Facing curveballs and spike-thrusting base runners is hard enough for any baseball player to stand up to. For Jackie Robinson, pioneer of integrated sports and hero to the equal rights movement, the challenging play on the diamond was trivial in comparison to the hardships he was forced to endure. With undeniable courage and patience, Robinson, the first man to break baseball’s color barrier, not only raised the bar for athletes, but for African- Americans, minorities and Americans in general.
Born in Cairo, Georgia on Jan. 31, 1919, Robinson learned quickly the bitter sting of racism that ran rampant in the south. Yet, he was able to letter in football, baseball, basketball and track at UCLA.
Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Negro Baseball League in 1945. His gritty play on the field attracted the attention of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Rickey had been looking for the right person to integrate the sport, and in Jackie, he believed he had found the right man.
“I called Robinson in for a conference soon after. I had to test him . he is a competitor, a gentleman and has great personal respect,” Rickey said in 1948. “He is a credit to his race and to baseball, and he knows that much of his race’s future is on his shoulders,” the general manager said.
Robinson was offered and signed a contract with the club, but was forced to promise Rickey that for two years he would not fight back should anything on the diamond incite him. As Rickey put it, “For two years, in observing that trust, he had an almost Christ-like taste of turning the other cheek.”
Robinson’s signing sent a stir throughout Major League Baseball and the country. Clubs in Philadelphia and St. Louis threatened to strike rather than compete against a team with an African-American. Players on his own team threatened to quit, and his mail bag filled with hate-mail and death threats. Fans in the stands booed and yelled slurs at him each time he took to the field. But Robinson endured, and after two years, he had at least earned the respect of many of the players in the league.
Jackie’s efforts did not go unnoticed. “The millions who read the box scores very likely have never heard of George Washington Carver. But Jackie Robinson . will be doing the missionary work . that Carter could never do,” wrote Roy Wilkins of the Michigan Chronicle.
By the time he retired from the sport in 1957, Robinson’s achievements were worthy of the Hall of Fame. He was elected into it in 1962. Named “Rookie of the Year” in his rookie season of 1947 and “Most Valuable Player” in 1949, he led the Dodgers to six pennants and one World Series victory, the pinnacle of the sporting world.
His work off the field, for the equal rights movement, continued however. Always an advocate of social improvement, Robinson traveled extensively to raise funds for the NAACP. In 1963, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, protesting violent acts, while speaking at churches and protests to spread the word.
Robinson’s courage to speak out against the wrongdoings in society earned both praise and disrespect from the opposition to the civil rights movements. However, his words on peace affected such politicians as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller.
“(In 1947) I was proud of that and yet I was uneasy. I was proud to be in the hurricane eye of a significant breakthrough . Rickey had rudely awakened America. He had chosen me as the person to lead the way,” Robinson wrote.
Today, his legend and courageous deeds live on through the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Founded by his wife Rachel in 1973, the group continues to fight for equal right between the races.
– Information obtained from jackierobinson.org and baseballhalloffame.org.