Today marks the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Before we talk of hot stove, spring training, or anything else, let’s take a moment to reflect on the life and career of this great man and Dodger. Please remember that nothing I say, and I mean no words from me could ever do justice to this heroic man.
Jackie Robinson, A.K.A. Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, was born on January 19, 1919, in Cairo Georgia. Robinson’s family were sharecroppers, and his middle name was a tribute to former president Teddy Roosevelt who died just 25 days before Robinson was born. Jackie was the youngest of five children. Jackie’s older brothers, who were also athletes, persuaded Jackie to go into sports. Jackie was always very athletic though. At John Muir High School, Jackie played several sports at the varsity level, and lettered in four: baseball, football, basketball, and track. Jackie attended Pasadena Junior College, where he again played a number of sports, and played them very well. He was a shortstop and lead-off hitter for the baseball team, a quarterback and safety for the football team, and broke school jump records in track previously held by his older brothers. While at Pasadena College, he fractured his ankle playing football, which delayed his deployment into the military.
Jackie began his lifelong fight against racism at a young age. He joined a student run organization that was responsible for policing school activities. In 1938, Jackie would become one of ten students to win the school’s order of the mast and dagger. An award given to students who perform outstanding service to the school and whose scholastic and citizenship record is worthy of recognition. On January 25, 1938, Jackie was arrested for vocally objecting to the detaining of a black friend by a police officer. Jackie received a two-year suspended sentence. However he garnered a reputation for having a problem with authority figures. Towards the end of his tenure at Pasadena Junior College, Jackie’s brother Frank passed away in a motorcycle accident. Jackie decided to attend UCLA in order to be close to his brother’s family.
Jackie transferred to UCLA in 1939, where he again played several different sports, becoming the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. He was one of only four black players at the time on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team. Robinson met his future wife at UCLA, who was a freshmen at the time. In the spring semester of 1941, Jackie left UCLA just short of graduation to take a job as an assistant athletic director with the government’s National Youth Administration in Atascadero, California.
Jackie was considering playing football for the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast football League, but it was December of 1941, and we were about to go to war. Jackie was drafted and assigned to a segregated army Calvary unit in Fort Riley, Kansas in 1942. While trying to apply for Officers Candidate School, Jackie was met with opposition. With the help of a civilian aide named Truman Gibson, and boxing champion Joe Louis, Jackie was finally admitted. Jackie was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1943, and in the same year became engaged to his wife.
Jackie was reassigned to Fort Hood Texas, where he joined the 761st Tank Battalion. There was an incident in 1944 as Jackie boarded a military bus with a fellow officer’s wife. The driver asked Jackie to move to the back of the bus, and he refused. The driver summoned for the military police, and Jackie was taken into custody. Once Jackie reported the investigating officer of racist questioning, he was recommended for a court martial. Jackie was eventually charged with multiple offenses, one was for public drunkenness, even though Jackie didn’t drink at all.
The charges were eventually reduced to two counts of insubordination during questioning. Jackie was acquitted by an all-white panel of nine officers. Jackie’s former unit was the first black tank unit to see combat in World War II. Because of the court-martial, Jackie never saw combat action. Jackie was transferred to Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky where he was a coach for army athletes before being honorably discharged in November 1944. Jackie had met an ex-player of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League, who encouraged Jackie to write the Monarchs to ask for a tryout. Jackie wrote co-owner Thomas Baird.
In early 1945 the Monarchs sent Jackie a written offer to play ball in the Negro Leagues. Jackie agreed to a contract for 400 bucks a month. Overall Jackie didn’t like playing in the Negro Leagues. He was used to the more structured college environment, and disliked the players interests in gambling. He also disliked the travel schedule which put a strain on his relationship with his wife. Jackie played in 47 games for the Monarchs that year, batting .387 with five home runs and 13 steals. Jackie played in the 1945 Negro League all-star game going 0 for 5. Jackie drew interest from Major League teams in 1946, and he attended a tryout with the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Unfortunately even with mostly just management in the stands, Jackie had to endure racial epithets and left the field.
Branch Rickey, then club president and general manager of the Dodgers, began scouting Negro League players. He chose Jackie from a list of players, and interviewed Jackie for a job with the Dodgers international farm team, the Montreal Royals. Before signing Jackie, Rickey wanted to be sure that the player he signed would be able to withstand the racial abuse that would be thrown at him without fighting back or getting angry. Jackie asked Rickey, “Are you looking for a Negro that is afraid to fight back?” Rickey responded by saying he was looking for a Negro player that had the guts to not fight back. That is how Jackie fought racism, by not fighting back. Jackie fought back with his class, dignity, and humanity. On October 23, 1945, the Dodgers announced publicly that they had signed Jackie to a 600 dollar contract to play for their farm team the Montreal Royals. The rest as we say is history.
