Jackie Robinson, Baseball, and the Struggle for Equality
Baseball has always been known as America’s pastime. But America‘s pastime, along with America’s past, have both been saturated with the brutal force of racism. For hundreds of years, from the time of slavery until the middle of the 20th century, African-American children rounded up their friends and headed to the baseball diamond. There, for thousands of young black players, the smell of the grass, the cloud of dust that formed when running the ninety feet between bases, and the feeling of safely sliding into homeplate for a run marked the glimmer of fun and excitement in an otherwise dreary day. However, due to the color of their skin, black children were not awarded these luxuries. For aspiring black ballplayers, a baseball field with bats and actual baseballs would be a dream come true. Instead they were forced to play with rocks and sticks in an alley or run-down sandlot. But this would never stop them, the thrill and joy of baseball was too great. When playing, it seemed as if all their worries and fears floated away and only one thing mattered…baseball. Baseball was their escape, their livelihood, and the topic of all their hopes and dreams. For young black ballplayers, baseball was much more than a game. The word aspiring must also be clarified. See, for black players, one undeniable truth was always present. No matter how good you were, no matter how many homeruns or stolen bases you had, how hard you hit the ball or how fast you threw the ball, no matter if you had the ability to play with the best of the best, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantle, there was one thing you never had…the right skin color. The word aspiring did not exist in the black language. For over two hundred years black people were forced to deal with this truth, the truth that smashed the dreams of hundreds of thousands of aspiring black ballplayers, the truth that left them with the horrible feeling of inferiority. This feeling was felt until April 15, 1947, until the man who would change all this stepped up to bat, marking the first time an African-American played in the major leagues.# Jackie Robinson was the man, and as far as the African-American race is concerned, Jackie Robinson is the man. The day has lived in history as the first day of the beginning of a new truth. That, with hard work and a heart the size of a watermelon, black people could aspire to be more. Jackie Robinson is responsible for the truth of hope, a truth more powerful than any other. With this new hope, Jackie Robinson and the African-American race marked the beginning of the struggle for the ultimate holy grail…equality.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia. The grandson of a slave and son of a sharecropper, “Jackie,” as he become known, struggled from the very beginning. He was the youngest of five children in a poor family. After his father abandoned him at the age of one, his mother was forced to work many jobs just to support the family.# Jackie was very outspoken from the beginning. As a young child confronted with the everyday racist taunts from nearby white children, Jackie lashed back and always stood up for himself, sometimes to the tune of beatings from the children. But Jackie didn’t care. Even despite advice from his elementary teacher, who said he was “destined to be a gardener,”# Jackie always fought the infinite number of tactics to keep him and his race inferior. Jackie believed that God had plans for him, plans beyond the scope of the normal Negro of the times. As he grew older, his fighting spirit continued to follow him along. In 1942, more than a decade before the famous Rosa Parks struggle, Jackie was confronted with a similar situation. Told by an officer to leave his seat on the white section of the bus and move to the back, the black section of the bus, Jackie refused. The scene soon escalated, but Jackie stood firm and refused to budge. The act of defiance resulted in a court martial for Robinson, who was facing the possible outcome of “dishonorable discharge.” He fought in court and proved the act was a violation against the discrimination code of the army, and won his right to a “honorable discharge.“# This attitude of defiance was a strong part of Jackie Robinson’s personality, a part that one will see, never died.
