Jackie Robinson made history in 1947 when he broke baseball’s color barrier to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A talented player, Robinson won the National League Rookie of the Year award his first season, and helped the Dodgers to the National League championship – the first of his six trips to the World Series. In 1949 Robinson won the league MVP award, and he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Despite his skill, Robinson faced a barrage of insults and threats because of his race. The courage and grace with which Robinson handled the abuses inspired a generation of African Americans to question the doctrine of “separate but equal” and helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.
When general manager Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers offered Robinson the chance to break organized baseball’s powerful but unwritten color line, the fiery ballplayer not only accepted, he also agreed to Rickey’s condition: that he not respond to the abuse he would face.
Jackie Robinson’s debut in organized baseball is a legend (April 18, 1946, with the Montreal Royals of the International League, the Dodgers’ best farm club). In five at-bats he hit a three-run homer and three singles, stole two bases, and scored four times, twice by forcing the pitcher to balk. Promoted to the Dodgers the following spring, Robinson thrived on the pressure and established himself as the most exciting player in baseball. His playing style combined traditional elements of black sports–the opportunistic risk taking known as “tricky baseball” in the Negro Leagues–with an aggressiveness asserting his right to be at the plate or on the basepaths. According to his manager Leo Durocher, “This guy didn’t just come to play. He come to beat ya.”
In their response to Jackie Robinson, African-Americans rejected “separate but equal” status and embraced integration. Robinson’s presence in baseball electrified them, and they flocked to see the Dodgers in huge numbers and from great distances. African-American sportswriters, many of whom had advocated baseball integration for years, focused their attentions on Robinson and the black players who followed him. His success encouraged the integration of professional football, basketball, and tennis, while the Negro Leagues, which in a sense depended on segregation, began an irreversible decline, losing ballplayers, spectators, and reporters.
During his first two years with the Dodgers, Robinson kept his word to Rickey and endured astonishing abuse amid national scrutiny without fighting back. His dignified courage in the face of virulent racism–from jeers and insults to beanballs, hate mail, and death threats–commanded the admiration of whites as well as blacks and foreshadowed the tactics that the 1960s civil rights movement would develop into the theory and practice of nonviolence.
Robinson, however, finally broke his emotional and political silence in 1949, becoming an outspoken and controversial opponent of racial discrimination. He criticized the slow pace of baseball integration and objected to the Jim Crow practices in the southern states where most clubs conducted spring training. Robinson led other ballplayers in urging baseball to use its economic power to desegregate southern towns, hotels, and ballparks. Because most baseball teams integrated relatively calmly, the “Jackie Robinson experiment” provided an important example of successful desegregation to ambivalent white southern political and business leaders.
Having watched baseball integrate through a combination of individual black achievements, white goodwill, economic persuasion, and public outspokenness, Robinson, when he retired from baseball in 1957, sought to bring the same tactics to bear on increasing African-American employment opportunities.
His lifelong struggle continued to his last public appearance nine days before he died: he told television viewers of an Old-Timers’ Game, “I’d like to live to see a black manager.” Fittingly, his eulogy was delivered by the outstanding advocate of African-American self-help and employment opportunity–the Reverend Jesse Jackson. “When Jackie took the field,” Jackson declared, “something reminded us of our birthright to be free.”
January 31, 1919
October 24, 1972
- He achieved the prestigious MLB Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, was an All-Star for six consecutive seasons from 1949 through 1954, and won the National League Most Valuable Player in 1949. He was the first black player ever to receive this award. Robinson played in six World Series and, furthermore, contributed to the Dodgers’ World Series Championship in 1955. He contributed much, not only to the world of sport, but also to the Civil Rights Movement.
- The owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, received much initial criticism for signing Robinson in 1947. Robinson became the first black player ever to play in the major leagues. In 1955, he helped the Dodgers win the World Series.
- When Robinson was initially signed by the Dodgers, he endured much racial bullying and taunting from teammates, other baseball teams and baseball fans. Rickey, prior to signing him, had to make him promise not to fight back, even when he and his family received verbal threats. On the road, he had to stay in separate hotels from the rest of the team. Robinson’s perseverance and outstanding averages led to his promotion within the team and his ultimate acceptance as an athlete.
- Some notable figures helped pave the way towards Robinson’s acceptance by his team and by the baseball community as a whole. Joe Louis, a boxing champion, used his celebrity status to protest against the non-entry of black soldiers into the army, enabling Robinson to become 2nd Lieutenant after the outbreak of WWII. Successful Major League Baseball Executive Branch Rickey first signed Robinson into a major league team, breaking the sport’s color barrier. And Robinson’s teammate on the Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese, famously defended him during an outburst of racial hate during a game. He put his arm around him and said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.”
- Uniquely, Robinson played six times in the World Series, culminating in the Dodger’s win in 1955. In 1947, when he played with the Brooklyn Dodgers against the New York Yankees, this was the first time a racially integrated team had ever played in the competition. These matches led to his being awarded the MVP award ‐ as the most valuable player within his team.
- From his beginnings in the Dodgers, Robinson inspired the gradual desegregation of other sports in America. Furthermore, his practice of not responding with violence to the many aggressive taunts and jibes from others was important for the later Civil Rights movement advocating non-violence. Later, he became more outspoken in words and actions in his support of desegregation and he became a role model for others in the world of sport and beyond. The “Jackie Robinson Experiment” helped many white leaders see that desegregation was not dangerous and could be a positive step forward for society.
- In 1950, a film was made about Robinson’s life; he agreed to play himself. The film presents Robinson’s life and achievements and focuses on his struggle to play baseball in the midst of a great deal of racial aggression. It was directed by Alfred Green. Despite the racial tensions that were around at the time, the film was released to widespread critical praise and box office success. Other films about him include 42, which was made in 2013.
- Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. This museum celebrates significant contributions to baseball. As the first African-American ever to be awarded such an honor, this represented a powerful achievement for not just Robinson himself, but symbolically for African-Americans. The museum continues to honor Robinson’s memory, especially on April 13-15, and also has a thematic unit exploring racial issues.