When Jackie reported to spring training in 1946, he was immediately met with hostility by people upset by his signing. The Dodgers didn’t start training in Vero Beach until 1948, so this was in Daytona Beach. Jackie was not allowed to stay with the team, and had to lodge with a local black politician. Several locals would not allow Jackie to play on their spring training fields. One town padlocked the stadium shut, and several police chiefs threatened to cancel games if Jackie did not stop his playing activities.
Jackie made his professional debut on March 17, 1946 n an exhibition game at Daytona Beach’s city island ballpark, against the team’s parent club the Dodgers. Jackie made his regular season debut on April 18, 1946 at Roosevelt Stadium as the Montreal Royals hosted the Jersey City Giants. Jackie went 4 for 5 in his first game. He hit a three run home run, scored four runs, drove in three, and stole two in the Royals 14-1 win. Jackie won the batting title by hitting .349 that season, and he won the league MVP award. However Jackie was still facing hostility on road trips.
When Jackie was called up to the Dodgers in 1947, he played his first season at first base because the Dodgers had Eddie Stanky at second base. Jackie would be moved to second base the next season once Stanky was traded to the Braves. One April 15, 1947, Jackie made his MLB debut with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in front of a crowd of 26,623. Jackie did not get a hit, and the Dodgers won the game. Jackie faced a lot of hostility, even from his own teammates. Some Dodgers insinuated they wanted to sit out rather than play with Jackie. However Manager Leo Durocher put an end to that by making a public statement in support of Robinson.
The Cardinals actually threatened to strike if Jackie played, and during one game Jackie had to endure racial slurs and rough physical play during some games. Once he received a large gash in his leg during a rough play . Jackie’s teammate Pee Wee Reese, another man of great character, stuck up for Jackie. Reese said “You can hate a man for many reasons, color is not one of them.” Jackie played with the Dodgers for ten seasons from 1947-1956. Jackie played in six world series, six all-star games, and won the very first rookie of the year award which was named after him. In 1947, Jackie hit .297 with a .383 OBP. He hit 12 home runs, 48 RBI, in 151 games. Jackie stole 29 bases and scored 125 runs.
After the MLB commissioner Ford Frick threatened to suspend any player that refused to play with Jackie, racial tensions eased in 1948 after several other black players entered Major League Baseball. Before the 1949 season, Jackie took hitting advice from hall of famer George Sisler. 1949 was arguably Jackie’s best season. He won the NL MVP award that year. He also won the batting title, hitting .342 with a .432 OBP, 16 home runs, 124 RBI, 203 hits, 122 runs scored, and 37 stolen bases. Jackie only struck out 27 times that year. As a matter of fact, Jackie never had a year in which he had more than 40 whiffs. In his career, Jackie had 740 walks, and only 291 strikeouts. Jackie was a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers 1955 world series championship team, although while at the end of his career. Jackie played his final season with the Dodgers in 1956, as his playing skills deteriorated due to health issues because of being diagnosed with diabetes. Jackie finished with a career .311 average, 1,518 hits, 137 home runs, 947 runs scored, and 197 stolen bases.
After he retired from Baseball Jackie continued his fight against racism. Jackie funded the NAACP freedom fund drive in 1957, and he served on their board until 1967. Jackie helped found the Freedom National Bank in Harlem, and in 1970 established the Jackie Robinson construction company that built housing for low-income families. Jackie was also director of personnel for the company Chock full o’ nuts, a chain of lunch counters that branded their own flavor of coffee. He was the first black person to serve as Vice President of a major American corporation. Jackie also was also a color commentator for MLB games in 1965 for ABC, and he did select games for the Montreal Expos telecasts in 1972.
On June 4, 1972, Jackie’s number 42 was retired by the Dodgers alongside Roy Campanella (39), and Sandy Koufax (32). Before Jackie passed away, he suffered another heartache. Jackie had three children, two boys and a girl. His oldest son Jackie Jr. was killed in a car accident in 1971. Jackie became an active anti-drug crusader after his son’s struggles with addiction. On October 24, 1972, Jackie passed away from a heart attack at his home in Stamford Connecticut at age 53. 2,500 people came to Jackie’s funeral services at New York Cities Riverside Church. Jackie was laid to rest in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn New York. He is buried next to his son Jackie Jr. and his mother-in law. Jackie’s wife built the Jackie Robinson foundation. Jackie’s Daughter Sharon, became the director of educational programming for MLB, and wrote two books about her father. Jackie’s youngest son David has ten kids, and is a coffee grower and activist in Tanzania.
Eventually MLB retired Jackie’s number across all of MLB. Each year on April 15, all teams and all players wear his number 42 in his honor. On this the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, let’s take a few minutes to remember a true hero. Not just a great Dodger, or great baseball player, but a great person. Only one day per year is not enough to pay tribute to this true heroic Dodger.