Rodney Ohebsion

Breaking Barriers: Jackie Robinson

Viewing society from today’s environment, it seems almost unbelievable that just several decades ago, the world was so different. When Jackie Robinson broke into Major League Baseball in 1947 and racially integrated the sport, the America he lived in barely resembled that of today. It was a country in which African-Americans were not given the basic rights that others enjoyed, and had to deal with a country that treated them as second-class people. This was before the 1960s Martin Luther King Jr. led civil rights movement, before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, and at a time when not only was sports for the most part segregated, but so was virtually all of the country.

When Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, there were no other African-American players in the Major Leagues, and there were hardly any African-American athletes competing with white athletes in any American sports. But just a few decades after Jackie Robinson’s major league debut, America was integrated both in sports and in society as a whole, and the very notion of having a "negro baseball league" or "negro water fountain" was extremely ridiculous. By integrating Major League Baseball, Jackie almost single-handedly set the groundwork for the entire integration and civil rights movement that followed.

In order truly understand and appreciate what Jackie did and the burden he faced, it is necessary to first examine the history of African-Americans in American sports.

American sports started off largely as a rich man’s pursuit in the mid 1800s, and later increased in popularity among the rest of the population. By the latter part of the century, baseball stood out as America’s preferred team sport, and established itself as part of the young nation’s distinctly unique culture.

Although Jackie Robinson is sometimes referred to as the first black Major League baseball player, that distinction actually belongs to a 19th century catcher named Moses Fleetwood Walker, who, along with his brother Welday, played briefly in the Major Leagues in 1884. Moses later bounced around in other less prestigious leagues, some of which were somewhat racially integrated and included other African-American ballplayers playing with white players. He also returned to the Majors in 1887, playing one season in the International League, on a Newark team that featured another African-American player, pitcher George Stovey. During his career, Moses faced a great deal of racism from him by fans, teammates, and opposing players, including one well known instance when superstar Cap Anson objected to playing against Moses’s team in an 1887 exhibition game, and made the now infamous remark, “Get that nigger off the field; there’s a law against that.” However, Moses was also well respected by many people of all races and cultures by the time he retired from professional baseball in 1889.

But the racial landscape in America and in American sports grew worse from there, and by the start of the 20th century, there were no African-American players in any of the prominent major or minor baseball leagues.

However, as early as the late 1800s, various all African-American pro baseball teams and leagues began forming. These leagues, which became collectively known as the “Negro Leagues,” reached their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, and were in prominence until the 1940s. Playing in the Negro Leagues, however, was not a particularly desirable job. The pay was low, teams often had multiple games per day, and players often had to sleep in the team bus.

Athletics in general offered African-Americans very few opportunities to make a good living living prior to the late 1940s. Some black boxers made a lot of money, but most faced great difficulty in securing big fights against top white fighters. As for track & field, it was more or less an integrated sport, but it paid very little at the time. Most other sports were either segregated like baseball, or financially unlucrative like track & field.

By the late 1930s, tensions mounted between Germany and the United States, and well-known African-American athletes such as boxer Joe Louis and track star Jesse Owens were cheered on by virtually all Americans as they battled and succeeded against German competition. World War II broke out in 1939, and many African-Americans served for America, including Louis and Jackie Robinson. But even in the Army at wartime, African-American soldiers and civilians faced racism and mistreatment. By 1945, the war was over, and America had battled and defeated the Germans and their theory of “Aryan superiority.” Within America however, most of the white population still persisted in their belief in a similar theory of “white superiority” over African-Americans, as racial mistreatment and segregation continued to exist in most of the country and its sports.

That same year, however, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey attempted to break baseball’s longtime segregation line when he made the decision to recruit a player from the Negro Leagues. Though he had many players to choose from, one in particular caught Rickey’s attention: a 26 year old Negro League shortstop named Jackie Robinson.

Although Jackie was somewhat new to pro basbeall at the time, he was regarded as one of the world’s premier all-around athletes, after a very succesful basketball, track & field, baseball, and football career at UCLA. He was also reputed to be a world class swimmer, tennis player, and ping pong player.

In 1941, Jackie left UCLA due to financial reasons. Though widely considered the among the best college football players of his time, he was not given an opportunity to join the National Football League, and instead ended up joining a racially integrated semipro football team, while supplementing his meager football salary by working a construction job.

Shortly into his football career, Jackie entered the Army to fight in World War II. After his service ended in 1944, he briefly coached basketball at a small school in Texas, and was later given an opportunity to play baseball in the Negro Leagues, where he had an immensely successful rookie season.

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It was after that season, in the summer of 1945, that Jackie was recruited by the Dodgers' presdient Branch Rickey. Rickey had carefully chosen Jackie from a crop of many outstanding Negro League players such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and Cool Papa Bell. Though Jackie was not as highly regarded as those players, Rickey felt he was a better candidate for being the only black player Major Lague Baseball and dealing with all the attention and racism. In a meeting, Rickey explained what Jackie would face and how he should respond, Jackie asked him, “Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who is afraid to fight back?” To which Rickey replied, “Mr. Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts enough not to fight back—because the only way for a black man to break the color line is not to retaliate. Three years, Mr. Robinson. Three years. That’s what I’m asking you. At then end of those three years, I give you my word you can say and do what you want. Because, if you do what I say, there will be more and more black players in baseball.”

