Jack Roosevelt Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Robinson’s impact on baseball, and society was monumental.
On April 15, 1947, Robinson became the first Black man in the 20th century to play Major League Baseball (MLB). Prior to Robinson’s courageous move, Black baseball players were segregated in the Negro Leagues. Their accomplishments and athletic abilities were not recognized in white society.
Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers. His mother moved her five children to California to escape segregation but racism soon followed. The Robinsons were the only Black family in a predominantly white neighbourhood.
Robinson excelled in sports in high school and college. In 1941, he became the first UCLA athlete to letter in four sports, baseball, football, basketball, and track in the same year. That same year, he was named to the All-American football team, but he was forced to leave college just shy of graduation due to financial difficulties.
Robinson enlisted in the U.S. Army and served from 1942 to 1944. He was a second lieutenant at boot camp in Texas when he was arrested and court martialed for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus. He was acquitted of the charge and left the Army with an honourable discharge.
Robinson married Rachel Isum, a nursing student at UCLA, on February 10, 1946. They had three children, Jack Jr., Sharon, and David.
After the Army, Robinson taught college basketball before he joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League in 1945. He played one season as a shortstop before Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers approached him with the opportunity to play in the Major Leagues. The last Black player in the Majors was in 1889, when baseball was segregated.
Rickey chose Robinson for more than his baseball talent. He knew that whoever broke the colour barrier would endure racism at every turn, and he wanted a player who could endure the mental and physical abuse without fighting back.
In 1946, Robinson was assigned to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top farm team. He played second base and led the International League with a .349 average and 40 stolen bases. Those numbers earned him a promotion to the big leagues.
On April 15, 1947, Robinson played his first game as the Dodgers’ first baseman.
After his first season, Robinson won the inaugural Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s Rookie of the Year Award. In 1949, he was named the National League MVP. He led the league in hitting with a .342 average, stole 37 bases and had a career-high 124 RBI.
Robinson suffered opposition from his teammates and fans. Some of his teammates demanded trades and other players in MLB threatened to strike. Robinson and his family also received death threats. Through it all, Robinson conducted himself with honour and grace.
Robinson played 10 seasons with the Dodgers and helped the team win six National League pennants and the 1955 World Series title. He ended his career with a .311 batting average, 947 runs scored, 1,518 hits and 197 stolen bases.
In December 1956, Robinson was traded to the New York Giants, but he never played a game for the team. He retired on January 5, 1957 as a Dodger.
After retiring from baseball, Robinson worked as an executive for the coffee maker and restaurant chain Chock Full o’ Nuts. He also helped establish the Black-owned Freedom Bank in Harlem, N.Y.
Robinson became a vocal champion for athletes, civil rights and other social and political causes. In 1952, he publicly called out the Yankees as a racist organization for not having broken the color barrier five years after he began playing with the Dodgers.
He lobbied politicians to support key civil rights causes and raised money for freedom riders. He was also a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In 1962, Robinson was the first Black man to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Dodgers retired his No. 42 jersey number on June 4, 1972.
Robinson made his last public appearance on Oct. 14, 1972 when he threw out the first pitch during the second game of the World Series. He said, “I’d like to live to see a Black manager, I’d like to live to see the day when there is a Black man coaching at third base.”
Unfortunately, Robinson did not live to see that day. He died on Oct. 24, 1972 of a diabetes-related heart attack in Stamford, CT. He was only 53.
Robinson was honored after his death.
On April 15, 1997, on the 68th anniversary of Robinson’s big league debut, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig declared that Robinson’s No. 42 would be permanently retired throughout MLB. Robinson wore No. 42 as a Brooklyn Dodger. Players wearing No. 42 could continue with that number, but no future players could wear it. No. 42 is the only number retired across all of MLB.
On April 15 every year, every MLB team celebrates Jackie Robinson Day. Every player on every team wears No. 42 on their uniform. This annual tradition began on April 15, 2004.
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