The most historically significant baseball player ever, Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play in the majors in the 20th century, to win the MVP award, and to be elected to the Hall of Fame; was also the first Rookie of the Year and the first baseball player, black or white, on an American postage stamp. Babe Ruth changed baseball; Jackie Robinson changed America. In the 1987 survey “Player’s Choice,” Robinson was called the greatest of his era at second base, where he set a club record for fielding average and teamed with Pee Wee Reese as one of the game’s great double-play combinations, and was also named fifth best at third. Yet the 28-year-old rookie broke in at first base, because veteran Ed Stanky was at second.
Robinson’s 37 steals in 1949 not only led the majors (he’d led the NL with 29 his rookie season), it was the highest in the NL in 19 years. He stole home 19 times in his career, the most since WWI, and in 1955 (at age 36) became one of only 12 to steal home in the World Series. In 1954 he was the first National Leaguer to steal his way around the bases in 26 years. Bobby Bragan called him “the best I ever saw at getting called safe after being caught in a rundown situation.”
Among the first group of black players in the 1949 All-Star Game, Robinson hit .333 in the six in which he played. But the statistical records of the player Dodger general manager Branch Rickey considered the “most competitive” man he’d known since Ty Cobb only hint at his achievements. Reese called Robinson’s integration of baseball “the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
Since 19th-century star Cap Anson refused to appear with black pitcher George Stovey, blacks had been informally barred from the majors. Near the end of WWII, Rickey assigned scouts to recruit for what he told them would be a Dodgers-owned Negro League team. He was really looking for the right ballplayer to break the color line. Clyde Sukeforth found Robinson playing shortstop for the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs.
In a meeting which has been portrayed and described many times since, Rickey confronted Robinson with the wide range of abuse he knew Robinson would face. Robinson finally blew up, asking Rickey, “Do you want a player afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he wanted someone “with the guts not to fight back.” Robinson promised a passive response and kept his word, not an easy task for a man who had faced an army court martial for refusing to move to the back of a bus.
Called the “Jim Thorpe of his race” for his multi-sport skills, Robinson was the first four-letter man at UCLA. When he averaged over 11 yards per rush as a football halfback as a junior, Sports Weekly called him “the greatest ball carrier on the gridiron today.” One coach called Robinson “the best basketball player in the U.S.” when he led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring as a junior and senior. Yet he was not named to the first, second, or third all-conference teams. His brother Mack Robinson was the 1936 Olympic long-jump runner-up behind Jesse Owens, and Jackie won the 1940 NCAA long-jump title. He undoubtedly would have gone to the 1940 Olympics had the war not canceled them. He reached the semi-finals of the national Negro tennis tournament, won swimming championships at UCLA, and played professional football with the Honolulu Bears.
Robinson spent the 1946 season with Montreal, based on Rickey’s reasonable belief that the racial confrontations would be less severe in Canada. The first black in the International League in 57 years, he led in batting and runs scored, and led the Royals to a pennant by 19-1/2 games and victory in the Little World Series. When jubilant fans chased him for three blocks after the last game, a black journalist wrote, “It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind.” Fans later erected a statue of him near the ballpark.
Entry into the majors in 1947 was much tougher. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher had to squelch plans for a players’ petition against Robinson in a midnight spring-training meeting. Robinson was often forced to accept road accommodations separate from the rest of the team. The famous Dodgertown complex later erected was in part a response to the problems that Robinson and other blacks faced with spring-training racism. After the start of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals were rumored to be planning a strike in protest of Robinson. Phillies manager Ben Chapman baited him so cruelly that Robinson later said it “brought me nearer to cracking up than I had ever been.” The Chapman episode galvanized Robinson’s support group. Rickey said it “made Jackie a real member of the Dodgers.” Public reaction against Chapman was so harsh that Phillies management asked Robinson to pose for a photo with him to clear Chapman’s reputation.
Baseball’s “Great Experiment” electrified America. Probably the only rookie given a day in his honor, Robinson trailed only Bing Crosby in a year-end national popularity poll. Virtually the entire black population of America became Dodger fans. He later starred in the movie The Jackie Robinson Story. He wrote several autobiographical works, had a weekly newspaper column and radio show, and after his death was the subject of a Broadway musical, “The First”.
Robinson’s agreement with Rickey only required silence for one full season. When he started to speak out, he became a major public figure. In 1949 he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee to rebut Paul Robeson’s contention that American blacks would not fight against the Soviet Union because of racism at home. Ironically, Robeson had once addressed Commissioner Landis and the team owners on the need for integration in the majors. Robinson later felt apologetic about his being used against Robeson, and said, “I would reject such an invitation if offered now.” Robinson later told a “Youth Wants to Know” audience that “the Yankee management is prejudiced.” When Dodger owner Walter O’Malley announced Robinson’s sale to the Giants, Jackie had already decided to retire, but not from public life. A supporter of Martin Luther King and the NAACP, he surprised even his wife, Rachel, by endorsing Richard Nixon for president in 1960 (a move later regretted) because he felt Kennedy had not made it “his business to know colored people.”
In 1962 Robinson and Bob Feller were the first elected to the Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility since Lou Gehrig in 1939.
Robinson’s #42 was retired at Dodger Stadium in 1972 a few months before 2,000 people packed Riverside Church to hear his eulogy delivered by the young Reverend Jesse Jackson. Tens of thousands lined the streets of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant to watch the passage of his mile-long cortege. Joe Black spoke for all future black ballplayers. “When I look at my house … I say, ‘Thank God for Jackie Robinson.'” In 1987, during the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s rookie season, major league baseball celebrated by naming the Rookie of the Year award for him.