Jackie Robinson: A Life of Impact

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Jackie Robinson

The life as well as the Major League Baseball career of Jackie Robinson during the Civil Rights Movement opened doors and had an impact for the future generations of African Americans to find equality in Major League Baseball organizations.  When Robinson agreed to wear the number 42 jersey for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15th, 1947, he was the first man to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.  Not only was this an event that was eagerly awaited in baseball history, but also a significant event in the history of racial equality in the United States of America.

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            Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia to a sharecropper named Jerry Robinson and his wife Mallie.  He was the youngest of five children.  After moving to Florida as an infant, his father abandoned his family.  His mother Mallie Robinson moved her family to Pasadena, California to an all white community.  The Robinson family became victims of prejudice and discrimination almost immediately.  Mallie Robinson was strong woman who refused to move, instead, she taught her children to be careful of their environment without losing their sense of dignity.  From his mother, Jackie Robinson learned the meaning of his African American heritage at a young age, listening to family slave stories of how relatives were treated by their masters.  She also taught him that when the slaves were given their freedom, many were afraid to live free because they knew no other way of life.

            As a boy, Robinson belonged to “The Pepper Street Gang” which was a group of poor black, Japanese, and Mexican children.  The object of the group was friendship; they played sports together and helped each other deal with being deprived of the advantages given to the white children of Pasadena.  An example of one of these advantages was that white children could swim in the local municipal pool everyday, and black children could only use the pool on Tuesdays.    When “The Pepper Street Gang” became resentful against the white children, Robinson’s mother made him quit.  She said, “It didn’t take guts to be in a group; rather it took courage and intelligence to be willing to be different.”(Allen)  Robinson began breaking barriers at a much younger age than most realize.

            Robinson was a sports star at John Muir High School and Pasadena Junior College.  Later Robinson enrolled at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) where Robinson became the first four-sport letterman (baseball, football, basketball & track) in UCLA history (Encarta).  After just two years Robinson decided to quit college because he felt that even with a degree he couldn’t succeed in a white man’s society.

            The next major move that Robinson made was to join a professional football team in Hawaii called the Honolulu Bears for one season.  Two days after the season ended, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Robinson joined the United States Army in May of 1942.  It did not take Robinson long to learn about the “Jim Crow Army” in which white soldiers had advantages that the black soldiers didn’t.  One example of this discrimination is that qualified African Americans were not permitted to enter the Officer’s Candidate Program which in was located in Fort Riley in the 1940’s.  Another example of discrimination that the white military personal were given the better equipment; and what was left went to the African-American personal.  After joining the Army football team, Robinson experienced discrimination aimed directly at him, because of his color he was sent home on leave because the Army team was going to play the University of Missouri and they threatened to cancel the game because they didn’t want to play a team with a black person on it. He quit the team and transferred to Fort Hood, Texas.

It was in Fort Hood, Texas that Robinson became known for a famous racial incident.  A bus driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the military bus.  Robinson refused because Army regulations barred racial discrimination on any vehicle operating on base.  Robinson was arrested for insubordination, but later at a court-martial hearing was acquitted and given an honorable discharge from the Army.

            Although Robinson may have had more potential in another sport, he knew the best chance for black athletes to earn a living was baseball.  So, in 1945 Robinson began his professional career in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs.  In 1946, Robinson signed to the minor league Montreal Royals.  Robinson was accepted in Montreal, in fact he was a star, and after just one season was called up to the major leagues.

            When the ballplayers from the Negro League heard Robinson was going to be signed by a Major League Baseball team some of them expressed concern because he was chosen even though he had less than a year of professional baseball experience with the Negro League.  Others thought Robinson was chosen as a test case because he would fail, this would prove black players did not really belong in Major League Baseball.  Still other Negro League players were happy and supported Robinson. Roy Campanella who had played baseball for 10 years was one such player, he said; “I think it was jealousy (Houston Chronicle).” Campanella felt Robinson had talent and deserved to play for the Dodgers.

Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers decided to challenge the league’s whites-only color barrier, he chose Jackie Robinson for this serious challenge, which Rickey knew would be met with fierce resistance from a great deal of players and fans alike. It was going to be an experiment, an experiment that Rickey and Robinson were going to take on together.  On April 15th, 1947 at the age 27, Robinson became the first black player to compete in Major League Baseball during the 20th century.

