This essay won the Society for American Baseball Research Negro Leagues Committee Scholarship contest in April 2010.
On April 14, 1947, Major League Baseball was a whites-only sport. Not since the expulsion of black players in 1888 had a non-Caucasian man swung a bat or thrown a pitch in the Big Show.
That changed on April 15, 1947—64 years ago today—when Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
Today it is our duty, both as baseball fans and as Americans, to appreciate Robinson as not just a courageous man and a skilled ballplayer, but as the hero who forged a path for racial integration in all aspects of American society.
An African-American boards a segregated bus in the heart of the segregated South and takes a seat in the “whites-only” section. “Hey, you,” the driver yells, “Get to the back of the bus.” The passenger refuses and is arrested a few minutes later.
At first glance, it is a familiar story, one that my generation learned as an epitomic tale of justice and courage in elementary school. But this event took place in 1944, not 1955; in Fort Hood, Texas, not Montgomery, Alabama; and on an Army bus, not public transportation.
The courageous passenger who refused to cede his seat was not Rosa Parks, but Second Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
Three years before his storied major league debut, Robinson’s actions established a precedent of passive resistance in the face of racism—both for himself and the civil rights leaders who would follow him.
It requires little effort to show that Robinson was a fantastic baseball player. A quick glance at his Hall of Fame plaque reveals that he had a career average of .311, attended six All-Star Games and was named NL MVP in 1949.
But when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey chose him to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1945, it was not just because of his skill; Robinson had played only one season in the Negro Leagues, and his résumé was not nearly as impressive as those of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Rickey was looking for something else—something much more important than a slick glove or a smooth swing.
According to Mohandas Gandhi’s doctrine of satyagraha, a man could truly be righteous only if he was both courageous and nonviolent; neither a refusal to take up arms out of cowardice nor a retaliation filled with bravado would ease the hatred in the oppressors’ hearts. This was the philosophy Rickey knew he had to instill in whoever he recruited.
Proving that African-Americans were good enough to compete with white players would not be a problem—anyone who followed the Negro Leagues knew that they had talent. What he needed most was someone who would refuse to show anger and avoid violence at all costs; someone who would deprive bigots of the symbolic enemy they craved. Rickey famously told Robinson, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
Robinson fit the mold perfectly. When he reached the major leagues in 1947, he braved verbal harassment, opposing teams’ overly aggressive play and even death threats with unflinching stoicism. Fully committed to his philosophy of intrepid pacifism, Robinson even refused to argue with umpires as a rookie.
With his inoffensive demeanor and undeniable dexterity, those who had opposed Robinson’s breaking the color barrier out of paternalistic fear or skepticism were proven wrong. Thanks to his example, several other black players—including Larry Doby and Hank Thompson—had also reached the Big Show by season’s end.
Looking at some contemporary baseball stars, it is clear that not just anyone could have played Robinson’s role. He would have made a terrible impression had he been cursed with Manny Ramirez' uncontrollable ego or apathetic approach to the game. Robinson would have (in their minds) proved the bigots right had he displayed Kenny Rogers’ short temper or Milton Bradley’s inability to tolerate criticism.
And you can count out anyone who has ever used steroids, androgens or human growth hormones—what would have happened if the first black player since 1888 had been caught cheating?
But Robinson’s legacy goes far beyond his contributions to the game of baseball; he was among the first well-known figures in the American Civil Rights movement to use passive resistance to combat racism.
Think of the most successful integration movements of the 1950’s: the Little Rock Nine, the SNCC’s sit-ins, the Montgomery bus boycott. While integrating professional sports might not have been as important as desegregating schools, restaurants and public transportation, Robinson’s actions must have provided at least a subconscious inspiration for the students, and Rosa Parks was undoubtedly following his example when she refused to give up her own seat 11 years later.
In retrospect, Robinson’s success through pacifism could be seen as foreshadowing for the later stages of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was far from the only charismatic figure to display intelligence and passion in the fight for equality; in fact, his doctrine was quite moderate compared to those of his contemporaries, Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Yet he is widely remembered as the most successful leader of the Civil Rights movement because of his commitment to nonviolence and his professed love even for those who hated him.
Dr. King developed his philosophy from the scholarly works of Gandhi and Thoreau, yet his overarching goal was the same as the one Branch Rickey imbued in his young protégée: to have “guts enough to not fight back.”