To prove himself to society and be the person he always wanted to be, Jackie used his god-given talent, his amazing athletic ability. When it came to sports it did not take long to realize that Jackie was extremely gifted . In High School and in College, at the University of California-Los Angeles, Jackie excelled like no other, literally. He played baseball, basketball, football, and track, and was the only player in UCLA history to letter in all four sports.# In fact, it was said his best sport was not even baseball, that he was a natural at basketball and had “football shoulders.” It just so happened that the NFL and NBA were not as accepting as baseball was in the mid-Twentieth Century. But it was not always like that. Due to segregation and the underlying presence of racism in society, black ballplayers were forced to make their own leagues. As early as 1920, Negro Baseball Leagues showcased talent to the likes of Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Josh Gibson, Marvin Williams, and Sam Jethroe.# Names unrecognizable to the average baseball fan, however it has been said that black players like the ones mentioned and many more were as good, better, or even much better than the white players in the Major Leagues. Unfortunately, due to the color of their skin, the Negro leagues were given practically zero exposure and the same amount of respect. Negro Leagues were seen in a similar way as the Negro themselves…inferior. Although the talent and quality of baseball in the Negro leagues was extremely high, the conditions played in were exactly the opposite. Long rides in overly abused buses with no heating or air-conditioning, locker rooms were worn-down or nonexistent, and financial difficulties arose quite frequently due to such factors as renting the stadiums from white owners who charged exorbitant prices.# Baseball in the Negro leagues was no lap of luxury. Yet thousands of players endured the abuse to continue to play the game they loved. They played even though they did not receive one ounce of respect from the American public. It was not till Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947 that black players began to receive the respect they deserved.
Jackie Robinson was not alone in changing the lives of every African-American in the United States of America. In 1942, a man named Branch Rickey stepped into the Dodgers head office with a plan for baseball and a plan for America. He had scouted many black players and decided the time was right for the “Great Experiment,” as it become known.# The only question was who would it be? Who would be the one that would change the way our society functioned then and now? The player had to be much more than an amazing athlete, capable of multiple feats on the baseball diamond. The player had to be one who had the strength and willpower to withstand the constant cruelty that was sure to occur. In 1945, Branch and Jackie sat down to discuss the miraculous feat. To change history, Branch said, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” This man was to be Jackie Robinson. Although Jackie had always had a fighting spirit and was not one to keep emotions to himself, Jackie was the man who had the courage and strength not to. “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me,” Jackie said, “All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”# Jackie knew it would take time, but be well worth it in the end. If baseball’s “Great Experiment” were to be a success, it would be the first aspect of American society to integrate. One year later the second aspect of American society integrated, the United States government desegregated the army.# Jackie Robinson knew the implications of what he was getting himself into, he knew he would be harassed, verbally and physically abused, and even worse. But he also knew the effects he would have on the improvements of African-American equality in society. Jackie was ready and waiting for this ultimate challenge.
On October 30, 1945, Jackie was pulled up from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues and officially became the first black person to sign a Major League contract.# However, in the beginning, baseball’s “Great Experiment” was baseball’s “great secret.” A year before this a secret poll was conducted of Major league managers and owners on the question of blacks in baseball, the results were not positive. Fifteen of the sixteen polled responded “No,” with the only “Yes” vote coming from Branch Rickey.# Branch felt the move to integrate baseball had to be slow and meticulous. So, on April 18, 1946, Jackie Robinson made his minor league debut for the Montreal Royals, the International League affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. With an impressive hitting display: a three run homerun, a solid single, two bunt singles, and speed that led to 2 stolen bases and two balks home, the rookie second baseman and the Montreal Royals beat the hometown Giants 14 -1.# The public’s outrage of a Negro playing with white people were silenced by the outstanding talent of Jackie Robinson. This is the only reason integration in sports was possible in the first place. Sport is different from many other aspects of society because it is on a relatively fair playing field. Whoever crosses the finish line first wins the race, this can not be disputed. For Jackie, this was his only escape. It was hard for Montreal fans to yell and scream and shout racist slurs at the man who just won them the game. Over time, Montreal fans stopped mobbing him with scrutiny and verbal abuse, and learned to love him. They soon mobbed him with physical abuse; pats on the back, slaps on the butt, and even occasional “congratulation hugs.”In fact, after one game that was won by Jackie, the crowd needed to be held back by security guards as Jackie smiled and waved and attempted to budge through the anxiously awaiting fans. Jackie led the league in batting and led his team to win the Minor League World Series.# Life in Montreal was good, but would soon take an exciting twist.