            One of the first acts of discrimination against Robinson after signing with the Dodgers was when he was on his way from New York to spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida.  He had a layover in New Orleans before continuing to Daytona.  During the layover Robinson was told that he had been bumped from the plane by white passengers.  Robinson became upset but stayed in control as to not call attention to himself.  The next scheduled plane did not leave until the next day, so he spent the night at a “colored” motel close by the airport.  The next day Robinson was bumped again twice in Pensacola, Florida.  Robinson ended up finishing the trip to Daytona by bus. Breaking the barrier was very difficult; Robinson was subjected to verbal abuse and racial slurs from both players and fans. Fans wore mops on their heads mocking Robinson, they also hollered for him to carry their bags and shine their shoes (Houston Chronicle).

 A particularly abusive situation took place on April 22, 1947, Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies encouraged his team to call Robinson a “nigger” from their bench, telling him continually to “go back to the jungle”(Wikipedia).  When the verbal abuse didn’t intimidate Robinson opposing teams threw pitches at his head, spit on him as he slid into the bases, and tried to injure him with the spikes on the baseball shoes.  Eventually, Robinson received anonymous death threats that warned him not to continue to play or else.

            Rickey, tried to downplay the breaking of the color barrier in an effort to not draw as much attention to Robinson, saying,

“I did not employ a Negro because he was a Negro, nor did I have in mind at all doing something for the Negro race, or even bringing up the issue. I simply wanted to win a pennant for the Brooklyn Dodgers and I wanted the best human beings I could find to help me win it.” (Houston Chronicle)

Rickey’s strategy failed to help Robinson at that time. White Major League players continued to speak out against Robinson.   Cleveland Indians ace pitcher, Bob Feller, was quoted as saying, “Robinson never would be able to hit big-league pitching because his shoulders were not constructed like white players.” Boston infielder, Alvin Dark said, “Negroes don’t think as quick as whites.”  (Houston Chronicle)

            The discrimination continued in May of 1947, when the Cardinals planned a strike in protest of Robinson’s presence in St. Louis.  Ford Frick, President of the National League said he would suspend any player who took place in the strike.  “They will be suspended and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years,” Frick said, “This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right to play as another.”(West)

Initially, Robinson’s teammates taunted him as well; they threatened to boycott playing if he was on the roster.  The boycott was led by Dixie Walker, but was supported by other teammates such as Tommy Brown, Eddie Miksis, Carl Furillo, Peter Reiser, Tommy Tatum,  Eddie Stackey, Dan Bankhead, and  Bobby Bragdon. The Dodgers manager, Branch Rickey told these ringleader players they could go play for a different team if they weren’t happy, but Robinson was going to play. Robinson did have support from one teammate, that was Pee Wee Reese who was a Kentucky-born shortstop, and later the two became close friends.

Being silent and concentrating on baseball was very difficult for Robinson at times, it took a great deal of inner strength to continue playing baseball as the only black man in the Major League. Robinson was told by the commissioner of baseball Albert Chandler that he could not acknowledge insults or retaliate in anyway because the first black Major League ballplayer would have enough against him without adding fuel to the fire. To spite his fiery temper Robinson never made any move to retaliate.

            To Robinson’s amazement, the barrier began to slowly breakdown, when the other teams couldn’t rattle him, they turned on his teammates with insults about having a black teammate.  During a game against the Phillies, Dodger Eddie Stankey had watched Robinson be insulted one to many times and screamed, “Listen, you yellow-bellied cowards, why don’t you yell at someone who can answer back!” (West)  The strength to turn the other cheek and remain silent; as well as his abilities on the baseball field had earned Robinson the respect of his teammates on the Brooklyn Dodgers.

            By the end of his rookie year, Robinson said this about the season, I had started the season as a lonely man, often feeling like a black Don Quixote tilting at a lot of white windmills, I ended it feeling like a member of a solid team.  The Dodgers were a championship team because all of us had learned something. I had to learn how to exercise self-control, to answer insults, violence, and injustice with silence, and I had learned how to earn the respect of my teammates.  They had learned that it’s not skin color but talent and ability that counts. Maybe even bigots had learned that, too. (West)

Having the respect of his teammates and admiration of his abilities as a Major League ballplayer, Robinson came out on top, playing for the Dodgers until 1956.  Through the adversity he led the National League in stolen bases, helped the Dodgers win the pennant in 1947.  During this same year Robinson was named rookie of the year in the major leagues.  This award would later be renamed in his honor.   In 1962 Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame; he was the first black player to receive this honor.

