January 31 – Happy Birthday, Jackie Robinson

Posted on January 31, 2014

Jackie Robinson is one of the most famous baseball players in history.

For one thing, he was really good. In ten seasons, he played in six World Series, and he contributed to the Dodgers' 1955 World Championship. He was selected six years in a row to play on the All Stars, and he got the first MLB Rookie of the Year Award and a National League Most Valuable Player Award. He was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.

Another reason Robinson is so famous is because he broke the “color barrier.” Before Robinson signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the National League had no black players; black baseball players were consigned to the “Negro leagues.”

And Jackie Robinson lived in the town I grew up in, Pasadena, California, from age one until he he went away to college at UCLA. He attended the same high school as my sister (but years and years before she did, of course), and he attended the same junior college as my parents!

Of course Robinson faced racism and discrimination. I always assumed he was one of those guys who let all that stuff roll off his back – I thought that was maybe why he was the one chosen to break the color barrier – but in fact, Robinson was assertive in the face of racism. As a young man, he had a few run-ins with police officers; for example, Robinson once spoke up for a black friend who was being detained by police for no apparent reason. Robinson's questioning of the officers resulted in him being arrested and getting a two-year suspended sentence. Later, while Robinson was in the U.S. Army during World War II, he boarded a military-commissioned bus line that was supposed to be integrated. The bus driver, though, asked Robinson to sit in the back. Robinson refused, and the bus driver had military police take him into custody. Robinson told the investigating duty officer that the questions he and his assistant were asking were racist, and eventually Robinson had to face court martial hearings for “insubordination during questioning.” It's a good thing that he was found innocent by a panel of nine officers (who were all white, by the way), but the hearings alone were enough to derail his military career.

Pro Ball

I didn't know that Robinson first tried pro ball in football. When World War II interrupted his football career before it hardly began, he ended up going into baseball. He played in the Negro leagues but wanted to play in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, the first tryout he attended, for the Boston Red Sox, was a farce; instead of having an actual chance at a spot on the team, the tryout was designed to humiliate Robinson and the other black players who tried out.

Branch Rickey from the Brooklyn Dodgers chose Robinson (even though he wasn't the best player in the Negro leagues) to join his club and break the color barrier. But Rickey asked Robinson to face the racial slurs and hate speech that would surely be hurled at him without “rising to the bait,” without fighting back. Rickey asked Robinson to turn the other cheek.

Once Robinson made that commitment, he became a part of the Dodgers' farm club, the Royals, and soon, in 1947, he was called up to the Big Leagues. Of course, there were a lot of problems. Hotel owners and Parks and Public Property directors stood in the way of integrated games. Some Dodger players hinted that they would rather sit out than to play with a black man. Some players on opposing teams complained about having to play with him, or even threatened to go on strike. Some of the ballplayers and managers called Robinson racial epithets.

And I'm sure you've heard or figured out that some baseball fans yelled all sorts of ugly words at Robinson. He also received hateful hate mail like these anonymous, cowardly notes.

But there was also a lot of positive attention, too. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher said that he didn't care if a player was yellow or black or striped like a zebra; if he said that player was in the game, he was in the game. Many white players and newspaper reporters thought that integrating baseball was great. Robinson's teammate Pee Wee Reese said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” And Reese showed physical support by putting his arm around Robinson when people were yelling racial slurs at him.

I was surprised to read that a 1947 poll (taken the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier) picked Robinson as #2 most popular man in the United States, behind only Bing Crosby.

And of course since then his awards and recognition, his legacy and legend, have only grown!

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