Baseball, it is said, is only a game. True. And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona. Not all holes, or games, are created equal.
Jackie Robinson was only a ball player. True. But he was also so much more to so many people.
A rebel. A hero. A messiah. You can call him whatever you want, but one thing is certain – he was one of the leading figures in changing the course of (American) history. Had it not been for him and club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Wesley Branch Rickey a.k.a. Mahatma, we might not be able to fully enjoy the genius talents of Frank Thomas, Derek Jeter, Ernie Banks, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Josh Gibson, Bob Gibson, Lee Smith and many more. We would probably not even see players of other-than-white skin colour enter the Major League, which would certainly be a pity.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919. He was the youngest of five children. His grandfather had been a slave. Jacke’s dad was a farmer in Georgia. He left the family when Jackie was young. Later the family moved to California. Jackie’s mother, Mallie Robinson, cleaned houses. Jackie was a star athlete throughout his school days. In high school, he played baseball, football, basketball, and track. He was usually the best on every team. Jackie won a scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles. He became the first student ever at UCLA to win varsity letters in four sports.
Baseball was one of the first institutions in postwar America to become desegregated. Baseball was America’s national game, and like America itself, it preached that it was a melting pot where everyone, regardless of identity or origin, could succeed, provided they had the talent or determination. The nation’s mainstream sportswriters perpetuated this myth, and baseball fans accepted it, not knowing or not caring that talented black ballplayers played in the shadows of white baseball, barred from the game because of an insidious “gentlemen’s agreement” that had excluded blacks since the 1880s.
Baseball in postwar America needed someone like Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Rickey recalled the humiliation of one of his own black players from 35 years ago and decided he would tear down the color line in baseball. Rickey was determined to hire a black player for the Dodgers. He knew he had to find an excellent ballplayer with unimpeachable morals and a respectable background who could be tough enough to bear all kinds of abuse and strong enough to resist the urge to react to it. Rickey’s plan was called “the Noble Experiment.” Many in Major League Baseball believed it would not work. But Rickey thought it was the right thing to do. He knew that black players would help win games. Rickey’s scouts began watching Negro League games looking for that perfect black baseball player to break into the all-white major leagues. At that time Jackie Robinson played with the Kansas City Monarchs and Rickey’s scouts spotted him and were impressed with his performance. When they contacted him, Jackie believed he was being considered for the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, a Negro team. This was not the case.
No moment in baseball history is more important than the April day in 1947 when Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field, making a historic entrance into Major League Baseball as the first African-American player in the history of the game. His outstanding debut season netted him the inaugural Rookie of the Year award, which now bares his name, and spring-boarded him to a stellar 10-season career in which he was part of six Brooklyn Dodger pennant-winners, among them the World Championship club of 1955. In 1949, the six-time all-star won the National League batting title (.342) en route to earning MVP honors. Robinson, a first baseman as a rookie, starred as a second baseman for the next five seasons, before moving on to play third base and the outfield. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Impressive as his athletic achievements were, what Jackie Robinson accomplished as a man was far more important. The road to Robinson’s appearance at Ebebets Field on April 15, 1947, was a long, often crooked, and dark one. At a time when black players were banned from Major League Baseball, he had the courage and dignity to be the first to endure the withering barrage of racism and rejection without responding in kind. Throughout his entire career, Robinson coped with the racial insults and abuse with tact and good humor. But keeping all his frustration inside was hard. He often couldn’t sleep or eat. The fans marveled at Robinson’s self control. Jackie credited his wife Rachel for keeping him focused and calm during the most difficult first season. When many young athletes allow fame to go to their heads, Robinson kept his principles. He refused alcohol and tobacco. When attractive girls approached him, he told them he had vowed to be faithful all his life to his wife. Robinson had become a much-admired role model for young Americans, especially blacks. In a 1947 contest, Jackie Robinson was named the second most admired man in America, only surpassed in popularity by the singer Bing Crosby.
Later in his life Jackie Robinson became more active in civil rights work. He became a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
If you have not yet seen the movie on Jackie Robinson’s story, now is the perfect time to do so.
Today MLB is pervaded with different nationalities. However, we are unfortunately witnessing a decline in interest of African-Americans in playing baseball during the last few decades. This can be linked directly to partial baseball college scholarships comparing to full ones for basketball or football.
We at Scoutee believe in the power of talent and that no talent should go to waste. Today you have millions of players from poor countries where they have little opportunity to showcase their talent. We want to change that by empowering aspiring baseball players from anywhere in the world to achieve their full potential.
42 is not just a number. It represents humbleness, human dignity, perseverance, faith and courage. It represents the guts not to fight back even when the world turns against you. The number 42 is the only number retired by all of baseball. The next time you see a number 42, you should really bow to everything it stands for. Had we all been at least a little bit of 42, the world would have been a better place.
Thank you, Jackie, for showing us the way!
Long live the 42!
- Jackie Robinson-Biographies of the 20th Century (20th Century Biographies)
- Jackie Robinson (Equal Rights Leaders Discovery Library)
- Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training
- Jackie Robinson: A Biography (Greenwood Biographies)
- Out of the Shadows: African American Baseball from the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson
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