Long before Dr. King or Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson became America's first civil rights icon.
However, as great as Robinson's struggle was, it would not have been possible without the help of the puritanical Dodgers GM who also happened to be perhaps the greatest executive in baseball history.
Branch Rickey was always ahead of his time in formulating what he would call "The Dodger Way," which included building a strong farm system, trading player before their skills deteriorated and while they still had value, and stocking the Dodgers with the best talent available.
If that talent happened to be African-American, then that was fine as well.
Rickey's bringing Jackie Robinson and a host of other former Negro League players into Brooklyn was one part moral conviction and one part competitive advantage.
Rickey sought to break the color barrier in 1946 when he petitioned the owners to allow African-Americans to become a part of Major League Baseball. The vote was 1-11 against the measure; however, commissioner (and former southern politician) Happy Chandler overruled the owners, famously saying, "If the Negro can make it at Guadalcanal, they can make it in baseball."
Then there was Robinson, who was "the right type of Negro" that Rickey was looking for to break baseball's color barrier. Educated, well-spoken, articulate, and non-threatening, Robinson possessed all the traits Rickey was looking for.
What Robinson endured from opposing teammates, fans, and some of his own players amounted as some of the most vicious and hate-filled racism imaginable, yet Robinson, as Rickey demanded, turned the other cheek.
Robinson didn't simply endure the racism he experienced on a daily basis, but delivered the goods on the field as well. Hitting a .311 for his Major League career, he was named the 1949 MVP, and was widely considered to be the best fielding second baseman in the game.
Robinson became an icon who paved the way for not only all African-American baseball players, but all African-American athletes in the United States.