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Jackie Robinson

The First Black Baseball Player on a Major League Team

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American professional baseball player Jackie Robinson (1919 - 1972) of the Brooklyn Dodgers, dressed in a road uniform, crouches by the base and prepares to catch a ball, 1951

Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Who Was Jackie Robinson?

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made history when he stepped onto the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ebbets Field as the first African American to play in a Major League Baseball game. The controversial decision to put a black man on a major league team prompted a barrage of criticism and initially led to Robinson's mistreatment by fans and fellow players alike. Robinson endured that discrimination and rose above it, going on to win Rookie of the Year in 1947 as well as the National League MVP Award in 1949. Hailed as a civil rights pioneer, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Robinson was also the first African American inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Dates: January 31, 1919 -- October 24, 1972

Also Known As: Jack Roosevelt Robinson

 

Childhood in Georgia

Jackie Robinson was the fifth child born to sharecropper parents Jerry Robinson and Mallie McGriff Robinson in Cairo, Georgia. His ancestors had worked as slaves on the same property that Jackie's parents farmed. Jerry left the family to look for work in Texas when Jackie was six months old, with the promise that he would send for his family once he was settled. But Jerry Robinson never returned. (In 1921, Mallie received word that Jerry had died, but could never substantiate that rumor.)

After struggling to keep the farm going by herself, Mallie realized it was impossible. She needed to find another way to support her family, but also felt it was no longer safe to stay in Georgia. Violent racial riots and lynchings of blacks were on the rise in the summer of 1919, especially in the southeastern states. Seeking a more tolerant environment, Mallie and several of her relatives pooled their money together to buy train tickets. In May 1920, when Jackie was 16 months old, they all boarded a train for Los Angeles.

 

The Robinsons Move to California

Mallie and her children moved into an apartment in Pasadena, California with her brother and his family. She found work cleaning houses and eventually earned enough money to buy her own house in a mostly-white neighborhood. The Robinsons soon learned that discrimination did not limit itself to the South. Neighbors shouted racial insults at the family and circulated a petition demanding that they leave. More alarming still, the Robinsons looked out one day and saw a cross burning in their yard. Mallie stood firm, refusing to leave her house.

With their mother away at work all day, the Robinson children learned to take care of themselves from an early age. Jackie's sister Willa Mae, three years older, fed and bathed him, and took him to school with her. Three-year-old Jackie played in the school sandbox for most of the day, while his sister peered out the window at intervals to check on him. Taking pity on the family, school authorities reluctantly allowed this unorthodox arrangement to continue until Jackie was old enough to enroll in school at the age of five.

Young Jackie Robinson managed to get himself into trouble on more than one occasion as a member of the "Pepper Street Gang." This neighborhood clique, made up of poor boys from minority groups, committed petty crimes and minor acts of vandalism. Robinson later credited a local minister with helping to get him off the streets and involved in more wholesome activities.

 

A Gifted Athlete

As early as first grade, Jackie became known for his athletic skills, with classmates even paying him with snacks and pocket change to play on their teams. Jackie welcomed the extra food, as the Robinsons never seemed to have quite enough to eat. He dutifully gave the money to his mother.

His athleticism became even more evident when Jackie reached middle school. A natural athlete, Jackie Robinson excelled at whatever sport he took up, including football, basketball, baseball, and track, later earning letters in all four sports while in high school.

Jackie's siblings helped instill in him a fierce sense of competition. Brother Frank gave Jackie a lot of encouragement and attended all of his sporting events. Willa Mae, also a talented athlete, excelled in the few sports that were available to girls in the 1930s. Mack, the third eldest, was a great inspiration to Jackie. A world-class sprinter, Mack Robinson competed in the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and came home with a silver medal in the 200-meter dash. (He had come in a close second to sports legend and teammate Jesse Owens.)

 

College Achievements

Upon graduation from high school in 1937, Jackie Robinson was sorely disappointed that he hadn't received a college scholarship, despite his astounding athletic ability. He enrolled at Pasadena Junior College, where he distinguished himself not only as star quarterback, but also as a high scorer in basketball and as a record-breaking long-jumper. Boasting a batting average of .417, Robinson was named Southern California's Most Valuable Junior College Player in 1938.

