As Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson day, I have the opportunity to write about a subject that is near and dear to me personally. As a student in college I took a class about the civil rights movement that had a profound impact on me. So much so that I changed my major to history, and pursued a Masters Degree in the subject as well.
One subject that really hit home to me as a sports fan and aspiring History Geek, was Jackie Robinson. My professor had us read a book called Baseball’s Great Experiment, Jackie Robinson And His Legacy, by Jules Tygiel. The book is a must read for any baseball fan.
For me it was great I was going to class, studying baseball and my favorite team, The Dodgers, all at the same time. However the book opened my eyes to so much more. It not only details what Jackie went through on and off the field as the first African-American baseball player in more than 50 years; but it also tells a compelling story how the Robinson experiment would eventually lay the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919. His mother, Mallie Robinson, single-handedly raised Jackie and his four brothers and sisters. They were the only black family on their block, and the prejudice Jackie faced growing up helped to strengthen his resolve for what he would face later in life.
Jackie excelled at all sports and earned his way to UCLA, where he became the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. In 1941, he was named an All-American in football. Due to financial difficulties, he was forced to leave college, and eventually he enlisted in the Army. After two years he had progressed to the rank of second lieutenant. However, Jackie’s army career was cut short when he was brought up on court-martial charges due to his objections with incidents of racial discrimination. In the end, Jackie left the Army with an honorable discharge.
In 1945, Jackie played one season in the Negro Baseball League with the Kansas City Monarchs, but that was merely the beginning of what would turn into a historical career. Jackie married Rachel Isum, a nursing student he met at UCLA, in 1946. As the first African-American baseball player, Jackie was on display for the whole country to see, and many hoped he would fail. Rachel and his three children, Jackie Jr., Sharon and David, provided Jackie with the emotional support off the field that he needed to endure the pressure he alone faced on the field.
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In 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey approached Jackie about joining the Dodgers. Baseball had not had an African-American player since 1889, when the sport was segregated. Jackie’s unique background along with his talents and strong personality made him the ideal candidate to break the color barrier in Rickey’s opinion.
By donning a Brooklyn Dodger uniform, he not only became a pioneer for his sport and race, he helped opened the door for integration of other professional sports in America. By breaking the color barrier in baseball, the nation’s preeminent sport at the time, he stood as a historical symbol that would eventually breakdown the deeply rooted racial segregation that existed in the US.
Jackie became a symbol, on the nations biggest stage, which would open doors for African-Americans in all walks of life. While his athletic career is widely regarded, few people appreciate the historical impact that Jackie playing baseball had throughout the U.S. His athletic career was a key step that would essentially help lay the groundwork for the civil rights movement.
On the field Robinson was an instant success, he was named the National League Rookie of the Year with 12 homers, a .297 average and a league-leading 29 steals. In 1949, he was selected as the NL’s Most Valuable player and won a batting title hitting .342. In 1955 he helped lead the proverbial underdog Brooklyn Dodgers to their first World Series title against their bitter rivals the New York Yankees. Jackie was eventually inducted in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962.
Jackie Robinson’s life and legacy stand as one of the most important in American history, and the influence his courageous actions had on an entire culture are profound. Baseball celebrates April 15, the date of Jackie’s debut, by having all players wear Robinson’s #42, a number which has been retired throughout baseball.
By honoring Jackie, we honor a man who stood, alone at first, for the cause of racial equality. His example not only led to sweeping reforms in our country decades later, but continue to stand as a lasting tribute to the greater cause he served by being the first of his kind to play and excel at professional baseball.
I tip my hat to the man who endured so many unimaginable insults in his life, just because he was of a different race than those he competed against on the field. Also not to be forgotten in this remarkable story is the man, Branch Rickey, and the organization, the Dodgers, who had the foresight and the courage to take a chance and give a great athlete the opportunity to make history. The Dodgers and Branch Rickey stood up against the social injustice that existed in sports and our nation at that time, and their actions, along with Jackie’s resolve, changed sports and an entire country for the better.
Enjoy the video below, especially you Yankee fans, who can forget the 1955 World Series, game 1 and sorry Yogi but Jackie was without a doubt safe!
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