Seventy-five years ago April 15, 1947, the game of baseball changed as we know it. Most people who know the name Jackie Robinson only associate that name with MLB and do not know about his other accomplishments as an athlete and more importantly as black man in America.
There are a few things about Jackie that you might not know. He was the youngest of the five Robinson children. His older brother Frank was killed in a motorcycle accident, and another brother Mack Robinson was a silver medalist at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Jackie was a college football, basketball, baseball, and track star at UCLA. In 1939 he was the first athlete to win varsity letters in four different sports at UCLA. In 1940 he was NCAA Long Jump champion with a jump of 24ft. 10.5 inches. Jackie was also an accomplished tennis player. He left UCLA just before he was to graduate in 1941 and went to Hawaii to play football for the Honolulu Bears. They were a semi-professional team. He went back to California to play for another team the Los Angeles Bulldogs. His football career ended that year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war.
After being drafted in 1942, he was sent to a Cavalry unit at Ft. Riley, KS, he applied to and was accepted to OCS (Officer Candidate School). He was commissioned as a Second Lt. in January of 1943. He was then assigned to Ft. Hood, TX where he was in the “Black Panthers” tanker unit. While at Ft. Hood 2Lt. Robinson got on an army bus and was told by the driver to go to the back of the bus and Robinson refused. The driver waited until he was end of his route and called the MP’s (Military Police) who took Robinson into custody. Robinson objected to the questioning by what Robinson considered a racist white officer. They tried to bring Court-Martial proceedings against 2Lt Robinson, but his commander would not authorize the Court-Martial. Robinson was moved to another unit where the commander authorized the Court-Martial and proceeded on with it. Robinson was charged with a bevy of charges like public drunkenness even though Robinson did not drink. When he finally got to trial the charges were changed to 2 counts of insubordination during questioning by Military Police. He was acquitted of the charges by a panel of 9 white officers. His Court-Martial stopped him from being deployed. He got re-assigned to Camp Breckenridge, KY where he finished his tour of service in November of 1944. He received an honorable discharge. The incident on the bus at Ft. Hood happened 11 years prior to the incident with Rosa Parks in Montgomery, AL. He was standing for basic civil rights even then.
After his discharge from the service Jackie worked as the Athletic Director of Sam Huston College. While there he got a written offer to play professional baseball in the Negro League for the Kansas City Monarchs. He signed a contract to pay him $400.00 dollars a month. Jackie played in 47 games at shortstop and batted .387 with five home runs and 13 stolen bases. He also played in the All-Star game and did not get a hit in five at bats. He also tried to pursue MLB tryouts, and got one with the Boston Red Sox, but the tryout was basically a sham and Jackie got humiliated. This tryout was two years before he broke into the MLB. The Red Sox were the last team to mix up its roster in 1959. Jackie had a meeting with Branch Rickey, Club President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and they talked about Jackie being signed to a contract, but he had to assure Rickey that he would not fight over racial slurs thrown at him by fans and players alike. Rickey had been scouting the Negro League players since the mid 1940’s. In 1946 Jackie played with the “AAA” Montreal Royals in the International League. Jackie was the first black player in the International League since the 1880’s. He was chosen over Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige, both men were angry over the decision. Jackie was signed to a $600.00 a month contract. February 10, 1946 Jackie marries his college sweetheart Rachel Isum. During the 1946 season Jackie had some hardships like not being able to stay in the same hotels as the white players. Robinson batted .349 to lead the International League and he was voted MVP of the league that year.
The year is 1947 and about a week before the season is to start Jackie is called up by the Dodgers, and on April 15th, Jackie made his debut in the MLB starting at 1st base. Jackie endured abuse from the fans and some players on his team and from opposing teams. 14,000 black fans flocked out to see Robinson on his first day with the Dodgers. Jackie played in 151 games that season with a batting average of .297, he had 175 hits, scored 125 runs, and 48 RBI’s, 12 home runs, and a league leading 29 stolen bases. Robinson was voted the initial Rookie of the Year Award. Robinson won the National League MVP in 1949 and he was voted to the All-Star team for the first time. It was also the first time that black players played in the All-Star game. He was voted to the All-Star team 6 consecutive years from 1949-1954. In 1955 Dodgers won the World Series beating the New York Yankees and he became a champion. Robinson had a song written about him, he played himself in a movie, and he had a comic book also. Jackie played in the MLB until 1956 when he retired. He ended his career with a lifetime .311 batting average, 1518 career hits, 734 RBI’s, 197 stolen bases, and 137 home runs. He was a first ballot inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also the first black man to be inducted to Cooperstown.
When Robinson retired from Baseball he became the first black Vice President of a major corporation. Robinson was diagnosed in 1957 with diabetes. The disease took a real toll on his body. In 1964 he helped establish Freedom National Bank in Harlem, NY which was completely black owned. In 1965 Jackie was a sports analyst for ABC Sports, again being the first black man to do so. Jackie started building homes for low-income families through his company Jackie Robinson Construction Company in 1970. Robinson had his number “42” retired by the Dodgers in 1972. In 1997, his number was retired across MLB. Mariano Rivera of the NY Yankees is the only player that wears the number “42” and when he retires it will be the last time that number is used. Jackie had many events in his life that were at the forefront of his time. He was ahead of his time in so many ways. Dr. Martin Luther King said of Robinson he was, “a legend and a symbol in his own time” and that he “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration”. Robinson was recognized for so many other things outside of baseball.
When his playing days were over Robinson was still a very visible person in the community, in politics and in the Civil Rights movement. He was a shining example of what the black community aspired to become. He fought tirelessly to make things better for not only black, but for people in general.
Jackie was a family man, he and his wife Rachel had three children, Jackie Jr., Sharon, and David. Jackie Jr. was killed in a car crash. David is a coffee grower in Tanzania, and Sharon is an author of two books about her famous father. She is also involved with MLB. Rachel Robinson was an academic in the nursing field, she was an assistant professor at the Yale School of Nursing among many other pursuits.
Jackie Roosevelt Robinson died on October 24, 1772 at the relatively young age of fifty-three. His death was attributed to a heart attack. Jackie died at home. He was mourned by thousands, former players, friends, family, and many others. Rev. Jesse Jackson gave his eulogy and some black players were his pallbearers. Jackie is buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery next to his son Jackie Robinson Jr. Shortly after his death, his wife Rachel started the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Since his death, he has been posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball at the age of twenty-eight, and on that day he became so much more than a baseball player. He became a lightning rod for social change in America. His efforts on the field are legendary and his efforts off the field are far-reaching beyond the baseball diamond and beyond his death. His work in life is as a man has been, and will be felt for many years to come. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was not just a baseball player.
Mike Samuels is a writer for TSB and can be contacted at MSamuels@TheSportsBlitz.com