Because of Jackie’s amazing play in Montreal, he was moved up to the Brooklyn Dodgers of the Major Leagues in 1947. However, the transition was not an easy one. To begin his career in New York, he first learned the team he was to join had filed a petition to stop him and any other Negro from entering the league. Newspaper articles, television, and overall public gossip was primarily putting him down. They said he could not do it, and denounced the ability of a Negro to play in the Major leagues.# Jackie was back at square one. When Jackie stepped up to the plate, the roar of boos from the fans was heard in neighboring counties. Racist slurs like “Nigger son of a bitch” were often heard. Every time Jackie went to bat, he avoided looking at the crowd, “for fear I would see only Negroes applauding,”# he said. Pitchers would intentionally hit Jackie at the plate, and, because Jackie played second base, opponents would slide into him blatantly sticking their spikes high in the air in an attempt to injure Jackie. There were even numerous death threats, one said if Jackie showed up to play in Cincinnati, he would be shot at site. On the road, when the team stayed in nice hotels, Jackie was forbidden and was forced to stay in homes willing enough to take him in.# But Jackie, like Rickey said, had the amazing strength to not fight back. For he knew every time he lashed back, the insults would only get worse and his goal of African-American equality would only become more impossible. The first two years in the majors were by far his most challenging. But again, like it did in Montreal, his amazing ability as a baseball player saved him from the torture of being a black man in a white world. In 1947, he received the Rookie of the Year Award and slowly, as it was in Montreal, he began to receive the respect he deserved.# Soon, the same newspapers that questioned his ability to “make it in the big leagues,” was exclaiming his amazing wonder as a baseball player. Jackie was now in the spotlight and experiencing the severe pressure of being the first African-American in baseball. But Jackie’s attention would soon turn away from baseball and focus more on the big picture…Civil Rights and African-American equality.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie not only believed in this quote, but lived it as well. Soon after Jackie’s first season, a myriad of other black ballplayers were given the chance to excel in the Major’s as well. Dan Bankhead pitched for the Dodgers, Larry Doby played for the American League Cleveland Indians, and Henry Thompson and Willard Brown played for the St. Louis Browns.# One year in the public spotlight, and already Jackie was changing baseball and America. The response from the black community was overwhelmingly positive. Black fans by the thousands poured into the stadium to see Jackie play, and even though they were not permitted to sit near the white fans, their joy and explosiveness provided an extra boost to the popularity of baseball. Even white fans learned to love him, his daring style of play created a whole new generation of baseball fans. Also, the sales of primarily black newspapers like the Pittsburgh-Courier skyrocketed 100,000 readers.# Jackie Robinson was rejuvenating baseball and society. It seemed as if Jackie was giving Black America a glimpse of hope. Jackie was opening doors for opportunity like no other black man ever had. But he wouldn’t stop there.
After two years of keeping his mouth shut at the advice of Branch Rickey, Jackie soon began to speak out on racial issues.# His outspoken attitude and fighting spirit could no longer be held back. Jackie started to argue the umpire’s calls, publicly denouncing any hotel that would not allow him to stay there due to the color of his skin, and criticizing any team that would not hire a Negro. “The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time,” and Jackie believed in this firmly.# Robinson “spoke out on almost every issue,” said teammate Carl Erskine, and was receiving the attention of all of America. His refusal to accept segregation at hotels and restaurants encouraged those establishments to change their policy.# Jackie was speaking and America was finally listening. He even joined forces with some of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s biggest leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, names like Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr., looked to Jackie for support and guidance.# He started to write letters to newspapers and journals and soon took his letters to the next level. In 1957, he wrote a letter to the Presidential Assistant E. Frederick Morrow. In it he stated that the final version of the 1957 Civil Rights Act was too weak and should be changed.In 1958, during the Little Rock, Arkansas School integration conflict, Jackie wrote a letter to President Eisenhower urging the removal of all federal troops and the instatement of the nine black students who were not allowed in. In 1961, he wrote a letter to President Kennedy explaining that the Civil Rights Movement was doing ok, but could be doing much better and urged for more action.# “Civil rights is not by any means the only issue that concerns me–nor, I think any other Negro. As Americans, we have as much at stake in this country as anyone else. But since effective participation in a democracy is based upon enjoyment of basic freedoms that everyone else takes for granted, we need make no apologies for being especially interested in catching up on civil rights.”# As one can see, issues off the field were much more important than issues on the field, issues like the Civil Rights Movement were first priority for Jackie Robinson.
