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Jackie Robinson: The Story of an American Hero

Jackie Robinson, Dodgers, 1954

Photo by Bob Sandberg. Part of the LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress.

Photo by Bob Sandberg. Part of the LOOK Magazine Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress.

How a Baseball Player Changed the World

On April 15th, 1947, Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped onto a baseball diamond in Brooklyn, New York.

That was a few years after African-American soldiers came home from defending America and freedom in World War II, only to discover they had to use "colored" restrooms, "colored" drinking fountains, "colored" barbershops and schools, and had to yield bus seats to whites. Many prestigious universities and colleges would not admit them, and they were barred from higher positions or offices in the workplace or in government.

Back then the father of Hank Aaron, future home run king of baseball, told his son that no black man would ever be allowed to play on a Major League team.

Jackie proved the naysayers wrong seven years before a brave young woman named Rosa Parks decided she wasn't going to give up her bus seat just because of her skin color.

There were a lot of courageous African-Americans -- and some non-blacks too -- who risked jail, verbal or physical attacks, police brutality, even murder to stand up and say, "No more; we're not going to let America off the hook until it lives up to its own ideals of liberty and justice for all!"

But Jackie Robinson led the way years before the civil rights movement caught fire, both by example and by what he did not do: lose his cool, retaliate against his tormentors in kind.

Jackie Robinson, #42, Brooklyn Dodgers

Jackie Robinson, 1919-1972.

Jackie Robinson, 1919-1972.

A month before his murder, Martin Luther King Jr. said to Don Newcombe, one of Jackie's later teammates:

"Don, you and Jackie will never know how easy you made my job, through what you went through on the baseball field."

I wasn't alive back then. I heard about this incomprehensible time -- of segregation, of prejudice, of hate -- from my parents and my grandfather, a Jew whose synagogue provided escort service to blacks to help them get past other whites trying to stop them from voting at the polls.

Sixty years later, I heard thoughtful people asking whether the country was ready for a black president. It's hard to believe that it was still a question. America's resounding answer, "Yes, we are," was reassuring — perhaps falsely reassuring, in light of the racial profiling, discrimination, and other grim signs that we still haven't entirely cleared away the unjust legacy of slavery and segregation.

So it's worth remembering what Jackie Robinson endured and the lesson he taught America.

A life is not important,

except in the impact

it has on others' lives.

— Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson comic book, pub. 1951, copyright not renewed.

Jackie Robinson comic book, pub. 1951, copyright not renewed.

Breaking the Color Barrier

In the 1940s, baseball was America's Pastime. Not basketball. Not football. Not golf. It represented America, democracy and apple pie. Many more people followed baseball. It was linked to American pride-- and being white.

Blacks were playing baseball too, but they were in the Negro Leagues, followed and loved by blacks, ignored or mocked by almost everyone else. There were some fine players on those teams, and players like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron had their start in them.

Baseball Commissioner Landis opposed integration, but he died in 1944. At that time, Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, launched his Great Experiment. He was committed to breaking the color barrier. He was also no fool -- he knew there was amazing talent in the Negro Leagues waiting to be tapped. So he looked for a skilled African-American ballplayer who would also be able to handle the prejudice, pressure, and hype.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was his man. At UCLA, he'd been the first student ever to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. Then he'd signed with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Now, Branch Rickey gave him a challenge even greater than succeeding as a pro athlete: he must subject himself to nationwide hatred on and off the field, and he mustn't fight back.

If a player punched him or spiked him with cleats, or pitched a baseball at his head that might kill him, he couldn't respond. If a ump made an unfair call, he couldn't respond. If hotels refused to house him with his team, if teams protested his presence on the field or cancelled games to avoid him, he couldn't respond. If the papers vilified him, he couldn't respond. If spectators cursed him or ordered him to shine their shoes or threw black cats onto the field, he couldn't respond. If he got death threats pinned inside his locker, or if his wife was harassed in the stands, he couldn't respond.

All those things happened.

Nevertheless, Jackie Robinson won the first-ever Rookie of the Year award, and began a ten-year Hall of Fame career that brought the Dodgers their first World Series championship. He won respect by proving he was a skilled professional, shaming those who attacked him. His dignity was a weapon. So was his talent.

He showed America why racism was idiotic and unjust.

Hall of Fame Broadcaster Red Barber Discusses Own Prejudice

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Jackie Robinson, Hall of Famer

After three years, as per his agreement with Branch Rickey, Jackie stopped turning the other cheek. He was finally allowed to defend himself when players or spectators vented their hate on him. He taught America something then, too: it was right and proper for a black (or any target of discrimination) to be angry and speak out.

In a saner world, his skin color wouldn't be the first thing we'd know about him; we'd just remember him as a famous athlete. His original Hall of Fame plaque gives a snapshot of his achievements: NL Rookie of the Year, NL Batting Champion, 6-time All-star with a .311 lifetime batting average. By all accounts, those bare statistics don't do justice to his speed, his agility, his maddening ability to wear out the defense with his cat-and-mouse baserunning. Several teammates have remarked that when the abuse on the field started to bother him, Jackie would make opponents pay by kicking it up a notch, stealing a base, or making some phenomenal play.

