the boycott, “I want it to be known that we’re going to work with grim and bold determination to gain justice on the buses in this city. And we are not wrong.… If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.”

Of course King was not wrong, the courts moved to end segregation of the buses in Montgomery,  and in the backwards glance of history, it is so easy to see the glorious change this moment brought to the world, and so easy to forget what he and others went through to get there.  King was arrested and his house was bombed during the boycott, and as we know, he would go on to pay larger and larger prices for his activism including surviving a knife attack, a total of 29 arrests and eventually, he would pay the ultimate price.

And through it all, he decided, as he said in 1967, to stick with love, “And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems…and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.”

From the sit-ins and non-violent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in April of 1963 to his iconic “I have a dream” speech given at the March on Washington in August of that same year, King’s rhetoric and calls to action inspired a generation to no longer quietly acquiesce to the segregation and inequality of the past, but to fight for freedom from oppression.

At the March on Washington, he said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

An amazing video of this speech can be seen here

Had he lived, Dr. King would have celebrated his 92nd birthday this week, but sadly, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39.  He once beautifully wrote:

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

I believe that despite all of the ways in which progress has just been too slow and systemic racism has gone on for far too long, that he would still, despite everything “stick with love.”

For more on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., visit these resources: