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Last Friday marked the 75th anniversary of one of the most signal days in the history of baseball

4/29/2022

Last Friday marked the 75th anniversary of one of the most signal days in the history of baseball – in fact, in the history of American professional sports, and in the history of civil rights.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn as the first African-American in the 20th Century to break baseball’s color barrier. (Moses Fleetwood Walker had played in the majors in 1884.)

Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had been grooming Robinson to be the designated “First” for some time. Since the mid-1940s Rickey had been scouting the Negro baseball leagues for the right player to join the Dodgers’ roster. He settled on Robinson for two reasons: Jackie’s talent and self-control.

Talent was no problem. At Muir Tech in Pasadena, California, Robinson starred in basketball, football, baseball, track, and tennis. At Pasadena Junior College he played basketball, football, baseball, and track – he broke the American junior college broad jump record held by his brother Mack with a jump of 25 feet 6 ½ inches. 

In 1939 he graduated from PJC and promptly enrolled at UCLA, where he became the university’s first athlete to letter in four sports. He won the 1940 national NCAA long jump championship. Robinson was one of four black players on the UCLA Bruins’ football team; three of them, including Robinson, made up three of the four starting backfield players on the squad. It was the most integrated college football team in the nation.

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After a stint at as a wartime stateside lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Robinson was discharged in November 1944. He accepted a contract to play baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs team in the Negro Leagues, where Rickey spotted him and interviewed him for assignment to Brooklyn’s International League farm club, the Montreal Royals.

That’s where the second reason—self-control—weighed in. The interview took place in August 1945. Rickey needed to know if Jackie could handle the anti-black racism that was sure to be thrown at him. Baseball at that time was among the most segregated sectors of American life, owing in no small part to the determined efforts of Baseball Hall of Fame player and Marshalltown, Iowa, native Cap Anson. Anson was among baseball’s racists who kept non-whites out of the Major Leagues for many years.

Branch Rickey asked Robinson directly if he could hold his temper and take the heat that the first black player in modern Major League baseball would get. He told Robinson he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” When Robinson agreed, Rickey signed him on Oct. 23, 1945, to play minor league ball for Montreal.

In his first game with Montreal, on April 18, 1946, Robinson slammed four hits in five at-bats, including a three-run homer. He also scored four runs, drove in three, and stole two bases. The Royals won 14 to 1. 

Jackie faced hostility from white players, managers and fans throughout the season. Nevertheless he led the International League that year with a .349 batting average and a .985 fielding percentage, and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. 

Rickey called Jackie up to the Brooklyn Dodgers six days before the start of the 1947 season. He made his debut on April 15 wearing number 42. A crowd of 28,623 filled the stands; more than 14,000 of them were black.

When some white Dodger players threatened to refuse to play, Dodger manager Leo Durocher, not known for shyness, informed them, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f—— zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”

Players on some other teams in the National League roughed up Robinson on the field, including (I’m ashamed to say) my St. Louis Cardinals. He suffered a seven-inch leg gash from Cardinal outfielder Enos Slaughter.

But other players stood up for him. His Dodger infield teammate Pee Wee Reese is remembered for publicly putting his arm around Robinson’s shoulders on the field when some white fans in Boston or Cincinnati were harassing Jackie verbally that year or in 1948. Reese later said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.”

Jackie played 10 seasons, from 1947 to 1956, all of them for the Dodgers. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first eligible year for that honor, the first black player to enter the Hall. He compiled a career batting average of .311, and during his 10-year career he was one of only two players (Minnie Minoso was the other) to amass at least 125 steals while slugging over .425. 

He stole 197 bases in his career, including (incredibly) 19 steals of home. NOBODY steals home 19 times, but Robinson did. And none of them was on a double steal (where someone simultaneously steals another base) – Jackie did them all on his own.

After his baseball career Robinson played a significant role in the civil rights movement. He voted for Richard Nixon in Nixon’s 1960 presidential bid, but was angered by Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and supported Nelson Rockefeller’s try for the Republican presidential nomination against Barry Goldwater in 1964. He endorsed Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in the 1968 presidential race.

Robinson worked hard to see African-Americans named as Major League managers. That didn’t happen until Frank Robinson (no relation) was named by the Cleveland Indians to that post in 1974, two years after Jackie’s untimely death from a heart attack related to his diabetes in 1972 at the age of 53.

The number of African-American Major League baseball players has declined since the 1970s.

In a 1947 poll, Robinson was the second most popular man in the United States, behind only Bing Crosby. On April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of his first game with the Dodgers, professional baseball retired Robinson’s jersey number 42 throughout all major league teams. Then in 2009 all personnel in both the National and the American Leagues wore number 42 on April 15; that tradition has continued every since.

I was just short of 6 years old when Jackie jogged onto Ebbets Field for the Dodgers in April 1947. In my home neighborhood in those years the boys played baseball about every day, weather permitting, in the summer in our yard. We all had our favorite players. Some of us said Jackie Robinson was the best Major League player. Some of us, like me, countered with Stan Musial. A few held out for Ted Williams or someone else.

The thing was, we maybe knew that Robinson was black and Musial and Williams were white, but those facts held little importance to us. It was their performance stats that mattered in our neighborhood.

As I look back on it, we were the first generation of kids who grew up with integrated Major League teams, and the first generation who recognized no significance in the players’ color. 

That was a good thing then, and it’s a good thing now. The destruction of the color line in baseball was a harbinger of the racial progress that followed in a few years. Thanks to Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, and many baseball pros who followed them, color today pales in comparison to batting average and earned run average in ballparks. 

And as of this writing, the Cardinals lead the National League Central Division. What’s not to like?

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