Several universities finally took notice of Jackie Robinson, now willing to offer him a full scholarship for completing his last two years of college. Robinson decided upon the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), mainly because he wanted to stay near his family. Unfortunately, the Robinson family suffered a devastating loss in May 1939 when Frank Robinson died from injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident. Jackie Robinson was crushed by the loss of his big brother and his greatest fan. To cope with his grief, he poured all of his energy into doing well at school.

Robinson was as successful at UCLA as he had been in junior college. He was the first UCLA student to earn letters in all four sports that he played -- football, basketball, baseball, and track and field, a feat he accomplished after only one year. At the beginning of his second year, Robinson met Rachel Isum, who soon became his girlfriend.

Still, Robinson was not satisfied with college life. He worried that despite getting a college education, he would have few opportunities to advance himself in a profession since he was black. Even with his tremendous athletic talent, Robinson also saw little chance for a career as a professional athlete because of his race. In March 1941, only months before he was to graduate, Robinson dropped out of UCLA.

Concerned about his family's financial welfare, Robinson found a temporary job as an assistant athletic director at a camp in Atascadero, California. He later had a brief stint playing on an integrated football team in Honolulu, Hawaii. Robinson returned home from Hawaii just two days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

 

Facing Racism in the Army

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, Robinson was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas, where he applied to Officers' Candidate School (OCS). Neither he nor any of his fellow black soldiers were allowed into the program. With the help of world heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis, also stationed at Fort Riley, Robinson petitioned for, and won, the right to attend OCS. Louis' fame and popularity no doubt helped the cause. Robinson was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1943.

Known for his talent on the baseball field, Robinson was approached to play on Fort Riley's baseball team. The team policy was to accommodate any of the other teams who refused to play with a black player on the field. Robinson would be expected to sit those games out. Unwilling to accept that condition, Robinson refused to play even one game.

Robinson was transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, where he faced more discrimination. Riding on an Army bus one evening, he was ordered to go to the back of the bus. Fully aware that the Army had recently outlawed segregation on any of its vehicles, Robinson refused. He was arrested and tried in a military court of law for insubordination, among other charges. The Army dropped its charges when no evidence could be found of any wrongdoing. Robinson was granted an honorable discharge in 1944.

Back in California, Robinson became engaged to Rachel Isum, who promised to marry him once she completed nursing school.

 

Playing in the Negro Leagues

In 1945, Robinson was hired as a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, a baseball team in the Negro Leagues. Playing major league professional baseball was not an option for blacks at that time, although it hadn't always been that way. Blacks and whites had played together in the early days of baseball in the mid-nineteenth century, until "Jim Crow" laws, which required segregation, were passed in the late 1800s. The Negro Leagues came into being in the early 20th century to accommodate the many talented black players who were shut out of Major League Baseball.

The Monarchs had a hectic schedule, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles by bus in a day. Racism followed the men wherever they went, as players were turned away from hotels, restaurants, and rest rooms simply because they were black. At one service station, the owner refused to let the men use the rest room when they stopped to get gas. A furious Jackie Robinson told the proprietor they would not buy his gas if he didn't allow them to use the rest room, persuading the man to change his mind. Following that incident, the team would not buy gas from anyone who refused to let them use the facilities.

Robinson had a successful year with the Monarchs, leading the team in batting and earning a spot in the Negro League's all-star game. Intent upon playing his best game, Robinson was unaware that he was being closely watched by baseball scouts from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

 

Branch Rickey and the "Great Experiment"

Dodgers president Branch Rickey, determined to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, was looking for the ideal candidate to prove that blacks had a place in the majors. Rickey saw Robinson as that man, for Robinson was talented, educated, never drank alcohol, and had played alongside whites in college. Rickey was relieved to hear that Robinson had Rachel in his life; he cautioned the ballplayer that he would need her support to get through the upcoming ordeal.

Meeting with Robinson in August 1945, Rickey prepared the player for the kind of abuse he would face as the lone black man in the league. He would be subjected to verbal insults, unfair calls by umpires, pitches intentionally thrown to hit him, and more. Off the field as well, Robinson could expect hate mail and death threats. Rickey posed the question: could Robinson deal with such adversity without retaliating, even verbally, for three solid years? Robinson, who had always stood up for his rights, found it difficult to imagine not responding to such abuse, but he realized how important it was to advancing the cause of civil rights. He agreed to do it.