Although Jackie’s baseball career had come to an end in 1956, the end of Jackie Robinson did not go with it. He had an amazingly successful 10 year career compiling a .311 lifetime batting average, playing in six World Series, and stealing home 19 times.# His stats on the field he were magnificent. But, his stats off the field practically made him a God. Now he would decide to fully concentrate on the Civil Rights Movement and equality for all Negroes. “I won’t ‘have it made’ until the most underprivileged Negro in Mississippi can live in equal dignity with anyone else in America.”# Robinson, in 1956, became active in the NAACP and was an extremely important member of their program. He spoke at conferences and rallies, committing a large amount of his time to the cause. In 1956, he received the Spingarn Medal for meritorious service to black America.# He also served as chairman of the Freedom Fund Drive which raised millions of dollars for black programs like the NAACP and others. In 1963 he teamed up with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to protest wrongful actions against Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama and in 1963 and 1964 was a huge leader in the support of the Civil Rights Act, which was passed in 1964.# His direct effect on the advancement of the Negro and society was great, but maybe not quite as great as his indirect effect.
“Jackie passed a torch on to every black player.”# This quote by Hank Aaron exemplifies the amazing influence Jackie had on thousands of black athletes. Without him, no one would have ever heard the names Walter Payton, Magic Johnson, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., and Michael Jordan. Jackie Robinson aspired these and hundreds of thousands of other African-Americans to make their lives the best possible for themselves and for everyone around them, to strive for success when success seems impossible, to keep making goals even though some people try to break them, and to achieve what was thought to be unachievable. Superstars, notably Arthur Ashe and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, have spoken out on the impact of Jackie Robinson on their lives. Many athletes even wear his number, forty-two, as a commemoration.# The aftermath of Jackie Robinson has created the likes of such programs as the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the Jackie Robinson Society, who both have contributed immensely to the cause of the Negro. Scholarships, housing, employment, and education programs are just a few of the large number of services such committees are responsible for.# His marks on society have been recognized in many ways. The Rookie of the Year in baseball receives the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award and UCLA plays in Jackie Robinson Stadium. In fact, Nike even did an ad campaign showing the impact of Jackie Robinson on society.# Even though he maybe dead, the things he created and the people he influenced are still very much alive and continue to live out his goal of achieving equality.
When given the opportunity to speak, Robinson made the best of it. Many of things he said were as important as things he did. Similar to the powerful words of his friend Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson moved and motivated everyone who heard him speak. Some of his famous quotes are “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.” “Negroes aren’t seeking anything which is not good for the nation as well as ourselves. In order for America to be 100 per cent strong–economically, defensively, and morally–we cannot afford the waste of having second-and-third class citizens.” “Life is not a spectator sport. . .. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.” “I don’t think that I or any other Negro, as an American citizen, should have to ask for anything that is rightfully his. We are demanding that we just be given the things that are rightfully ours and we’re not looking for anything else.” “I believe in the goodness of a free society. And I believe that society can remain good only as long as we are willing to fight for it — and to fight against whatever imperfections may exist.”# When Jackie spoke, America listened.
To best sum up the miraculous effect of Jackie Robinson on the African-American and on the American society is truly impossible, it can not be summed up. It is much too monumental. But, the following poem by Ed Charles comes relatively close,
He ripped at the sod along the base path
On his feet were your hopes and mine
For a victory for the black man’s case.
And the world is grateful for the legacy
Thanks, Jackie, wherever you are.
You will always be our first superstar
In 1972, Jackie Robinson died, but his legacy never will. Today, the effects of Jackie Robinson can be seen wherever one looks. On the covers of Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Rolling Stones, and even the Wall Street Journal, African-Americans are now seen in a much different light than in the fifties. Since Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in 1947, black society in America has truly broken barriers. Although arguable, it is my contention that the 54 years after the first day Jackie Robinson stepped up to the plate was the best 54 years in African-American improvements of all time. More importantly than improvements in black America, are the improvements in all of America, in every facet of life. Jackie Robinson was not only great at playing baseball, but also great at playing life. Quoting the recent Nike advertising campaign, “Thank you Jackie Robinson.”#