An Introduction to the Legends of Baseball
| Hank Aaron
| Yogi Berra
| Ty Cobb
| Joe DiMaggio
Lou Gehrig | Rogers Hornsby | Mickey Mantle | Willie Mays | Stan Musial | Cal Ripken Jr
Jackie Robinson | Pete Rose | Babe Ruth | Ted Williams | Cy Young | The Baseball Hall of Fame
A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.
Jackie Robinson was a superb baseball player and particularly excelled in base running. In three steps, Robinson could make it to his top speed and he delighted in stealing bases. He was a disruptive force, dancing off the base, drawing every eye in the stadium and driving the pitcher crazy. He wasn't a particularly great home run hitter or a great fielder, but helped inspire the Dodgers to six pennants in his 10 seasons.
Robinson will always be remembered as the first person to break the race barrier in Major League baseball in the 20th Century. He was actually not the first African American to play on a professional baseball team. In 1883, Moses Fleetwood 'Fleet' Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings, a minor league team that joined the American Association league, to make him the first African American major leaguer.
Robinson's role was more symbolic than record breaking. Until he joined the Major Leagues in 1947, racial segregation in baseball was an unwritten rule (in the early 1900s, it had been a written rule). Several 'Negro Leagues' were formed in the late 1800s, but never lasted very long. African American players had to go to Mexico and other parts of Latin America where baseball wasn't segregated.
The first really successful Negro League was the Negro National League formed in 1920. The Negro American League started in 1937 and absorbed the Negro National League. These leagues were much different from Major League baseball of the time, emphasising speed, surprise and individual flair. They also exhibited minimum regulation, in fact contracts for players were nearly non-existent.
His Life and Career
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born 31 January, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia. After his father deserted the family, his mother took them to Pasedena California in 1920. He had an interest in sports as a child1 and attended the University of California, excelling in the sports of baseball, track, basketball and football. He was extremely competitive, desperately wanting to win no matter what the event. There he met Kenny Washington, who was incidentally among the first to break the race barrier in American Football.
After Pearl Harbor, he was drafted into the Army and became a second lieutenant. When ordered to the back of the bus one day, he refused, and was court-martialled for his courage. At the court-martial, his lawyer said Robinson was on trial not because he had violated any articles of war, but because a few officers 'were working vengeance against an uppity black man'. All charges were dismissed, and several months later, Robinson received an honourable discharge from the Army.
Breaking the Race Barrier
Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs (a Negro American League team2) as short-stop in 1945. He soon impressed a Brooklyn Dodger scout with his speed and his ability to hit. Around the same time, Dodger Manager Branch Rickey was looking for an African American player for his 'great experiment'. Rickey was working with extreme secrecy in looking for a group of Negro Leaguers to play for his team. This had been attempted before, but had been stopped by League Officials, which is why the secrecy was essential.
Besides the ability to play well, one of the qualities that Rickey was particularly looking for was the ability to handle the taunts and threats that would inevitably come from breaking the race barrier. As the manager said, 'I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back'. Partially because of this, Rickey selected the relatively cool-headed Robinson from a list of talented Negro Leaguers for his experiment.
He interviewed Robinson in the Brooklyn Dodgers office in New York City in August 1945. Rickey had even kept the scouts in the dark about his experiment, and Robinson was informed by a scout that he was being offered a position on a new Negro league team, the 'Brown Dodgers'. Rickey then informed him that he was interested in recruiting him for his major league team. He acted out scenarios of the racism that would be encountered and asked Robinson to respond. Satisfied, he signed Robinson to a contract on 23 October, 1945. Several other Negro Leaguers were signed after him, but the public paid the most attention to Robinson.
Robinson was sent to play for the Dodgers' minor league team, the Montreal Royals3 in 1946. Montreal was an excellent choice for Robinson to play in, and he got great support from the fans in the Canadian city. He led the International League in batting average in 1946 with .349 and stole 40 bases. His nicknames in Montreal were 'the Dark Destroyer' and 'the Colored Comet'.
When Rickey thought the timing was right, he announced that he would integrate Major League baseball with Robinson in 1947. Robinson's first appearance on the field was on 15 April, 1947 - Robinson went hitless, but did score the winning run. This was a great moment for baseball and the civil rights movement. This integration came before the integration of schools and the army. Robinson later said that Branch Rickey 'did more for the Negroes than any white man since Abraham Lincoln'.
At the age of 28, Robinson was much older than a normal rookie when he first donned the Dodgers' number 42 jersey. As expected, he received several death threats and generally encountered a great deal of hostility from many baseball purists. A large number of fans, however, were happy to see an integrated team at last. The Negro Leagues were well known for 'tricky' baseball, which many wanted to see enlivening the Major Leagues.
Robinson sometimes lost his cool of course. He occasionally responded to the racial insults of the crowd and other players, but remarkably kept his patience most of the time. He spoke out for equal rights and became a hero to the African American community.
Most of the other Dodgers players were resistant to him at first, with the particular exception of future hall of famer 'Pee Wee' Reese. Reese and Robinson would form a dynamic defensive team and a lasting friendship. Many other teams and their players also disliked Robinson. More than a few pitchers 'beaned' him, or purposely threw the ball at him. He usually responded to his frustrations by stepping up his performance in the field.
In this first year, after a great season with a .297 batting average and the title for most stolen bases, Robinson was awarded an informal Rookie of the Year Award. To cap it all, Brooklyn won the Pennant with his help.
By 1949, Robinson was a great success and was being recognised for his talents. He received the National League Most Valuable Player Award that year. He contributed largely to the Dodgers' successful bid for the Pennant that year as well.
Around 1949, 1950 and 1951 were Robinson's prime. Since he had been a fairly old rookie, he had a shorter than usual career. In it, though, Robinson became one of the most feared and proficient stars of baseball. Despite their prejudices, other players had to respect Robinson for his superb skills.
In 1950, a movie The Jackie Robinson Story was released and in 1951, a comic book came out about Robinson. The world also recognised the historical significance of his breaking the barrier, and numerous books and articles were written. His story fascinated the country and he achieved international celebrity.
The Boys of Summer
In 1952 and 1953, Robinson and the Dodgers won two pennants. Jackie Robinson along with Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Jim Gilliam, Duke Snider, Preacher Roe and Clem Labine led the Dodgers to one of their strongest eras. They were known as the Boys of Summer.
The Boys of Summer led the Dodgers to their first World Series championship in 1955. The Dodgers were 75 years old when they finally won the Series, so it was a major accomplishment.
Robinson decided to retire from baseball on 5 January, 1957 after a ten year career. Before he officially retired, he was traded to the New York Giants, but he retired anyway. He wanted to manage or coach a team in the major leagues, but got no offers. Instead, he served as a Vice President of Personnel for the Chock Full O' Nuts restaurant chain in New York. He took an active role in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and civil rights.
In 1956, he was honoured for his contributions to the African American community with the Spingarn Medal, an annual award for the highest contribution by an African American. In 1962, he was honoured as the first African American to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
His autobiography, I Never Had It Made, was released in 1972. He died of a heart attack in Stamford Connecticut on 24 October, 1972. In 1997, in an effort to honour Robinson on the 50th anniversary of his ground-breaking debut, every major league team retired his number, 42.
How should this pioneer be best remembered? Perhaps by his own words:
We ask for nothing special. We ask only to be permitted to live as you live, and as our nation's Constitution provides.
Career Hitting Statistics
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