Breaking Barriers: The Jackie Robinson Edition

Jackie Robinson spent one season with the Montreal Royals before breaking the Major League color barrier | Courtesy of NY Daily News

 

"I think I can play in the big leagues. All I am asking for is the opportunity. If I fail, I'll step aside and try to so something else."  - Jackie Robinson1

Jackie Robinson, a man of courage, determination, and record-breaking events, was born on January 31, 1919, to a single mother who raised him along with four other siblings. This little boy grew up to change the views and opinions of African-Americans playing baseball in the Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson became the figure that would embody African-Americans competing in “a white-man’s game” and broke through that barrier of racism. Through the years growing up, Jackie competed against his older brother, Matthew Robinson, in whatever game they were playing. His older brother competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics in the 200-meter dash, winning a silver medal just behind Jesse Owens. Matthew was the person who inspired Jackie to pursue his talents and to dream big. That is exactly what younger brother Jackie Robinson did, despite the racial controversy that lay ahead.

Robinson became first to letter in four sports at UCLA | Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Jackie Robinson attended UCLA and became the first student athlete to win varsity letters in all four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. Unfortunately, in early 1941, just shy of graduation, Robinson left college “convinced that a college degree would not help a black man get a job during the Great Depression.”2 In the fall of 1941, Jackie moved to Honolulu, Hawaii to play football for a Semi-Professional team called the Honolulu Bears. Sadly, Robinson’s season was cut short due to his enlistment into the Army for World War II. He served in the Army from 1942 to 1944, ranking as high as 2nd Lieutenant. After being honorably discharged from the Army, Jackie Robinson’s life changed the world forever through the sport that he least excelled in, baseball.

Jackie Robinson signing with Branch Ricky of the Brooklyn Dodgers | Courtesy of Appalachian History

The baseball world dealt with its own segregation views. “Segregated baseball showed the great injustice of Jim Crow, yet the Negro Leagues (the generic name for the organized black major leagues from 1920 through the 1940’s) also provided opportunities for black players, executives, and towns to thrive in unequal United States.”3 Jim Crow laws were laws that segregated facilities into white and African-American, and were common throughout the South. The game of baseball in the South only allowed White participants, players, and fans. African-American players, fans, and owners were denied and treated unjustly because of the color of their skin. “Tradition, based on deep-seated racial views of African Americans as inferior in sport, indeed, in all aspects of life, turned out to be the biggest barrier to integration.”4 Jackie Robinson broke these barriers with the help of a man named Branch Ricky.

In 1943, Branch Ricky was the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ricky believed in Jackie Robinson and knew how talented he was. He wanted Robinson to be out there on the field with other Major League Baseball players, where he belonged, with the best. Branch Ricky was determined to erase the color line in baseball, and he knew Jackie Robinson would be the perfect candidate for this goal. “At the historic interview of August 28, 1945, Robinson expected to be signed to a Brown Dodgers contract but Ricky soon showed his cards. He wanted Robinson to sign with the white Dodgers and become the man who would erase the national pastime’s color line.”5 The famous dialog between Branch Ricky and Jackie Robinson started with Robinson asking Ricky a question that foreshadowed the type of player he would be in the years to come: “‘Mr. Rickey,’ asked Robinson, “do you want a ballplayer who’s not afraid to fight back?’ No, Replied the Dodgers’ president, ‘I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.’”6

Jackie Robinson poses for a batting portrait during the 1948 season in Brooklyn | Courtesy of Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images

A few months later, in February 1946, Robinson and his newlywed wife, Rachel Isum, his college sweetheart, traveled to Daytona Beach, Florida for the Royal’s spring training camp. “Staring down Jim Crow at Daytona Beach’s City Island Ball Park on March 17, 1946, in an exhibition between the Royals and their big league affiliate, the Dodgers, Robinson became the first black player since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1888 to take the field against a major league team.”7 Although Robinson was known for being great at baseball, he had a slow start. During camp, when Jackie Robinson did not compete at the standard being set for him, commentators began to question his credentials and accused him of having special privileges. Without being discouraged, Robinson played the game he loved with respect and humility.

Despite how poorly Jackie Robinson was treated because of the color of his skin, he did not let other people’s opinions factor into his mindset. Teams did not want to play the Montreal Royals, because they had an African-American in the line-up. Players also tried to hurt Robinson when he was playing on the field. “In Buffalo, New York, Bison’s players spiked him as they slid into second base, knocking him out of the lineup for three weeks.”8 On April 15, 1947, playing the Boston Braves, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in an official major league baseball game. The Dodgers would go on to win the National League pennant, and Jackie Robinson was named Rookie of the Year in the Major Leagues.

