This Date in History – Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson, courtesy of the Library of Congress, via Wikipedia

I’m sure that when most Americans think about what April 15 stands for (to the extent that they think about it at all), they think of taxes being due. When I think about it, though, I think of an entirely different event.  It was on April 15, 1947, that Jack Roosevelt Robinson, better known to the world as “Jackie,” stepped onto a major league field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.  This was the first time a black man played baseball in the major leagues since the game was segregated in the late 1880’s.

I’m not sure it’s possible to understand today the significance of this event in the 1940’s when baseball was far and away the most popular sport in America at that time (think what the NFL is today).  After all, the three highest paid baseball players checked the “Black, African Am, or Negro” box on the 2010 Census Form.  Today, race simply doesn’t enter into the equation for the vast majority of us when we’re watching sports (or voting for President, or anything else).  And that’s as it should be.

This was certainly not the case in 1947, however.  The abuse Jackie took was brutal and predictable.  Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who made the decision more than three years earlier to integrate the game, understood what would happen and wanted to make sure Jackie did, too.

At their legendary meeting in Brooklyn in 1945, Rickey, knowing full well what lay ahead for the first black major leaguer, peppered Robinson with racial slurs. “Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who is afraid to fight back?” Robinson asked. No, came the reply. “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson relented; Rickey found his pioneer.

New York Times

While it wasn’t easy, Jackie proved to have enough guts.  Insults – and objects – were thrown at him.  Other teams threatened not to play against the Dodgers if Robinson was in the lineup.  He received death threats.  Some of his own teammates shunned him.  One of my favorite stories about this incredible journey, though, was about a teammate who stood by him.  Literally.

Pee Wee Reese, shortstop for the Dodgers, was also the team’s leader.  And a Southerner.  As is still the case today, Southerners were all-too-often assumed to be racists.  While there certainly were – and are – some from this region of the country who hold on to these vile beliefs, it is not the case for the vast majority.  Because he was a Southerner, there were a number of people who expected Reese to go along with efforts to keep Jackie out of the game.  He wasn’t having any of it, however.

Arnold Rampersad tells the story in Jackie Robinson: A biography:

Opposing players were abusing Reese “very viciously because he was playing on the team with me. . . .  They were calling him some very vile names.”  Because Robinson knew that the nasty words were meant for him, each epithet “hit me like a machine-gun bullet.  Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while.  He didn’t say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared.  He was standing by me, I could tell you that.”  The hecklers fell silent.  “I will never forget it.”

Jackie went on to be named Major League Baseball’s 1st Rookie of the Year in 1947 and the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949.  He helped the Brooklyn Dodgers finally win their first – and only, while in Brooklyn – World Series in 1955.  He retired in 1957 and, after waiting the required five years to be eligible, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

His life was cut short by diabetes which eventually claimed his life in 1972.  But, between his retirement in 1957 and his death in 1972, Jackie continued to lead the way to social integration.  He became the 1st black man to be the Vice President of a major American corporation, worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the NAACP, and served as one of six national directors of Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign.  Just nine days before he died, Jackie was honored on the field at Game 2 of the World Series.  During his acceptance of the award, he called on Major League Baseball to take the next step in integrating the game by hiring black managers.

Thank you very much, Commissioner.  I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon but must admit, I’m gonna be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.  Thank you very much.

It took three more years, but that color line was broken when the Cleveland Indians hired Frank Robinson as the first black manager in the Major Leagues.

The world has changed a lot in the last 64 years.  To the extent that it’s better from a racial perspective, a great deal of credit goes to Jackie Robinson.

Happy Jackie Robinson Day, everybody.

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