Today, one of the most beautiful sporting traditions will unfurl across Major League Baseball, as all uniformed personnel wear one number to celebrate the life and legacy of a trailblazer. That number is 42, immortalised by one Jackie Roosevelt Robinson as he became the first black man to play in the modern Major Leagues exactly sixty-nine years ago. It’s a fitting tribute to a monumental man. It’s quite unlike anything else in sports.
On 15th April 1947, Robinson played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was 28-years old, which is rather strange for a rookie. However, Jackie and many others had long been suppressed by an unspoken agreement among league owners to keep baseball a whites-only pastime. This was a different age in American civilisation, where a man was still judged by the colour of his skin rather than the content of his character. From the 1880s through to Robinson’s audacious debut, if black men wanted to play baseball, they journeyed to the Negro Leagues, which was just as divisive as it sounds. But then Branch Rickey, a wonderful Dodger executive, concocted a plan that resulted in Jackie breaking the colour barrier once and for all. He became a role model, a hero, an inspiration. He made a difference.
Robinson ended decades of segregation at a time when baseball was devoured like little else in America. His success, and the non-violent manner in which it was achieved, had a tremendous impact on the Civil Rights Movement, years before Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks rose to prominence. Robinson’s mere presence permeated all facets of society, and begged America to consider a better future for itself.
And so today, every ballplayer will wear 42. Every coach and manager and umpire will do the same, regardless of race or creed or background. Today, we will see a game of equality and opportunity that once seemed impossible; a game without hurdles or caveats or asterisks based on ethnic origin. Together, we will honour the sacrifice and meaning of a transcendent figure, but also remember a terrific ballplayer who won the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award in addition to six All-Star selections, an MVP crown, a batting title and a World Series ring. Once again, we will explain the eternal importance of that sacred number, retired universally in 1997 as a permanent reminder of Jackie’s impact, and teach new generations to incubate his legacy. We will remember him, for our game would be far less joyful if he never came along.
Jackie Robinson was born on 31st January 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. When Jackie was one, his father left the family, and a move to California beckoned soon thereafter. Living in an affluent and mostly white area, the Robinson’s grew up in relative poverty, with Jackie and his friends excluded from many communal activities. As a strong sense of discontent bubbled, Jackie toyed with joining a local gang, before athletics provided a blissful escape. He was a sporting whiz at school, dominating any pursuit requiring people to run, throw, kick, tackle or jump. Jackie had an outlet, if not a guaranteed passport to a better life.
At UCLA, he became the first athlete to win varsity letters in four different sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. Quite incredibly, baseball was considered his worst sport at that point. Indeed, after leaving college without graduating and trying his hand at a few menial jobs, Robinson played football for the Honolulu Bears and Los Angeles Bulldogs, before World War II interrupted his progress.
With help from prizefighter Joe Louis, Jackie attended officer candidate school and eventually became a second lieutenant in 1943. Reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas, he dealt with prejudice and was forced through the court martial process after one particular incident on a bus. Ultimately, Robinson was acquitted and later earned an honourable discharge in November 1944.
After trying his hand in a few more sports-related roles, Jackie was offered an opportunity to play professional baseball by the Kansas City Monarchs, a famous Negro League team. Robinson didn’t like the gambling culture endemic on the Negro League circuit, nor the long road-trips by bus, but he signed a contract paying $400 per month, thus beginning his journey into the throes of baseball immortality.
An impressive stint with the Monarchs piqued the interest of some bystanders, and Robinson earned a tryout with the Boston Red Sox, held at Fenway Park in April 1945. Yet, in retrospect, the event was more of a disgraceful sham than an honest opportunity, as Jackie was subjected to racial epithets from the stands, populated only by a small phalanx of executives and scouts. Robinson felt humiliated, as his chances of baseball success were stifled by the bigotry of a white and crusty elite.
However, one man saw through the deeply-entrenched discrimination. One man dared look at things in a different light. One man was brave enough to attack the sickening subjugation and change things for the better. That man was Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
A famed innovator who pioneered the use of a farm system, Rickey always sought new ways to stay ahead of the curve. This instinct motivated him to scout the Negro Leagues for talent, and produce a shortlist of players who could potentially help the Dodgers in a competitive National League. As one of the most gifted black players, Jackie Robinson was high on the list, and Rickey took the genius step of interviewing him to get a sense of the character that lay within.
In searching for a player to break the colour barrier, Rickey wanted somebody “with guts enough not to fight back” amid the inevitable backlash. Robinson agreed to “turn the other cheek,” and signed a contract for $600 per month. The experiment began with Robinson reporting to the Montreal Royals, where he broke the International League colour barrier for the first time since the 1880s. Clay Hopper, the Royals’ manager, pleaded to have Jackie sent to another team, but Rickey was steadfast in his convictions. Robinson would play.
Some black players resented Robinson, arguing that he wasn’t the best Negro League player and that other stars deserved the opportunity he received. But while Robinson may not have been the best player on that circuit, he was deemed by Rickey as the one best equipped to deal with the pressure and inevitable abuse that came with integrating baseball. And, as later events would illustrate, that notion was proved absolutely correct.
