A Legacy Bigger Than His Batting Average

I miss baseball.

I know it’s a ridiculous thing to miss in the middle of pandemic that’s taken much more important things, but still I miss baseball.

So today, I want to forget the pandemic, forget the quarantine, forget the self-isolation, and let my mind travel to the ballpark, to the crack of the bat and the smell of popcorn.

And to 1947, when baseball–and the world in general–started to change.

All because of man named Jack.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, the youngest of five children to sharecropper parents, Mallie and Jerry Robinson. After his father abandoned the family in 1920, Mallie moved her children to Pasadena, California where she raised them as a single-parent in an all-white neighborhood. In a childhood marked by poverty and prejudice, the Robinson children found solace and strength in area athletics. Jack’s older brother Matthew (nicknamed “Mack”) excelled at track and field and competed in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, where he won a silver medal and broke the Olympic record for the 200 meter dash–but still finished behind the legendary Jesse Owens.

Inspired by his older brother and possessing a natural athletic ability of his own, Jackie, still in high school at the time, threw himself into every sport he could. During his time at  John Muir High School, he lettered in four different sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball, all of which he continued to play well into his time at Pasadena Junior College (PJC) and UCLA, which he attended upon graduation from PJC in 1939.

During his time at UCLA, he was one of only four black players on the Bruins’ 1939 football team, which went undefeated, and he won the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump. Baseball, surprisingly, was his “worst” sport; he hit only .097 in his first season.

Any athletic dreams Jackie held, however, were put on hold by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Instead, he became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, stationed with the 761st Tank Battalion in Fort Hood, Texas, where he trained and awaited deployment overseas.

It was never to occur.

On July 6, 1944, Jackie boarded an unsegregated Army bus and was surprised to hear the bus driver command him to move to the back. Although he had experienced plenty of prejudice and discrimination during his childhood and school career, he had assumed his time in the military would be different.

He refused, and the bus driver summoned the military police, who took Robinson into custody. Despite threats of court-martial, he did not back down; he openly questioned the legality of his arrest and objected to what he viewed as racial discrimination within the ranks. In the end, his charges were reduced to two counts of insubordination, and he was eventually acquitted by an all-white jury. Because of his trial, however, he missed any chance at combat; the 761st deployed overseas without him, becoming the first all-black tank until to see combat in World War II. Robinson was honorably discharged in November 1944.

Jackie returned to football, playing running back for the semi-professional Los Angeles Bulldogs before moving on to an athletic director position at Samuel Huston College in Austin, which including coaching–and sometimes playing–for the team’s fledgling basketball program.

In 1945, he signed a contract with the Kansas City Monarchs to play in the Negro Baseball League. Despite his college hiccups in the game, he excelled with the Monarchs, hitting .387, including 5 home runs, and stealing 13 bases during his 47 games with the teams. In short, he was good. And people were starting to notice.

Major League Baseball had technically been integrated since 1884, when Moses Fleetwood Walker joined the Toledo Blue Stockings. However, no African-American had played since his departure in 1889, and a deep sense of racism permeated the league. Robinson, still stinging from the prejudice that had kept him from military combat, was determined not to let it stop him again.

He and several other black players attended a try-out for the Boston Red Sox where, despite his obvious athletic powers, he was subjected to humiliation and racial slurs from the coaches and management. The “try-out,” it seemed, was conducted in jest; the team had no interest in signing black players. They were merely trying to appease the desegregationist movement sweeping through the city.

Jackie’s talent was not a joke to other teams, however. A few months later, Robinson interviewed with Branch Rickey, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, for a spot on the roster. It wasn’t a question of talent. Rickey already knew he had it. It was a question of whether Robinson could handle the discrimination and vitriol that was sure to follow him no matter wherever he played in the league.

“Are you looking for a Negro who’s afraid to fight back?” Robinson asked, to which Rickey replied that he needed a Negro “with enough guts not to fight back.” Rickey wanted the game to be the game; let talent and success speak for themselves.

Robinson agreed and, after a few tense months in minor leagues, during which he was segregated from white teammates, threatened with boycotts from racist patrons, and even subjected to forfeits from opposing players, he finally made his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 before a crowd over 26,000, over half of which were African-American.

Despite racial tension inside the clubhouse, rumors of strikes from opposing teams, and physical and verbal assaults, Robinson remembered his promise to Rickey and focused on the game. During his inaugural season, he played 151 games and had 175 hits, including 12 home runs. He led the league in sacrifice hits and stolen bases, and won the Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award.

Let talent and success do the talking, indeed.

The following year, more African-American players joined the league, including three more on Robinson’s team alone. He had effectively broken the baseball color line. Although the United States still had (and has) a long way to go in terms of civil rights and racial equality, Robinson’s courage and determination marked a turning point. For the first time, white Americans were witnessing–and cheering–for the accomplishments and achievements of a black American. Although a slow process that’s still being worked out all these decades later, Robinson, for his part and his time, put fans of all races on the same team.

Jackie Robinson’s jersey, 42, was the first and only number to be retired by an entire league, and every year, on the anniversary of his first game with the Dodgers, Major League Baseball celebrates “Jackie Robinson Day.” The list of his athletic accomplishments is long and impressive, but his legacy goes forever beyond the baseball diamond.

Despite all his hardships, despite all the times he could have walked away, despite all the abuse he suffered for nothing but the color of his skin, Robinson remained committed to the game–and to himself. And, because of his, as stated by sports’ writer Roger Kahn, he “made his country and you and me and all of us a shade more free.”

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