Remembering Jackie Robinson: The Greatest Man In Sports History

Derek HartCorrespondent IApril 15, 2009

LOS ANGELES - APRIL 15:  Actor Lou Cossett Jr., singer Chaka Khan and others pose for a photo during ceremonies honoring Jackie Robinson before the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 15, 2008 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California.   (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

On this date in 1947, a young, muscular African American and former UCLA athlete named Jack Roosevelt Robinson stepped onto the baseball diamond at Ebbets Field, in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City.

He was wearing the home whites of the local team, the Dodgers, playing first base against the Boston Braves on opening day.

Wearing No. 42, he went 0-for-3 with a base-on-error, scoring a run to help the Dodgers beat the Braves, 5-3, before roughly 26,000 fans. 

But the statistics of the game were insignificant.

What Robinson did that day changed not only the face of sports forever, but also changed America forever. He did something no other black person had been able to do since 1887—play in a major league baseball game.

Robinson knew full well what he was getting into when he put on that Dodger uniform.

He knew that many of the white major leaguers, 60 percent of whom were from the segregated South, would use any means necessary to see him fail, keeping major league baseball white and making sure the color line stayed intact. And they did.

Simply put, Jackie went through pure hell that year.

Balls were thrown at his head on a regular basis, players went out of their way to spike him on the base paths, vicious racial epithets were screamed at him by players and fans alike. The St. Louis Cardinals even threatened to strike rather than play against an African American.

Not to mention the frequent death threats that were sent to him.

He had to endure all of this while keeping a stoic attitude, which was completely against his character. He had to promise Dodger general manager Branch Rickey that, for three years, he would not answer back or retaliate, no matter how bad things got.

He knew that as much as he dearly wanted to, punching out a bigot who spiked him would lead the rest of the owners—who didn't want blacks in baseball, either—to say, "See, we knew they couldn't hack it."

It would likely have meant another 20 years before blacks got the chance to play in the majors.

The fact that Robinson excelled despite all the forces against him—winning the first Rookie of the Year award and leading Brooklyn to the pennant—says a lot about the kind of character he had, the kind of man he was.

And it all began 62 years ago today.

Perhaps Bob Costas put it best when he said, "Were there better players? Sure. But were there better men? No."

Putting it another way, Martin Luther King himself told Robinson that what he did made it easier for King to do his job.

Considering who it was coming from, that is truly saying something. Some have said the Civil Rights movement started not with the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but with Robinson breaking the color barrier.

Major League Baseball absolutely did the right thing when they announced in 1997 that Robinson's No. 42 would be retired by all of the big league teams.

They also did the right thing by making this day, April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, and asking all players to wear No. 42 in his honor.

I know that I will be wearing my replica No. 42 Dodger jersey tonight as I watch the Dodgers play the Giants (even though it's a little small).

As a matter of fact, I feel every sports fan out there should take a little time today to remember and celebrate a true sports legend, someone who was not only one of the greatest athletes of all time, but the greatest all-around person in sports history.

No one else deserves it more.