Like most new players in the major leagues, Robinson started out on a minor league team. As the first black player in the minors, he signed with the Dodgers' top farm team, the Montreal Royals, in October 1945. Prior to the start of spring training, Jackie Robinson and Rachel Isum were married in February 1946 and headed to Florida for training camp two weeks after their wedding.

Enduring vicious verbal abuse at games -- from those in the stands and in the dugout -- Robinson nonetheless proved himself especially skilled at hitting and at stealing bases, and helped lead his team to victory at the Minor League Championship Series in 1946. Jackie Robinson ended the season as Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the International League.

Topping off Robinson's stellar year, Rachel gave birth to Jack Robinson, Jr. on November 18, 1946.

 

Robinson Makes History

On April 9, 1947, five days before the start of baseball season, Branch Rickey made the announcement that 28-year-old Jackie Robinson would play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The announcement came upon the heels of a difficult spring training. Several of Robinson's new teammates had banded together and signed a petition, insisting that they would rather be traded off the team than play with a black man. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher chastised the men, pointing out that a player as good as Robinson could very well lead the team to the World Series.

Robinson started out as first baseman; later he moved to second base, a position he held for the rest of his career. Fellow players were slow to accept Robinson as a member of their team. Some were openly hostile; others refused to speak to him or even sit near him. It didn't help that Robinson began his season in a slump, unable to make a hit in the first five games.

His teammates finally rallied to Robinson's defense after witnessing several incidents in which opponents verbally and physically assaulted Robinson. One player from the St. Louis Cardinals intentionally spiked Robinson's thigh so badly, he left a large gash, prompting outrage from Robinson's teammates. In another instance, players on the Philadelphia Phillies, knowing that Robinson had received death threats, held their bats up as if they were guns and pointed them at him. As unsettling as these incidents were, they served to unify the Dodgers as a cohesive team.

Robinson overcame his slump and the Dodgers went on to win the National League pennant. They lost the World Series to the Yankees, but Robinson performed well enough to be named Rookie of the Year.

 

A Career With the Dodgers

By the start of the 1949 season, Robinson was no longer obligated to keep his opinions to himself -- he was free to express himself, just as the other players were. Robinson now responded to the taunts of opponents, which initially shocked a public who had seen him as quiet and docile. Nonetheless, Robinson's popularity grew, as did his annual salary, which, at $35,000 a year, was more than any of his teammates were paid.

Rachel and Jackie Robinson moved to a house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where several neighbors in this mostly-white neighborhood were thrilled to be living near a baseball star. The Robinsons welcomed daughter Sharon into the family in January 1950; son David was born in 1952. The family later bought a house in Stamford, Connecticut.

Robinson used his prominent position to promote racial equality. When the Dodgers went on the road, hotels in many cities refused to allow blacks to stay in the same hotel as their white teammates. Robinson threatened that none of the players would stay at the hotel if all of them were not welcome, a tactic that often worked.

In 1955, the Dodgers once again faced the Yankees in the World Series. They had lost to them many times, but this year would be different. Thanks in part to Robinson's brazen base-stealing, the Dodgers won the World Series.

During the 1956 season, Robinson, now 37 years old, spent more time on the bench than on the field. When the announcement came that the Dodgers would be moving to Los Angeles in 1957, it came as no surprise that Jackie Robinson had decided it was time to retire. In the nine years since he had played his first game for the Dodgers, several more teams had signed on black players; by 1959, all of the Major League Baseball teams were integrated.

 

Life After Baseball

Robinson stayed busy after his retirement, accepting a position in community relations for the Chock Full O' Nuts company. He became a successful fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Robinson also helped to raise money to found the Freedom National Bank, a bank that primarily served minority populations, extending loans to people who might not otherwise have received them.

In July 1962, Robinson became the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He thanked those who had helped him earn that achievement -- his mother, his wife, and Branch Rickey.

Robinson's son, Jackie, Jr., was deeply traumatized after fighting in Vietnam and became a drug addict upon his return to the United States. He successfully fought his addiction, but tragically, was killed in a car accident in 1971. The loss took a toll on Robinson, who was already battling the effects of diabetes and appeared much older than a man in his fifties.

On October 24, 1972, Jackie Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1986 by President Reagan. Robinson's jersey number, 42, was retired by both the National League and the American League in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson's historic major league debut.

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