Shortly before being assassinated in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
That’s disputable, but very complimentary of the great Dr. King
nonetheless, after all, we’ll never know. What we do know is that both Robinson and Dr. King were monumental in their own way in advancing civil rights for Black Americans.
Robinson was the first Black baseball player to play in the Major Leagues. His signature on the Brooklyn Dodgers’ contract started the end of racial segregation in professional baseball. Until Robinson took the field for the Dodgers for the first time on April 15, 1947, at the age of 28, Black players were relegated to playing in the Negro Leagues. He had played for the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson broke the color line of Major League Baseball just like other color lines in the United States had to be broken in education, voting and employment.
In honor of Robinson, Major League Baseball retired his number, 42, in 1997 throughout the league. That number can never be worn again by any of its players. Another first for Robinson, and for sports in general, was that he was the first professional athlete in any sport to be honored in this way. To further honor him, all MLB players and coaches from both teams, as well as the umpires, wear uniforms with the No. 42 on them along with commemorative uniform and cap patches during their games on April 15th, Jackie Robinson Day, or the following if a game isn’t scheduled on that day. Hosted by each home team, it’s been an official annual tradition since 2004.
Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has been noted for saying, “Baseball’s proudest moment and its most powerful social statement came on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a Major League Baseball field. On that day, Jackie brought down the color barrier and ushered in the era in which baseball became the true national pastime.”
On April 15, 1997, 50 years after Robinson’s historic event, Selig along with Robinson’s wife Rachel and then President Bill Clinton, at Shea Stadium, now Citifield in Queens, New York, honored Robinson by retiring his uniform number in perpetuity and establishing April 15th as “Jackie Robinson Day throughout Major League Baseball.”
“We are further ensuring that the incredible contributions and sacrifices he made for baseball and society will not be forgotten,” Selig said at the time.
Robinson, born 100 years ago on Jan. 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, had a Hall of Fame career. During his 10-years in the Major Leagues, all with the Dodgers, Robinson was the recipient of the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and the National League Batting Champion in 1949, the year he was voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player. From 1949 to 1954, Robinson was voted to the National League All-Star team—six consecutive years. With Robinson, the Dodgers won six National League pennants and the World Series in 1955.
Robinson retired from the Dodgers in 1956 with a .311 career batting average. He then became the vice president of Chock Full O’Nuts, the first Black American to do so for a major American corporation, and the first Black television sports analyst. Robinson was also very influential in the Civil Rights Movement and helped establish Freedom National Bank in the 1960s, an African-American-owned financial institution based here in Harlem, New York. He was voted into the Hall Of Fame in 1962.
Robinson, who lived in Stamford, Connecticut, died 10 years later from complications of diabetes and heart disease. Diabetes had weakened him. He was nearly blinded by it at the time of his death at the age of 53 on Oct. 24,1972.
Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom for his achievements on and off the field.
Robinson’s wife and daughter, Rachel and Sharon, continue to work on his behalf through the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a public, non-profit organization that perpetuates Robinson’s memory by providing four-year college scholarships to deserving students. They’ve also created the Jackie Robinson Museum, expected to open in lower Manhattan this year. The state-of-the-art museum commemorates the life of Robinson as an athlete, an activist and as an icon whose life was not only impactful upon sports, but also upon society.