Jackie Robinson: A Great Baseball Player…An Even Greater Civil Rights Champion

Earlier this month, the Houston Astros franchise unveiled their 2017 World Series championship banner at Minute Maid Park prior to their April 2 home opener against the Baltimore Orioles. The monumental celebration capped off a 55-year quest to win a championship ever since the organization was established as the Houston Colt .45s back in 1962.

Accomplishing this feat as an organization has brought great pride to the city of Houston, and will be forever etched in the annals of the history books. While the city of Houston will always remember April 2, 2018, as the day in which that championship banner was revealed, they will also be able to remember it as the month in which another historic event occurred 71 years prior.
This month of April marks the 71st anniversary of an event that has forever changed the course of sports in America – the day that Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier and opened the door for many future African American baseball players to play professionally.

The Forward Times recognizes this historic day in American history as extremely important, and joins in with Major League Baseball (MLB) to honor the legacy of Jackie Robinson on April 15th, as well as the impact he has had on American society since that monumental day.

On April 15, 2018, Major League Baseball, along with each of its 30 baseball clubs, will once again be celebrating Jackie Robinson Day across the nation.

Jackie Robinson Day is a traditional event which occurs annually in Major League Baseball, commemorating and honoring the day Jackie Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig made the decision in 2005 that all MLB players, managers, coaches and on-field personnel in the entire league would honor the baseball icon each year on April 15, wearing his No. 42 jersey on that date.

Robinson’s journey to baseball immortality started with humble beginnings.

Robinson was born Jack Roosevelt Robinson on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. 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 – baseball, football, basketball and track. He was named the region’s Most Valuable Player in baseball in 1938. Robinson 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.

Prior to his MLB career, Robinson served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1944.

During boot camp at Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson was arrested and court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of a segregated bus. The treatment that Robinson was enduring prompted the NAACP, various Black newspapers and his family and friends, to highlight the injustices he was faced with, and their actions ultimately led to his being acquitted of all the charges and receiving an honorable discharge.

Robinson still had a passion for baseball, and the eventual impact of him becoming the first African American to play in MLB was huge.

After his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1944, Robinson began to play baseball professionally in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson was a highly skilled baseball player, primarily because of his participation in the highly competitive and talented Negro League baseball organization, which produced tons of high-profiled players who had never gotten a chance to play in MLB. While playing for the Monarchs, Robinson also tried pursuing a career in the major leagues. His interest in pursuing an MLB career happened to coincide with the desire that Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had to sign an African American baseball player to help integrate MLB.

Although Robinson signed his first professional contract with the Dodgers in 1945, he did not actually hit the field in the major leagues for the first time until two years later, on April 15, 1947, batting second and playing first base against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

His journey as the first African American MLB player was filled with countless acts of racism, insults and even death threats, which prompted Robinson and his wife, Rachel, to become even more actively involved with the Civil Rights Movement.

The bravery that Robinson displayed during his MLB career from the onset is legendary and indicative of the type of civil rights advocate he had always been.

In preparation for the treatment he believed Robinson would eventually encounter, Branch Rickey made him promise not to fight back when confronted with racism. Robinson was definitely tested with acts of racism, even from some of his new teammates who were upset with having a Black man on their team. At the games, people in the crowds would hurl insults at Robinson and even physically threatened him and his family, especially at away games. The racist attacks were brutal, most notably during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies, where their manager, Ben Chapman, and his team shouted racist and derogatory things at Robinson from their dugout. Not only did many players on opposing teams threaten to not play against the Dodgers because they had Robinson on the team, many of his own teammates also threatened to not play, prompting Dodgers manager Leo Durocher to tell those players that he would rather trade them to another team than not have Robinson on the team.

Despite the racist attacks, Robinson performed well and continued to improve as a baseball player over his 10-year career, in spite of already being 28-years-old when he actually broke the color barrier in MLB.

Robinson was named National League Rookie of the Year during his first season, and then went on to become National League MVP in 1949, batting champion, he made six All-Star teams while posting a career average of .311, and ultimatley led the Dodgers to become World Series champions in 1955. An exceptional base runner, Jackie Robinson stole home 19 times in his career, setting a league record.

Before he retired, Robinson had become the highest-paid athlete in Dodgers history.

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Robinson was a vocal champion for African American athletes, civil rights and other social and political causes, serving on the board of the NAACP until 1967. In July 1949, he testified about 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. In the later years, Robinson continued to lobby for greater integration in sports.

In 1962, Robinson was the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and in 1972, the Dodgers retired his uniform number of 42.

Jackie Robinson died on October 24, 1972, in Stamford, Connecticut from heart problems and diabetes complications. After his death, his wife Rachel established the Jackie Robinson Foundation dedicated to honoring his life and work. The foundation helps young people in need by providing scholarships and mentoring programs. In 1978, a 10 square-block park in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City was christened The Jackie Robinson Park to honor the baseball player. His number was officially retired throughout MLB in 1997.

As we remember this great baseball icon this year, the Forward Times encourages its readers to join in with us to celebrate the life, legacy and continuous impact that Jackie Robinson has had, and continues to have, on American society and the great game of baseball.