April 18, 2013
By Kenneth D. Miller
LAWT Asst. Managing Editor
Born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play major league baseball. Throughout his decade-long career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he made advancements in the cause of civil rights for black athletes. In 1955, he helped the Dodgers win the World Series. He retired in 1957, with a career batting average of .311
The youngest of five children, Robinson was raised in relative poverty by a single mother.
He attended John Muir High School and Pasadena Junior College, where he was an excellent athlete and played four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball. He was named the region's Most Valuable Player in baseball in 1938.
Robinson's older brother, Matthew Robinson, inspired Jackie to pursue his talent and love for athletics. Matthew won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash—just behind Jesse Owens—at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
Jackie continued his education at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he became the university's first student to win varsity letters in four sports.
In 1941, despite his athletic success, Robinson was forced to leave UCLA just shy of graduation due to financial hardship.
He moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears.
His season with the Bears was cut short when the United States entered into World War II.
From 1942 to 1944, Robinson served as a second lieutenant in the United States Army.
He never saw combat, however; Robinson was arrested and court-martialed during boot camp after he refused to move to the back of a segregated bus during training.
He was later acquitted of the charges and received an honorable discharge.
His courage and moral objection to segregation were precursors to the impact Robinson would have in major league baseball.
After his discharge from the Army in 1944, Robinson began to play baseball professionally.
At the time, the sport was segregated, and African-Americans and whites played in separate leagues.
Robinson began playing in the Negro Leagues.
He was soon chosen by Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to help integrate major league baseball.
He joined the all-white Montreal Royals, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1946.
He later moved to Florida to begin spring training with the Royals.
Jackie Robinson his first game in Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
Rickey knew there would be difficult times ahead for the young athlete, and made Robinson promise to not fight back when confronted with racism.
From the beginning of his career with the Dodgers, Robinson's will was tested.
Even some of his own teammates objected to having an African-American on their team.
People in the crowds sometimes jeered at Robinson, and he and his family received threats.
Despite the racial abuse, particularly at away games, Robinson had an outstanding start with the Royals, leading the International League with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage.
His excellent year led to his promotion to the Dodgers.
April 15, 1947, marked the first time an African-American athlete played in the major leagues.
The harassment continued, however.
Philadelphia Phillies and their manager Ben Chapman, during one infamous game, Chapman and his team shouted derogatory terms at Robinson from their dugout.
Many players on opposing teams threatened not to play against the Dodgers.
Even his own teammates threatened to sit out. But Dodgers manager Leo Durocher informed them that he would sooner trade them than Robinson.
Leo Durocher’s loyalty to Jackie set the tone for the rest of Robinson's career with the team.
Others defended Jackie Robinson's right to play in the major leagues, including League President Ford Frick, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg and Dodgers shortstop and team captain Pee Wee Reese.
Jackie Robinson succeeded in putting the prejudice and racial strife aside, and showed everyone what a talented player he was. In his first year, he hit 12 home runs and helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant.
That year, Robinson led the National League in stolen bases and was selected as Rookie of the Year. He continued to wow fans and critics alike with impressive feats, such as an outstanding .342 batting average during the 1949 season. He led in stolen bases that year and earned the National League's Most Valuable Player Award.
Robinson soon became a hero of the sport, even among former critics, and was the subject for the popular song, "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?"
An exceptional base runner, Robinson stole home 19 times in his career, setting a league record.
He also became the highest-paid athlete in Dodgers history, and his success in the major leagues opened the door for other African-American players, such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.
Robinson also became a vocal champion for African-American athletes, civil rights, and other social and political causes. In July 1949, he testified on discrimination before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1952, he publicly called out the Yankees as a racist organization for not having broken the color barrier five years after he began playing with the Dodgers.
Robinson has also been recognized outside of baseball. In December 1956, the NAACP recognized him with the Spingarn Medal, which it awards annually for the highest achievement by an African-American. President Ronald Reagan posthumously awarded Robinson the Presidential Medal of Freedom on March 26, 1984 and on March 2, 2005, President George W. Bush gave Robinson's widow Rachel Robinson the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award bestowed by Congress; Robinson was only the second baseball player to receive the award, after Roberto Clemente. On August 20, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, announced that Robinson was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts in Sacramento.
A number of buildings have been named in Robinson's honor. The UCLA Bruins baseball team plays in Jackie Robinson Stadium, which, because of the efforts of Jackie's brother Mack, features a memorial statue of Robinson by sculptor Richard H. Ellis. The stadium also unveiled a new mural of Robinson by Mike Sullivan on April 14, 2013. City Island Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida was renamed Jackie Robinson Ballpark in 1990 and a statue of Robinson with two children stands in front of the ballpark. His wife Rachel was present for the dedication.