He’ll forever be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. Shattering stereotypes with every swing and racial boundaries with every base stolen. With every home run, came an outcry for social change. Breaking baseball’s color barrier, he paved the way for the likes of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, as well as pioneered the world of professional sports for black athletes.
The man who would become a legend was born Jack Roosevelt Robinson in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. He was the youngest child born into his sharecropping family; his parents worked the same land that his grandparents were slaves on. When young Robinson was just an infant, his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother, Mallie, to raise their four sons and one daughter alone. Shortly after becoming a single mother, she moved the family of now six to Pasadena, California. Despite leaving behind the South—with its Jim Crow laws that governed racial tensions in a false set of “separate but equal” regulations—young Robinson learned early that racism was present everywhere.
In high school Robinson got a taste of the flip side of racism. He quickly learned that being a star athlete would not grant him acceptance from his peers. On the field he was a champ, his name was cheered by the crowds, and he received pats on the back from his teammates. When playing, life was good for Robinson. Off the field was a different story. Then, he was Jackie Robinson, black teenager. But despite this, he excelled in sports. Whether it be as the quarterback of the football team, hitting home runs, shooting hoops, or wielding a racket, Robinson was destined for stardom, and his star would come with a social movement as well.
After high school, Robinson went to Pasadena Junior College before major universities would take notice of his superior athletic skills. After accepting a scholarship to UCLA, he became the school’s first athlete to letter in varsity baseball, football, basketball, and track. His future looked bright, but he just didn’t seem to believe there were a lot of opportunities beyond college for a black man. After the death of his brother months before Robinson’s own graduation, he left college to work and help support his family.
In 1942, Robinson found himself among men of all races and backgrounds when he was drafted during World War II. The army sent him to officer training, and the following year he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Yet even in the military, Robinson faced the disparity of race. Serving in a black battalion, he was approached to play on an army baseball team. He refused because the rules stated he would have to sit out any game that was played against a team opposed to black players. In 1944 he was arrested in Fort Hood for refusing to move to the back of a bus. Charges were later dropped, and Robinson left with an honorable discharge.
Upon returning to California, Robinson became engaged to his college sweetheart, Rachel Isum, and began his baseball career as shortstop for a Negro League team, the Kansas City Monarchs. Everywhere the team went they were refused service from gas stations, restaurants, and hotels. Robinson spoke out against the treatment, but without violence. His talent and cool head drew the attention of a man that would set the stage for Robinson to go far.
In 1945 Robinson met with Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey. At this point in baseball history, a black man hadn’t played in the major leagues since before the enactment of the Jim Crow Laws in the 1880’s. Rickey thought it was time to break the color barrier, but baseball needed the right player to do it. And Robinson had the talent and temperament to be the one.
Rickey warned Robinson he would come against the worst of what racist America could throw at him. He would be jeered, booed, deliberately hit, and would even have his life and the lives of his family threatened, but he would have to turn the other cheek. Robinson asked him, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey looked at the enormous talent in front of him and replied, “Robinson, I’m looking for a player with guts enough not to fight back.”
The following year, Robinson started with the Dodgers’ minor league team, the Montreal Royals. He faced all that Rickey had told him he would and redirected the anger inside him onto the field. He led the Royals to a win at the 1946 Minor League Championship Series, securing himself the Most Valuable Player title. The same year, he married the love of his life and welcomed his first son, Jack Robinson, Jr.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s long held color barrier when he stepped onto first base. The racism he faced was at its worst, but, as promised, he held his ground. Although at first opposed to playing with a black man, his teammates rallied around him as opponents took cheap shots at their star. Robinson led his team to win the National League Pennant and was named Rookie of the Year.
After two years of establishing himself in the slowly opening world of baseball, Robinson was no longer obligated to keep his feelings to himself. He became a strong advocate for equality, and one of the first voices of the Civil Rights Movement that was looming on the horizon. He had a successful ten year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, retiring in 1957. Two years after his retirement every single major league baseball team was integrated.
By the end of his career, Robinson had a career batting average of .311, hit 137 home runs, and stole 197 bases. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and in 1997 (twenty five years after his death in 1972) Major League Baseball retired his number, 42. But his influence and legacy hit far beyond the outfield. In all areas in life, on the sports fields and off, people began to seek equality—not that which was defined by an unjust system, but equality deserved by every man, woman, and child. For these people, each swing of a bat was a swing toward civil rights.
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