“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Jack “Jackie” Robinson once spoke those words and surely not even he could imagine the impact he would make in Major League Baseball, the Civil Rights Movement and the proper treatment of African-Americans during a time when it was almost nonexistent.
Robinson was a stellar athlete at the University of California Los Angeles, where he became the first player in Bruins history to win four varsity letters. Robinson earned letters in track and field, baseball, football and basketball. Robinson’s worst sport at UCLA was baseball, where he hit .097 in his only season on the diamond. Robinson also stole home twice for UCLA, something that became a staple in his big-league career.
After Robinson’s collegiate career, he withdrew from UCLA once he met his future wife, Rachel Isum. Robinson found a job as an assistant athletic director with the government’s National Youth Administration before the government took over operations. Robinson then went on to pursue a career with the semi-professional and racially integrated Honolulu Bears.
After one season with the Bears, Robinson began playing football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs. After Robinson’s football career in California began, however, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, pushing the United States into World War II, and Robinson was drafted.
In the military, Robinson was a part of a segregated Army cavalry unit stationed in Fort Riley, Kansas. Robinson, along with other black soldiers, applied to be part of Officer Candidate School (OCS), but many black applicants were refused even though OCS was supposed to be integrated. Robinson had to wait months until he was finally accepted into the school.
When Robinson finished OCS, he became a second lieutenant and got engaged to Rachel Isum in January 1943.
Robinson then faced the first of his many challenges. While stationed in Texas awaiting the results of an ankle injury, the soldier driving the bus ordered Robinson to the back of the bus. Robinson refused to move to the back of the bus and when the bus reached its destination, military police officers took Robinson into custody. Robinson was eventually charged with numerous offences, including public drunkenness, even though he was not a drinker. An all-white jury eventually acquitted Robinson of all charges and he earned himself an honorable discharge from the military.
Robinson’s baseball career began shortly after his discharge. Robinson tried out and started playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League baseball team. Robinson excelled on the diamond, but was frustrated by the crazy traveling schedule of the team, which made it impossible for him to communicate with his wife Rachel, unless it was through letters. Robinson played 47 games as shortstop for the Monarchs, in which he hit .387 with five home runs and 13 stolen bases.
In 1946, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey discovered Robinson. Rickey was looking for someone who could potentially help his struggling Dodgers team and Robinson was the man for the job. Robinson was given a tryout and was interviewed for a position with the team’s minor league club, the Montreal Royals.
Rickey received help from Pittsburgh Courier writer Wendell Smith, who had told Rickey that Robinson was the man for the job. Rickey then had a famous conversation with Robinson in which he asked Robinson if he could handle the racial slurs, the hatred and everything that would come with him being the first African-American in the segregated league that was Major League Baseball.
At first, Robinson was angry. He asked Rickey if he wanted someone who was afraid to fight back and Rickey famously said that he was looking for someone who had the guts to not fight back. Once Robinson agreed to face the racist remarks, the hatred and all of the hardships without a word of retaliation, Robinson officially started his professional playing career.
Robinson played one year in minor league baseball before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. He began his playing career in 1946, when he played an exhibition game in Florida against the Major League Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was not allowed to stay at the team hotel in Florida due to Jim Crow laws, so he stayed at the house of an African-American politician. Robinson became the first African-American player to officially play against a major league team in 1946.
On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his major-league debut. Despite going hitless in a game at Ebbets Field, Robinson walked and scored the winning run in a 5-3 Dodgers win in front of more than 26,000 people, including 14,000 African-American fans.
Robinson faced extreme hate throughout the year, with other major league teams threatening to sit out if Robinson played. The St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike and many of Robinson’s teammates were opposed to his presence in Major League Baseball. Robinson was purposely hit by pitches and faced hatred everywhere he went. Pitches were often thrown at Robinson’s head.
The Dodgers players’ hatred of Robinson playing among them ended when the Dodgers took a stand to back Robinson. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher gathered his players together and famously said: “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a [expletive deleted] zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you all are traded.”
Robinson did receive some encouragement from other players, including teammate Harold “Pee Wee” Reese. Reese famously put his arm around Robinson when he was facing racial slurs before a game in Cincinnati. Reese once said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. The color of his skin is not one of them.”
At the time, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, yelled racial slurs at Robinson throughout games and Rickey credits Chapman with helping the team support Robinson. Rickey said that Chapman did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. Rickey said, “When he poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and united 30 men.”
In Robinson’s rookie year, he hit .297, had an on-base percentage of .383 and a .427 slugging percentage. Robinson tallied 175 hits, scored 125 runs, hit 12 home runs, 31 doubles and five triples while driving in 48 runs on the year.
Robinson also led the league with 28 stolen bases that season. Robinson went on to win the first ever Rookie of the Year Award in 1947.
Robinson went on to have a 10-year career in the majors, where he hit .331 for his career and famously stole home 19 times. Robinson played in six World Series and helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955. Robinson played in six all-star games and was named to the All-Century team after his death. Robinson is a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Robinson died in 1972 at the age of 53, after complications of heart disease and diabetes that left him nearly blind by the time of his death.
Robinson left behind an incredible legacy after he died, not only in baseball, but also in life. Robinson pushed for other teams to bring in African-American players and by the end of his career every team had at least one African-American player on its roster. Robinson also opened the door for Martin Luther King Jr. King once said that Robinson paved the way for everything that he was able to accomplish. Robinson marched on Washington as a face of the Civil Rights Movement and he pushed for change in America without violence.
Robinson’s jersey No. 42 was eventually retired league-wide by Major League Baseball in 1997. Mariano Rivera was the last player in history to wear the No. 42. This is the first and only time that one of the four main professional sports leagues retired a number league-wide. In 2005, Rachel Robinson accepted the Congressional Gold Medal from president George W. Bush on behalf of Jackie Robinson.
Pee Wee Reese once famously said, “Maybe tomorrow we will all wear 42. That way they won’t tell us apart.”
Today, on April 15 of each year, Major League Baseball remembers Jackie Robinson by having his number 42 worn by every player on the field. April 15 celebrates the day of Robinson’s major league debut and the great legacy he left behind.
Robinson not only changed baseball, he also changed many lives, giving African-Americans a voice in a time they did not have one.
Information for this article was taken from biography.com