Today, April 15, 2012 marks the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in Major League Baseball. Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues when he suited up at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Robinson was more than a baseball player; he was a pioneer, an activist and a man who ignited change in American sports and society despite racism.
Jackie Robinson was an exceptional baseball player. He played his entire career with the Dodgers from 1947-1956. In his first year with the Dodgers, Robinson was named Rookie of the Year in the National League.
In 1949, Robinson had his finest season, as he had a .342 batting average and was named the National League Most Valuable Player.
In 1955, Robinson help lead the Dodgers to a World Series title over the perennial American League power, the New York Yankees.
Before gaining notoriety as being the first African-American to break baseball’s color barrier, Robinson served in the military and was a four-sport star in college. Robinson went to Pasadena Community College for two years and then to UCLA. In two years at UCLA, Robinson lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track.
After leaving UCLA in 1945, Robinson played baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Before Robinson, African-Americans were not allowed to play America's Pastime because of racism, so they formed a league of their own.
It’s difficult to embrace that during this time period, African-Americans could fight and die in World War II abroad, yet not be permitted to play professional baseball with whites in America because of racism.
The societal conditions were less than ideas for African-Americans in 1947. African-Americans were subject to separate and unequal treatment in both American sports and society.
Robinson breaking the color barrier came seven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and the Brown v. Board of Education decision; it was 16 years before Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, DC and the height of the civil rights movement.
Dodgers owner Branch Rickey knew Robinson would endure racism on and off the field. He would also endure racism from many of his white teammates. Several white players on the Dodgers signed a petition because they didn’t want Robinson on the team.
There was also a league-wide boycott where players of opposing teams threatened not to play if Robinson took the field on April 15, 1947.
Robinson played for a Triple-A club in Montreal before being called up to the majors in 1947. For the first two years of his contract, Robinson wasn’t allowed to retaliate against any verbal and physical abuse he’d be subject to.
In most cities Robinson traveled to as a member of the Dodgers, he was routinely called the N-word and had watermelons, black cats and bottles thrown at him by white fans. Opposing white players also routinely spit him on. Sad but true.
Many current African-American professional athletes and citizens stand on the shoulders of the likes of Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Kurt Floyd and Muhammad Ali. Without their sacrifices and championing for causes larger than themselves, the opportunities that exist today would be few and far between.
Robinson consistently took advantage of his status in speaking out against racism in the Major Leagues and society. Robinson spoke out against racism while he was an athlete with Dodgers and as a citizen in American society. Unlike most African-American stars today, Robinson didn’t opt for silence when faced with inequality and racism.
Robinson was asked to attend and speak at the 1972 World Series by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Days before his death, he issued the following statement before a packed house at Riverfront Stadium:
“I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit I’m gonna be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”
Robinson’s request wouldn’t be honored until 1975, when Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was named player/manager of the Cleveland Indians.
Facts are facts. Major League Baseball historically has denied African-Americans access in terms of ownership opportunities, executive-level posts and managerial positions.
When Jackie Robinson integrated America's Pastime in 1947, there were no African-American owners, general managers or field managers.
The Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports reveals the following: 65 years after Robinson, there’s no African-American sole ownership, one African-American general manager (Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox) and two African-Americans field managers (Dusty Baker of the Cincinnati Reds and Ron Washington of the Texas Rangers).
African-Americans account for a mere 8.5 percent of the players in the Major Leagues, which is the lowest percentage in 35 years.
How can the numbers be so disappointing 65 years after Robinson?
Can one logically assert the latter facts as progress?
Yes, Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, but his legacy shouldn’t be confined to integrating America's Pastime—when I think of Robinson’s legacy, I think of the bitter cruelties he endured because of racism; I think of him speaking out against savage inequality and being a man’s man.
I think of Robinson and other African-Americans who sacrificed their lives, careers and money to make things better for everyone. I also think of how much work needs to be done in terms of attacking the ills of society, such as racism. Athletic stars today fear taking stands because of the potential ridicule and societal backlash.
If pioneers of the past were afraid of the establishment, would we be where we are today as a nation?
Many know Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues, but there was a lot more to his legend than simply breaking the color barrier. Robinson was a champion on and off the field.
Robinson, along with other African-American athletes and citizens during his day, endured bitter cruelties because of skin color. Racism wasn’t enough to silence the likes of Jackie Robinson. His talent as an athlete and courage as a man wouldn’t allow him to bow down to racism.
Yes, there were better baseball players than Jackie Robinson, but was there anyone more important who played the game?
I don’t think so.
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