His uniform number, 42, was retired by the Dodgers in 1972. You can see the 42 sign from anywhere in Dodger Stadium, distinguished from the numbers of other Dodger greats by its color. I'm not sure whether that's ironic or appropriate.

Jackie Robinson Inducted into Hall of Fame

Branch Ricky, Jackie Robinson, Rachel Robinson (wife), Mallie Robinson (mother), Hall of Fame, July 23, 1962. Photo by G. Marshall Wilson.

Branch Ricky, Jackie Robinson, Rachel Robinson (wife), Mallie Robinson (mother), Hall of Fame, July 23, 1962. Photo by G. Marshall Wilson.

Jackie Robinson's Letter to Eisenhauer

Jackie Robinson writes to the president of the United States demanding action on civil rights. (Click link to read letter.)

Jackie Robinson writes to the president of the United States demanding action on civil rights. (Click link to read letter.)

Civil Rights Leader

After retiring, Jackie was briefly a GM in the short-lived Continental Football League, then became VP of a company, Chock Full o' Nuts, whose products were well-known to frequenters of baseball stadiums.

He continued to promote his nine core values: courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment, and excellence. He funded and ran several businesses and encouraged black entrepreneurs, he spoke out and wrote articles on civil rights, and he defended men targeted by the so-called House Un-American Activities Committee that was in retrospect a most un-American activity.

Tragically, Jackie Robinson died in 1972, only 53 years old. In the following year his widow, Rachel Robinson, a professional nurse and Yale professor, founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation to provide college scholarships, mentorships and professional internships for minority youth.

Spotlight: Jackie Robinson's Biography - By Rachel Robinson

Jackie Robinson Day

Jackie Robinson Day - MLB honors 60th anniversary

On April 15, 1997, 50 years after Jackie Robinson first stepped onto Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn, #42 was retired from Major League Baseball, a unique honor for a unique baseball player. Ten years later, Ken Griffey Jr asked MLB Commissioner Selig if he might wear #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. Selig declared that any player could wear the number on that day to honor a great man, and teams rushed to create special uniforms for the occasion. On some teams, one player wore 42. On others, everyone did. At the Dodgers/Padres game, all the Dodgers wore 42 minus their own names, and Hank Aaron observed that #42 was as great as ever, stealing bases, driving in runs, and playing great defense.

In 2008, many more players proudly donned Jackie's uniform. A new tradition in the tradition-minded annals of baseball seems to have caught everyone's imagination. On Jackie Robinson's day, all races, dozens of nationalities are proud to wear a number that has come to symbolize, literally, that all men are created equal.

Jackie Robinson Day Celebrations

April 16, 2013, Baltimore Orioles honor Jackie Robinson.

April 16, 2013, Baltimore Orioles honor Jackie Robinson.

Vin Scully Tells of Death Threats

Vin Scully Remebers Jackie Robinson, April 15, 2009

Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, a hall of famer for his silver voice who is celebrating his 61st year broadcasting all the Dodgers' home games, tells stories on Jackie Robinson Day about his own memories of "Jack" or "Jackie."

On April 15, 2009, Vin talked about Jackie's fire, determination, and anger, how it didn't come naturally for him to turn the other cheek. Vin said that when he got irked by things said or done to him, he'd steal second, then third, then home. After a while, other players who didn't approve of him were nonetheless warning each other not to harass him, because he'd make their team pay.

Vin told a story about a winter outing with Jackie and Rachel. The Robinsons had moved to Brooklyn from Pasadena, and had never been ice skating before. Jackie was "walking on his ankles," as Scully put it. Immediately Jackie challenged him to a race. Paraphrasing Scully from memory:

And I said to him, "But, Jack, you're from California. You don't know how to skate."

Then he got that look in his eye. "I know," Jack said. "But that's how I'll learn."

Jackie lost that race, but that's the kind of man he was.

Vin talked about a game in Cincinnati where Jackie had received death threats, saying he'd be shot if he stepped onto the field. FBI sharpshooters were brought in to monitor the game from the roofttops. There was an anxious team meeting before the game. Finally one player jumped up and said, "I've got it! I know what to do!" Everyone waited for his brilliant plan. "We'll all wear 42; then they won't know which one's Jackie!" The tense moment was broken up with laughter.

As VIn said, "Little did we know, someday it would come true."

Everybody Wears 42

Seattle, Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, 2012.

Seattle, Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, 2012.

Jackie Robinson Tribute Video - Clips and images of Jackie Robinson

The end of this video shows Jackie shortly before his death giving a speech saying that he's pleased to have been nominated for an award (I can't remember which), but he would be more pleased when he saw a black man in standing in a coaching box.

That has come true, and there are now black managers, coaches, and team owners, but to this day some racial disparity in baseball remains.

