On 15 April, 1947, something in America changed. A highly symbolic gesture took place in Flatbush, Brooklyn. There, at Ebbets Field, the first black man took to the field of a Major League Baseball game since the early years of the National League in the 19th century. Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, the now famous ballplayer, trotted out to first base for the hometown Brooklyn Dodgers.
It was a historic event. Jackie was suddenly a hero to African Americans across the country. Jackie’s grandparents were slaves, and his father was a sharecropper. Yet despite this, Jackie would one day become an icon for a nation.
Robinson had encountered no shortage of racism in his upbringing. He encountered it in college, where his displays of emotion saw him labelled as a race warrior, whilst a white man acting in the same way would have been considered ‘driven’ or ‘competitive’. He faced being court-martialled after an incident where he refused to move to the back of an Army bus, despite the fact that Army buses had been desegregated previously. When he left the Army and chose to play baseball, one of just four sports which he had excelled at during his youth, he had to take the field for the Kansas City Monarchs, in the Negro Leagues.
There had been black ballplayers back near the start of the National League, yet they were slowly driven out of the game thanks to a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ that spread throughout the minor leagues. Despite what the owners at the time claimed, there was no objective reason to deny them a spot in the big time. Famed Negro League player Leroy “Satchel” Paige was described by the Yankee superstar Joe DiMaggio as the best pitcher he’d ever faced.
It would take Branch Rickey to make the first move to seriously recruit a black player. The Boston Red Sox had held trials prior to Robinson’s signing for the Dodgers, yet they are widely considered a sham that was simply meant to please a city councilman. Racial slurs would be aimed at the players – even though it was only the management allowed in the stands – and instead of being the first team to integrate, the Red Sox would be the very last.
He faced being court-martialled after an incident where he refused to move to the back of an Army bus, despite the fact that Army buses had been desegregated previously
Rickey was already a revolutionary within the game; he had pioneered baseball’s ‘farm system’, whereby Major League clubs would control minor league sides to help them control young talent in a way they never could before. Yet, with visions of the profits that the black fans would bring, and memories of his time at college where a black ballplayer broke down in tears after almost being turned away from a hotel (the story, according to Rickey, tells that the player began tearing at his hands, almost as though trying to peel the skin off, whilst saying “they’re black. If only they were white, I’d be as good as anybody then”.), he decided that he would set his eyes on signing the first black player to a Major League team in the modern-era.
Robinson was the candidate that the Dodgers chose. It wasn’t that he was the best black player – far from it – but Rickey trusted that Jackie would be able to handle the inevitable abuse that he would receive. In Rickey’s eyes, if Robinson were to react, even when justified, it would set back the course of integration by many years. Robinson promised that there would be no incident from him, and he was unveiled in October 1945 to much backlash from writers and his future teammates, with some calling him a 1000-1 shot.
Yet Jackie proved his doubters wrong. Playing for the Dodgers’ top minor league side, the Montreal Royals, he recorded a .349 batting average to top the International League and help his side to seal the pennant. Yet it didn’t come without its difficulties: pitchers repeatedly threw at him; players constantly tried to spike him; at spring training in Florida, many cities refused to let games take place if he was in the lineup. One city called off the game, claiming that the lights weren’t working. It was scheduled as a day game. There were the obstacles that Robinson would face.
the very people who doubted him now lavished praise on him
When he was called up to the Dodgers before the start of the 1947 season, there were rumours of mutiny within the Dodger clubhouse. However, it was quickly stomped out by management, with team manager Leo Durocher quoted as saying “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”
Robinson would return the favour. He hit .297 in his rookie season along with 12 home runs, enough to be named as Sporting News’ first ever Rookie of the Year – the very people who doubted him now lavished praise on him. He also held true to his promise to be quiet – to not fight back. The abuse that he received, though, showed that the sport of baseball was just as hostile as it always had been. In one of the worst instances of the season, Phillies manager Ben Chapman is reported to have repeatedly shouted racial slurs at Robinson, including insinuating that a black man’s ‘thick skull’ prevented his brain from developing properly, as well as encouraging Robinson to return to the cotton farms. Yet this would do little except unite the Brooklyn side behind their first baseman, and the side made it to the World Series, where they lost to the New York Yankees.
In future years, the pressure was removed as more teams began to integrate – Jackie was no longer the lone example, and he was suddenly allowed to argue back. He spoke his mind, calling out the Yankees at several times and accusing them of racism, as they failed to include a black player on their side. Many of the people who had previously adored him, even some of those from his own race, turned on him. Suddenly, Jackie was just another uppity black man. He would receive death threats, at one point to such an extreme that the FBI attended a game due to the fear for his life. Through all this, Robinson continued to silence his critics on the field, as he also won the National League MVP Award in 1949.
Still, not all careers can carry on forever. He retired after the 1956 season, and was subsequently diagnosed with diabetes. After ten seasons in the Majors, he had appeared in six World Series, winning one, and six All Star Games as well.
Supporters of Malcolm X branded him as an ‘Uncle Tom’, a ‘sell-out’ to his own race
After baseball, Jackie continued to be significant. He was a staunch political supporter of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, who he believed could provide the greatest advancement in Civil Rights. He wrote a fairly political column for the New York Post. He helped to found Freedom National Bank, which assisted black business owners in taking out loans. He visited towns in the South to help boost morale at Civil Rights protests. Martin Luther King Jr. described Jackie as “a legend and a symbol in his own time”.
Yet Jackie would come under fire from many of those in the more extreme branch of the Civil Rights movement. Supporters of Malcolm X branded him as an ‘Uncle Tom’, a ‘sell-out’ to his own race. Jackie, in their eyes, was content with the meagre progress that the white man doled out. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst non-violent, Jackie was always a fighter, and was immensely proud of his race. Unfortunately, as he grew older, he found himself awkwardly balanced in a position of being too extreme for institutions such as baseball, yet being too moderate for the radical youth movements.
On 24 October, 1972, Jackie Robinson passed away at his family home in Samford, Connecticut. The Reverend Jesse Jackson delivered a eulogy at his funeral.
So what is Jackie’s legacy? We mustn’t understate it. Jackie led the way, opening up opportunity for many black men where opportunity previously didn’t exist. He helped to inspire a race; to prove that better was attainable, and that with sufficient perseverance, it was possible to overcome some of the shackles of oppression that had chained them for far too long to the lowest echelons of society.
Yet, for all this, he wasn’t was a miracle worker. When Major League Baseball pauses to reflect on this day that he made his debut, does it think of the abuse that it institutionally thrust upon him, that he couldn’t change for those who came next? Does it think about the fact that, even as he retired from the sport, several teams had refused to integrate? Baseball is a microcosm of American society, and even with Jackie’s fighting spirit, he failed to help society move on as it should have.
“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people”, Robinson would write in his autobiography shortly before his death. “As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”