Imagined being offered the career opportunity of lifetime with one catch–you had to hold your anger no matter how much you were taunted, disrespected and even physically abused because of your race. Robinson’s ability to keep his cool was as important as his athletic skills. The result was to break the color line of America’s sport–baseball. That’s exactly what Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson did when he became the first Black athlete to play Major League Baseball.

In 1867, the National Association of Base Ball Players was formed, but Black athletes were not welcome. While they did play alongside whites in the minor leagues, their careers were oftentimes cut short by racial prejudice.

But by the early 20th century, Black ball clubs were forming and baseball was the biggest form of entertainment for urban Black America. Andrew “Rube” Foster announced that the time had arrived for a Negro League, and in 1920, the Negro National League was born in Kansas City with eight teams: the Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, Cuban Stars, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Giants. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and Oscar Charleston are just a few of the Hall of Fame players who would leave their mark on the baseball world. But even with that roster of talent, Black players were still not welcome in major league baseball.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on Jan. 31, 1919, in Cairo, Ga. His parents, Jerry and Mallie Robinson, were sharecroppers.

Jerry Robinson left and the family moved to Pasadena, Calif. Jackie Robinson graduated from Washington Junior High School and enrolled in John Muir High School. It was here that he and others discovered his talent for sport. Robinson played at the varsity level, winning letters in football, basketball, track and baseball, playing both shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team and guard on the basketball team. In track, he won awards in the broad jump. He also played on the tennis team and, in 1936, won the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament. He was Muir’s most outstanding student athlete. At Pasadena Junior College, Robinson continued his excellent performance as an all-around athlete.

In 1939, Robinson graduated from PJC and moved on to UCLA, where he became the first athlete in the school’s history to win varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football and track. While a senior at UCLA, he met his future wife, Rachel Isum. The couple would marry in 1946.

Just shy of graduation, Robinson became assistant athletic director with the government’s National Youth Administration program. After the program ended his next stop was Hawaii to play football for the Honolulu Bears. He returned to California after one season and set his sights on the Los Angeles Bulldogs, but the attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of World War II ended his football dreams.

Robinson was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a segregated army unit in Fort Riley, Kan. In 1944, Robinson ran into trouble after being ordered to move to the back of an unsegregated Army bus. He refused and was arrested by military police. Robinson was transferred to the 758th Battalion and hit with multiple offenses. He was acquitted but never forgot the experience. He transferred to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky, where he became an army athletic coach. He received an honorable discharge in November 1944.

On the Diamond: Minor Leagues

In 1945, Robinson was offered a chance to play with the Kansas City Monarchs for $400 a month ($5,100 today). He played 47 games. That same year, Robinson participated in a tryout for the Boston Red Sox, which proved to be more of an exercise than an actual opportunity, as they would be the last major league ball club to integrate its roster.

Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, began scouring the Negro Leagues for talent. In addition to having skills on the diamond, the player would also have to have a strong cheek and be willing to turn it when provoked. Rickey chose Robinson. In a famous exchange on Aug. 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face the racist barrage without anger. Robinson said, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” Rickey signed him for $600 a month ($7,500 today). The arrangement was made in secret.

On Oct. 23, the announcement came that Robinson would be assigned to the Royals. While not the best player in the Negro Leagues–Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were considered better skilled–Robinson became the first Black baseball player in the International League since the 1880s.

Robinson’s capacity for restraint was tested as soon as he showed up for spring training in Florida. He was not allowed to stay at the team hotel. The police chief in Sanford, Fla., vowed to cancel games if Robinson and Johnny Wright, another Black player signed by Rickey, continued to train. Robinson made his debut as a Royal on March 17, 1946, in an exhibition game against the Dodgers, becoming the first Black to play for a minor league team against a major league team.

On April 18, 1946, Robinson made his debut against the Jersey City Giants. He was named Most Valuable Player. After the 1946 season, he returned to California and briefly played basketball for the short-lived Los Angeles Red Devils.

Major leagues at last

On April 15, 1947, Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field as a Brooklyn Dodger before a crowd of 26,623 fans, more than half of whom were Black. The color line of Major League Baseball was finally and irrevocably broken.

Robinson suffered off the field as some of his own teammates refused to play with him. However, Manager Leo Durocher defended Robinson and threatened to trade players. The St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike if Robinson played. Teams played unnecessarily rough and hard against him. His teammate Pee Wee Reese famously said of Robinson, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” Hank Greenberg, who had his own run in with racism, told Robinson to overcome his critics by defeating them in games.

Robinson finished his first season batting .297 and led the National League in stolen bases with 29, earning baseball’s first Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, in 1949, he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, leading the league with a .342 batting average and 37 stolen bases. Robinson was a boom for ticket sales as more than a million people attended games that he played in.

Off the field, Robinson was the subject of songs, a comic book and even a film, “The Jackie Robinson Story,” in which he played himself. This was one of the first films that presented a Black man as a hero.

Robinson retired on Jan. 5, 1957, as a living legend. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. On June 4, 1974, the Dodgers retired his uniform number, 42.

From 1957 to 1964, Robinson served as vice president for personnel at Chock Full of Nuts, the first Black to act in that position in a major American corporation. He also help found Freedom National Bank, a Black-owned commercial bank based in Harlem.

Jackie Robinson died on Oct. 24, 1972, at age 53. He is survived by his wife, Rachel, daughter Sharon and son David. His eldest son, Jackie Robinson Jr., died in 1971.

Major League Baseball retired the number 42 on April 15, 1997, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut. Each year on April 15, baseball players don the number 42 in observance of Jackie Robinson Day. Yankees pitching great Mariano Rivera is the last player to wear it.

Activities

  • Look it up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about the life and career of Jackie Robinson.
  • Talk about it: Discuss the challenge Jackie Robinson had of playing baseball in a hostile racial climate and not being able to respond to it. Could you have done that?
  • Check it out: See the film “42” about the life of Jackie Robinson. Discuss it with your classmates.