Rickey knew beforehand that Jackie was no pushover. In fact, Jackie had once been court-martialed during his army service, due to his refusal to move to the back of the bus. But Jackie was eventually convinced that Rickey’s plan was for the best, and agreed to become baseball’s first African-American Major Leaguer in nearly five decades. He was first sent to a Dodger’s minor league affiliate the Montreal Royals, in order to prepare himself for the Majors, and prepare the world for his entry into the Majors.

Jackie Robinson (Illustrator: Thomas Mesenbring Field)

In his first and only season as a minor league player, Jackie earned his league’s MVP honors, and led his team to a victory at the International League Junior World Series. He also gained many fans of all races, and drew tremendous interest to the Montreal Royals team and its games. However, though some white fans, teammates, and opponents were also willing to accept Jackie, most did not, and many filled his day-to-day life with a constant barrage of taunts and threats. Even so, Jackie remained committed to his agreement with Rickey, and responded to his tormentors with indifference.

But when he was moved up to the Majors in 1947, Jackie quickly discovered that what he faced in the minors was almost nothing compared to what he faced as the only African-American player in Major League Baseball, the only African-American in a world where many white Americans perceived him as a threat to their longstanding racist beliefs, and the one man that much of the African-American population was depending on to lead the way out of racial oppression. The burden on Jackie was enormous, and the media coverage of his entry into the Majors was nothing short of astronomical.

Upon Jackie’s joining of the Dodgers, teammate Eddie Stanky approached him and bluntly said, “... Before I play with you, I want you to know that I don’t like it. I want you to know that I don’t like you.” Many other members of the team also shared Stanky’s sentiment, and were anything but supportive and accepting of their new teammate—so much so in fact, that a group of players soon circulated a petition protesting his participation on the team. Branch Rickey let the petitioning players know that they could quit if they were unwilling to have an African-American teammate--but many of them continued to ignore or insult Jackie. And when the season began, many fans and opposing players were even more hostile: opposing pitchers frequently threw at his body, base runners often aimed their spiked cleats for his shins, fans and players directed insults his way, and many people even went so far as to write him death threats. And to make matters even worse, Jackie went hitless in his first four games, and began doubting whether he was ready for the big leagues.

Despite Jackie’s poor start, Dodgers’ manager Burt Shotten remained patient with his new prospect, sensing that he would soon adjust to his new environment. In the Dodgers’ following game against the Phillies, opposing manager Ben Chapman informed his players that anyone who did not “go after” Jackie would be fined $5,000. But although the Phillies complied with his demand, jeering such insults such as, “Nigger, go back to the cotton fields,” Jackie managed to play solid ball, leading his team to victory with a one-hit three-stolen-base performance.

And at one point during the game, the Phillies’s insults were interrupted by none other than Dodger Eddie Stanky, who retorted, “Why don’t you yell at somebody who can answer back?” Stanky—the man who just a short while ago was leading an effort to prevent Jackie from joining the Dodgers—was now actively defending him. And soon many of Jackie’s other teammates also began opening up to him, as they grew to admire and respect not only his outstanding play and general attitude, but also the character, dignity, inner strength, and composure he had while dealing with the very difficult environment he faced on a day-to-day basis.*

Jackie’s first season turned out to be an immense success. He won Rookie of the Year honors and led his team to the National League pennant, while also drawing fans of all ethnicities and races to see his team play. Additionally, he made a major mark in increasing racial harmony both in and out of baseball, as his season paved the way for two other African-American players that joined the Majors that year, and for the slow but steady integration of the game that followed. And Jackie’s rookie season even caused Phillies manager Ben Chapman (—who, as you will recall, instructed his players to “go after” Jackie earlier in the season—) to go on to say at the end of the season that “Robinson is a major leaguer in every respect.”

Throughout the rest of Jackie’s short but spectacular ten-year Major League career, all with the Dodgers, he was a perennial superstar who made six All Star teams and led the Dodgers to six World Series appearances. And by his personal example over his career, as well as the direct action he took against racism after fulfilling his three-year “no-fighting-back” agreement with Rickey, Jackie progressed the African-American civil rights movement by leaps and bounds both in sports and eventually in American society.

After his retirement, Jackie remained an active member in the civil rights movement, and become an integral part of pushing African-American involvement in corporate America.

In 1962, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his very first year of eligibility, as his all-around excellence made up for the briefness of his career as a pro.

Jackie Robinson died of diabetes ten years later in 1972, but his impact on America and the world lives on. In 1997, Jackie was honored on the day of the fiftieth anniversary of his first Major League game, as President Bill Clinton led thousands of others in celebrating his tremendous legacy. In an unprecedented move, Major League Baseball retired Jackie’s jersey number 42 for all Major League teams, a true testament to his undeniable impact on baseball, American sports, and American society.

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