At this point, we should pay tribute to the gumption and foresight of Rickey, who took a monumental decision that still echoes in the annals of baseball history. Some cynics argue that his main motivation was financial, given the increased attendances sure to follow a black player reaching the Major Leagues, but that is of minimal importance. What really matters is that Branch Rickey, a man firmly ensconced within the corrupt clique of baseball executives, put his reputation on the line by offering an opportunity to the shunned and disregarded. Under intense scrutiny, he stuck to his task, and is deserving of immense respect for his seminal role in debunking a noxious gentleman’s agreement that restricted baseball for more than half a century.
In his first spring training, held in racially charged Florida, Jackie Robinson was forced to stay at a different hotel to his teammates, while police chiefs threatened to cancel games if he or Johnny Wright, another black player on the Dodgers’ radar, played. Nevertheless, Robinson remained stoic amid the intolerance, and proceeded to win the International League MVP award with a .349 batting average. To their eternal credit, Montreal provided an ideal incubator for Robinson to thrive. They gave him a chance, just as the Dodgers did in 1947.
Jackie was promoted to mixed responses, but Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher left little room for doubt with one powerful line: “I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fucking zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.”
A petition circulated among some Dodger players who wanted Robinson off the team, but Durocher killed the concept. Other teams, notably the Cardinals, threatened to strike if Robinson played against them. Ford Frick, the National League President, was strong in forcing St Louis to play, as Jackie got his chance.
It’s important to understand the context in which he debuted. America enjoyed a post-War boom of hope, as a new sense of possibility reigned supreme. While that sense of optimism failed to break down racism alone, there was a general determination, in certain parts, to be better citizens. Branch Rickey embodied that feeling. In many ways, segregation and racial prejudice was the last barrier stopping the United States from becoming a genuine superpower. Baseball was the national pastime, the foremost avatar of American culture. The fact that blacks couldn’t partake at the highest level was very informative. A sacrificial hero was needed, and in Jackie Robinson, that’s exactly what the nation got.
There is no whiter white than Dodger white. The uniform is resplendent, baseball’s minimalist masterpiece. Therefore, the sight of a black man wearing it must have been startling. Similarly, the solitary nature of baseball made it the most difficult sport to integrate, from a standpoint of scrutiny. Jackie couldn’t hide in a huddle or behind a mask. He had to get up there and hit, with thousands of eyes trained on his every move, with scores of vicious tongues lashing invective in his direction. But somehow, he managed it, to our eternal admiration. For every epithet and every fastball aimed at the teeth, Jackie Robinson kept right on. Rachel, his wife, supported him a great deal, but the heart and determination was Jackie’s, passed down from his mother.
Throughout his career, Robinson was subjected to physical play and dirty slides, especially once he transitioned to second base. One particular play with the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter resulted in a seven-inch gash on Jackie’s leg. The most verbal abuse came in his first season, when vitriol rained down from stands and few teammates accepted him. Phillies manager Ben Chapman served up some of the most disgusting attacks directly from his dugout, but Robinson never retaliated. Not at first, anyway. He bit his tongue, honouring the promise to Rickey. He remembered every word, and would seek retribution when the gag was removed by his boss in subsequent seasons.
Breaking the colour barrier of a beloved sport entailed far more than met the public eye. Away from the field, Robinson had to sleep at separate hotels and eat at different restaurants to his teammates. Even waiting for a cab in a certain part of town could be an ordeal. For Jackie and millions more, everything in life came with a caveat or asterisk. Everything was a fight, but Jackie was prepared to scrap.
As his career unfurled, Robinson journeyed from hated to tolerated to accepted. I don’t know that he was ever fully embraced, but one public display of support still echoes through baseball history. That was the gesture of Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who famously put his arm around Jackie on the infield in 1948 as he received abuse from a Cincinnati crowd. Reese was raised in the segregated city of Louisville, Kentucky, which gave his support of Jackie added poignancy. “You can hate a man for many reasons,” Reese later explained. “But colour is not one of them.”
Robinson was an exceptional player, in addition to an ideal civil rights figurehead. In 1949, he won the Most Valuable Player Award, which still seems improbable to this day. That the overwhelmingly white press voted for a black man as the league’s best player spoke volumes about his on-field talent and off-field ability to change minds. Jackie Robinson was that good, that important.
Yes, Jackie Robinsn changed baseball in all the obvious ways, but he also broke other traditions within the game’s culture. He brought some of the famous Negro League flamboyance and energy to Major League Baseball, that most staid of instiutions. Jackie stole home and twinkled on the basepaths. He provided flair to a game that sorely needed it. He made baseball more wholesome and beautiful, more pure and cosmpolitan. He paved the way for future generations, allowing us to enjoy the sensational talent of players like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.
What if he never came along? What if he wasn’t so gracious and skilled? These are questions worth contemplating today, on Jackie Robinson Day, now in its thirteenth year of existence.
“I have often stated that baseball’s proudest moment and its most powerful social statement came on April 15, 1947,” said former Commissioner Bud Selig upon instituting the event. “On that day, Jackie brought down the colour barrier and ushered in the era in which baseball became the true national pastime. By establishing April 15 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.”
Ultimately, the last word should be reserved for the great man himself. “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives,” Jackie Robinson explained so beautifully. And rarely has a truer word been spoken, in the arena of sport or life in general.