Robinson’s overall talent placed him in the position of being among the best players of his era, regardless of race.  His career batting average was.317, with the majority of is non-hitting at bats being walks rather than strikeouts. He had 137 career homeruns with 734 runs batted in, not leaving his teammates on base very often.  Robinson played several defensive positions including 1st base, 3rd base and outfield extremely well.  He was very aggressive as a base runner, especially stealing home quite often. When on base, Robinson’s physical presence would intimidate the opposing pitchers, catchers, and middle infielders causing them to lose their concentration.  Robinson is also remembered as a fierce competitor because he never gave up on a game even if his team was losing.

            Because of Robinson’s courage, his jersey, number 42 was retired by the Dodgers on June 4th, 1972.  He was further honored when all Major League Baseball teams retired jersey number 42 in 1997 which was the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut.  April 15th of every year is now declared “Jackie Robinson Day” in all major league baseball parks.

            In 1947, life in America was segregation; there were separate schools for blacks and whites, separate restaurants, separate hotels, separate drinking fountains and separate baseball leagues.  Before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to Montgomery, Alabama, before Brown vs. Board of Education, and before Martin Luther King, Jr. was very well known.  Jackie Robinson, one man, had the guts to slowly chip away at the color barrier that separated black from white so that other African Americans could join Major League Baseball without the discrimination he faced.

“He changed the sport and he changed the attitude of a lot of people in this country. When I think of Jackie Robinson, I think of all the people who fought and how fortunate a lot of us are especially the minority guys, to be able to play in the major leagues and the impact people of color have today.  I mean, you knew it was going to happen, sooner or later, but being the first of anything is always the toughest.”

 Said Giants Manager Dusty Baker (Allen). Dusty Baker was also an African American who played for the Dodgers from 1976-83.

Robinson opened the door for African Americans to play Major League Sports.   The initial impact was slow; in 1948 Larry Doby joined the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first African American to play for the American League.  The door stayed open, slowly eroding the color barrier for other African Americans. In 1948 Roy Campanelia also began his baseball career with the Cleveland Indians. In 1949 Monte Irvin signed with the New York Giants, and by 1950 other great African American baseball players like Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and Hank Aaron all played for various Major League Ball teams. (IMA Hero)

By 1959 all Major League teams had at least one African American ballplayer on their roster but there has been a significant increase since that time.  As of 1970 African American and other minorities made up over half of the league rosters, with the African Americans making up 28% of the roster.  Although the amount of African Americans playing Major League Baseball has not increased, but is remaining about the same today. It is also important to remember that other professional sports such as football, basketball, & golf have seen an increase in African American players since the 1970’s which explains the leveling off of  numbers of African Americans playing Major League Baseball (Encarta).

“We want to make sure that no generation forgets the contribution Jackie Robinson made not just to baseball, but also to civil rights.” says Jacqueline Parkes, spokesperson for Major League Baseball.  “In many ways, baseball transcends sports. It has a social responsibility.”  Jackie Roosevelt Robinson died on October 24th, 1972, the epitaph that appears on his gravestone he wrote himself, it reads, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” (Encarta)  Robinson is gone, but the impact he had is still larger than life, he removed the color barrier and paved the way for African Americans to participate in Major League Baseball today.

Works Cited

Allen, Maury. “Jackie Robinson: an American Hero.” Eves Magazine. 6 Feb. 2008 <http://www.evesmag.com/robinson.htm>.

“Jackie Robinson,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation.

Denenberg, Barry. Stealing Home: the Story of Jackie Robinson. Scholastic Paperbacks, 1990. 5-23.

“Jackie Robinson.” Chron.Com. May 1998. 6 Feb. 2008 <chron.com/content/chronicle/sports/special/barriers/history.htm>.

“Jackie Robinson.” Wikipedia. 12 Jan. 2008. 6 Feb. 2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackie_Robinson>.

West, Jean. “Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson: Interview Essay.” Jim Crow History. New York Life. 6 Feb. 2008 <http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/resources/pdf/hs_in_robinson_rickey.pdf>.

“Jackie Robinson in-Depth.” IMA Hero Reading Program. 1999. StarRise Creations. 6 Feb. 2008 <http://www.imahero.com/readingprogram/jackierobinson.html>.


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