Born on January 31, 1919, Jack Roosevelt Robinson (professionally known as Jackie Robinson) was the first Black baseball player to play in a major American baseball league, specifically the Major League Baseball (MLB) during the 20th century.
Robinson made this ground-breaking achievement on April 15, 1947, where he broke the decades-old (rather outdated, even by the standards of those days) tradition of only having white players on teams when he appeared on the field for his team — the National League Brooklyn Dodgers.
Throughout Robinson’s stellar career for the Dodgers, he played a vital role as an infielder and outfielder up until his retirement from the game in early 1957.
All About The MLB’s Legendary Player
Starting his budding career in Pasadena in California, Robinson was always an outstanding and all-around excellent athlete at Pasadena Junior College and the University of California (UCLA). It was here that he took part in plenty of sports including football, basketball, track, and of course, baseball. Ultimately, Robinson did not complete his education as he withdrew from UCLA in his third year to help his mother care for the family.
In 1942, Robinson joined the U.S. Army and was commissioned as a second lieutenant the following year. It was his time in the army that shaped his views and dedication to activism and civil rights. Upon leaving the army due to honourable discharge, Robinson began his career in professional football in Hawaii, as well as in baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. It was during this time that he began to draw the attention of the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey.
Rickey had always had the plan of integrating baseball and was on the lookout for the right candidate. Robinson fit his idea as he had skills on the field, integrity, and a conservative family-oriented lifestyle appealed greatly to Rickey. Though, he had to be sure that Robinson could withstand the inevitable racial abuse without responding in a negative way which could hurt the integration’s chance for success. Rickey tested Robinson by hurling insults at Robinson during a legendary meeting, trying to ascertain whether or not Robinson could accept taunts without incident — for which Robinson passed with flying colours. And on October 23, 1945, Robinson finally signed to play on a Dodger farm team, the Montreal Royals of the International League.
It was in this league that Robinson proved that he had the skills and prowess to stand at the top of the baseball league, and was brought up to play for Brooklyn the following year in 1947.
He was an immediate success on the team as well. He led the National League in stolen bases and was chosen as Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he won the batting championship with a .342 average, which was instrumental in him being voted as the league’s MVP.
But while his achievements on the field were celebrated, Robinson’s personal experiences were rather different as he suffered abuse from the fans and even his teammates and opponents. Case in point, some Dodger teammates openly protested against having an African American teammate, whereas opposing players would deliberately pitch balls at Robinson’s head or spiked him with their shoes with intentionally rough slides into bases.
But on the flip side, not everyone was against Robinson. When some players threatened a strike if Robinson took the field, commissioner Ford Frick counter threatened these players with potential suspension if they went through with it. Dodger captain Pee Wee Reese even left his position on the field to put an arm around Robinson in a show of solidarity after fan heckling became seemingly intolerable for the legendary Black baseball player. This was the start of a lifelong friendship for the two men.
However, even with all of the setbacks, ugly remarks, death threats, and violent abuse from the fans, Robinson’s career in baseball was nothing short of stellar. With a lifetime batting average of .311, Robinson led the Dodgers to an impressive tally of six league championships and one World Series victory. Even after his retirement, Robinson stayed active, engaging in business and in civil rights activism. He is perhaps best-known post-baseball career for being the spokesperson for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and even made appearances with Martin Luther King, Jr.Jackie Robinson also became the first African American to be inducted (in 1962) into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. And in 1984, Robinson received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest honour for an American civilian) posthumously. With a career spanning nearly a decade, it’s also interesting to note how Robinson’s seminal achievement in the sport is celebrated today.
For instance, in April 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut as the first Black player in baseball, baseball commissioner Bud Selig retired Robinson’s jersey number (42) from the MLB as a sign of respect for the late, great player. It was fairly common for a number to be retired for a particular team, but for Robinson’s number, it was retired all throughout the league — which was an unprecedented affair even outside of baseball.
Today, Jackie Robinson Day is celebrated annually on April 15th to honour the man himself. It is on this day that the yearly unretiring of Robinson’s number takes place and all players, coaches, and umpires in the MLB would don the iconic number 42 for one day.