MARCH 31: (L-R) Rachel Robinson, Leonard Coleman, President of the National League and Jerry Colangelo pose during the ceremony to retire Jackie Robinson’s number on March 31, 1998 | Courtesy of Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty Images

In the next two years, baseball began to slowly integrate; the pressure on Robinson began to ease up. Jackie Robinson went on to be known as one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He remained steadfast in his pursuit for justice and civil rights. He wrote letters to Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson thanking them for their support of civil rights.  On October 24, 1972, Jackie Robinson died of a heart attack, at the age of fifty-three. His jersey number 42 was retired in 1997. In 2004, Major League Baseball proclaimed April 15th annual Jackie Robinson Day, where the players began to wear the number 42 in his honor. The tradition continues to this day.

  1. Thomas W. Zeiler, Jackie Robinson and Race in America: A brief history with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), 80.
  2. Thomas W. Zeiler, Jackie Robinson and Race in America: A brief history with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), 3.
  3. Thomas W. Zeiler, Jackie Robinson and Race in America: A brief history with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), 6.
  4. Thomas W. Zeiler, Jackie Robinson and Race in America: A brief history with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), 9.
  5. Thomas W. Zeiler, Jackie Robinson and Race in America: A brief history with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), 17.
  6. Thomas W. Zeiler, Jackie Robinson and Race in America: A brief history with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), 17.
  7. Thomas W. Zeiler, Jackie Robinson and Race in America: A brief history with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), 20.
  8. Thomas W. Zeiler, Jackie Robinson and Race in America: A brief history with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2014), 21.
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59 Comments

  • This was a very well-written article about a legendary figure in baseball history. The Jackie Robertson Story may well have been the mark of true change within this country. It was his dedication to doing what he loved no matter how much hatred, pain, and flagrant disrespect he would come across that is so inspiring. It was a heavy weight to carry, certainly, but Jackie ran with it and played just as good if not better than the other major league players.

  • I’ve always known about Jackie Robinson and him making history of being the first African American to play baseball with white people. I then saw the movie “42” and it made me more interested in learning more about him. I like all of the information that was presented in this article and how it was written. The title worked well as well, knowing it was a white mans game. Its sad that he died at such a young age of 53, he made literal history being the first African American baseball player to play with all white men. He will always be a Legend in the game of baseball and making history that changed the way the game was played.

  • Nice article. Jackie Robinson was a civil rights hero. He was the first black man to play in the major leagues and was a trailblazer for other black athletes across all sports. It is sad that Jackie had to deal with violence and hatred throughout the first years of his career. We have changed a lot since the 1940s but we still have a ways to go to achieve full equality. I was sad to learn that Jackie died of a heart attack in his fifties. He was so young.

  • I’ve always known about Jackie Robinson because I’ve played baseball since I was 4 and I know all the greats such as Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, etc. Plus seeing the movie “42” it all pieced the puzzle together, I knew that Robinson never finished college to pursue football in Hawaii. Also that he died at the age of 53 due to a heart attack but nonetheless he was an icon in to the game of baseball and will forever be remembered as the first African American to play baseball with the white men. He changed history forever and the way the game of baseball has evolved and grown.

  • I have heard about Jackie Robinson before because of my dad. There are many Jackie Robinson fans and I understand why. He has many great accomplishments despite the obstacle that he has faced. He was an extremely talented baseball player during the time that baseball was for “all whites.” It is sad that he passed away at a young age.

  • Initially I had only basic knowledge of Jackie Robinson like that he played in the league during high racial tension times. This article helped me get a stronger grasp of how difficult times actually were, and how much more significant his achievements were. The ability to not be afraid in the face of adversity is something that Jackie Robinson has made clear in history, despite being discriminated against, Jackie Robinson still did his best and continued to till he retired.

  • I love how informative this article was considering I knew very little about Robinson but not about the struggles he faced to be respected years down the road. I appreciate people who break down barriers from other who don’t want them using their full potential. I give Robinson all my respect for fighting for his rights and many others to follow. He opened doors for many fighting for their civil rights and changing the world of an “all white-man baseball game.” His life may have been cut short but he’ll always be remembered.

  • I’m a big fan of Jackie Robinson as a person and a ball player, so this article really hits “home” for me (pun intended). The article does a great job of adding on all of Jackie’s accomplishments all while explaining the obstacles that he faced. I would of appreciated a little more detail about why he was dishonorably discharged but the article is still great without. Jackie Robinson’s story is a testimony to the strength of will and this writer does a great job of capturing that strength. Its stories like Jackie’s that must keep getting passed on so our society today and tomorrow will learn to over come adversity.

  • When I saw the movie “42,” I Immediately wanted to get to know all about Jackie Robinson. This article Is a great informative piece about the talented baseball player. The title also fits the article perfectly, since baseball was unfortunately an “all white-man baseball game.” As I continued reading the article, I never knew that Robinson did not finish college and how he moved to hawaii to play football. I also learned that he past away at such a young age, which was 53. There will never be a player that could do what Robinson has done, his legacy will live on forever.

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