Jackie Robinson Steals Home in '55 World Series

It's Jackie's most famous (and controversial) steal.

Catcher Yogi Berra still maintains that on this occasion -- one of 19 times Jackie stole home -- the ump blew the call. But many baseball experts agree this is the greatest steal in baseball history. It's hard to steal a base when everyone knows you're going to make the attempt. Also, it was the World Series!

Here's an ESPN video of Jackie stealing home: did he or didn't he?

Poll: Jackie at the '55 World Series

MLB Homage to Jackie Robinson (Narrator: Vin Scully)

Please share this page so that more people can learn Jackie Robinson's amazing story!

Jackie Robinson Movie: "42"

© 2007 Ellen Brundige

Guestbook and Jackie Fan Mail

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Ellen Brundige (author) from California on May 03, 2014:

@Wednesday-Elf: (Thank you for the review, so good to see a friendly face when I've been away!)

I'm kicking myself for not seeing that movie in the theater. With your recommendation and Rotten Tomatoes, I really MUST hunt it down and watch. And how wonderful to meet a new generation getting exposed to and helping bring to life the history of the Negro Leagues!

Wednesday-Elf from Savannah, Georgia on April 30, 2014:

This marvelous lens tribute to Jackie Robinson has been featured today on the "Review This" blog as part of 'April Baseball'. :)

Cynthia Sylvestermouse from United States on April 30, 2014:

Wow! What a wealth of information! I, of course, had heard of Jackie Robinson, but had never really read a lot about him until today.

Eugene Samuel Monaco from Lakewood New York on April 16, 2014:

What a wonderful Tribute to one of Americas Heroes Thanks for writing this :)

Wednesday-Elf from Savannah, Georgia on April 15, 2014:

Hi Greekgeek. The year has rolled around to April 15th once again and I'm back to help you celebrate 'Jackie Robinson Day'. Since my last visit, I have seen the movie "42" ... and loved it. As my brother & I were leaving the theater, we met a couple and their teenage daughter and discovered the teenager was in the movie, in a crowd scene in the stands cheering for Jackie when he played for the Negro leagues. She said she thoroughly enjoyed being in a movie about Jackie Robinson, someone she so admired.

Ellen Brundige (author) from California on April 15, 2013:

@Wednesday-Elf: And I think of you, fellow baseball aficionado.

I'm listening to Vin Scully on the radio right now, covering yet another Dodgers game, once again reminiscing about Jackie. Vin started broadcasting all the Dodgers games 3 years after Jackie started, and they became friends, so Vin's got a lot of wonderful stories to tell about him.

Vin always reminds us that beyond the ordeal he had to go through fighting prejudice, Robinson was just an all-around excellent athlete and a skilled competitor. (Which was why Rickey selected him: he had to find a guy who could prove the naysayers wrong with his obvious talent, skill, and success on the field.)

Wednesday-Elf from Savannah, Georgia on April 15, 2013:

Every April 15th I have to return to help you honor #42, as all of baseball does today, and thank you once again for this marvelous tribute to Jackie Robinson!

CaztyBon on April 06, 2013:

I really enjoyed reading about Jackie Robinson, I learned a lot more about his situation. Thank You

anonymous on March 10, 2013:

So great, Jackie Robinson is a real hero to breaking the colored barrier.

pawpaw911 on September 29, 2012:

His story is an important story. Well told.

williemack58 on April 28, 2012:

Thank you for this informative flashback of this American Hero. It is amazing how through the struggles he maintained his dignity, integrity and made it home, safe.

brumot on April 28, 2012:

From this baseball AND Dodger fan, great job here. What a guy that JR.

Ellen Brundige (author) from California on April 28, 2012:

@Zhana21: Thanks very much! Actually, this *was* Lens of the Day... about five years ago!

Leah J. Hileman from East Berlin, PA, USA on April 28, 2012:

I really enjoyed this lens. What an amazing person and player he was. Good reminder of the road that he helped to pave for the great players of my own generation.

Zhana on April 28, 2012:

I have nominated you for Lens of the Day.

MJ Martin aka Ruby H Rose from Washington State on April 27, 2012:

For sure, what a great baseball player, man and hero. I loved learning about him in school. Thanks for such a great lens that told us all much more about him. I am sharing!

Rosaquid on April 27, 2012:

Thanks for the lens. I enjoyed it and selected it for my "Babe Ruth" quest.

He certainly was a remarkable man.

Ellen Brundige (author) from California on April 22, 2012:

@Wednesday-Elf: Aww. Thank you so much!

Vin's back... in fact, his first broadcast in over a week was Jackie Robinson Day! (I was at the park, but came home to replay the game on afterwards...ah, technology.) It was a bad cold, but he seems to have recovered finally. At his age, we can't help but worry.

Wednesday-Elf from Savannah, Georgia on April 22, 2012:

I like to get by this special page every April 15th to help you celebrate 'Jackie Robinson Day', but I was in the midst of a move from St. Louis to Savannah, GA this year. I was thinking about you & Jackie, t