42 Things You Need to Know About Jackie Robinson

Jason Catania@@JayCat11MLB Lead WriterApril 12, 2013

Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15. (Image courtesy of Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Forget tax day. In baseball, April 15 marks an even more important event—Jackie Robinson Day.

It was on that date back in 1947 that Robinson stepped on the field wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, thus breaking the sport's color barrier by becoming the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era.

While MLB will celebrate the 66th anniversary of that momentous occasion on Monday, when all players will once again don Robinson's retired No. 42 on their jersey, fans will get a chance to relive Robinson's heroic journey and historic career Friday, as the film 42 hits theaters across America.

The movie, from Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros., stars Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers general manager responsible for finding and convincing Robinson to stand up to the segregation of the times and integrate baseball and, to a larger extent, America.

Bleacher Report recently had the chance to sit down with Boseman and Ford to discuss Jackie Robinson and the movie.

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In time for both the film's release and Jackie Robinson Day, here are, fittingly, 42 things you need to know about Jackie Robinson.

1. Jackie Robinson was given the middle name Roosevelt in honor of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who died less than a month before Robinson was born on Jan. 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia.

2. Similarly, current New York Yankees star Robinson Cano is named after Jackie Robinson because his father, Jose, himself a former major leaguer—he pitched 23 innings with the Houston Astros in 1989—used to hear the name Jackie Robinson on the radio while listening to games growing up in his native Dominican Republic. Robinson Cano wears No. 24—the reverse of Robinson’s retired 42—as a tribute. Jose Cano told the story of his son's name to ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney:

I never saw Jackie Robinson play. In the Dominican Republic when I was kid, not many people had a TV. My family didn't. We had a radio. All the time on the radio I was hearing, Robinson this...Robinson that...Robinson, Robinson, Robinson. The great Jackie Robinson. I thought to myself, When I have a son, that's the name I'm going to give him. And I did.

3. After Jackie Robinson's father, Jerry, abandoned the family very early in Jackie's life, his mother Mallie moved Jackie and his four older siblings to Pasadena, California.

4. Robinson's older brother Matthew (nicknamed “Mack”) competed in the 1936 Olympics and won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash, finishing second to fellow African-American Jesse Owens, who won four golds at those controversial Games held in Berlin at the height of Nazi Germany.

Robinson ran the race in 21.1 seconds, while Owens set an Olympic record with a time of 20.7 seconds. Adolf Hitler, who personally congratulated many of the track athletes who earned medals, did not do the same for either Owens or Robinson despite their medal-winning performances.

5. Jackie Robinson attended UCLA, where he became the first student to earn varsity letters in four sports: football (1939 and 1940), basketball (1940 and 1941), track (1940) and baseball (1940), which ironically was his worst sport at the time, as Robinson hit .097 in his lone season with the team. As for the other three sports? Robinson was All Pac-10 in football, West Coast Conference MVP in hoops and set a long jump record in track.

6. Following college, Robinson played semi-professional football for the Honolulu Bears in Hawaii, which he left only two days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

7. While serving in the Army from 1942-44, Robinson became a second lieutenant. During his service at Camp Hood in Texas, Robinson refused to sit in the back of a segregated bus, and was subsequently arrested and court-martialed. This came a decade prior to the well-known incident in which Rosa Parks, an African-American female, refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955. Robinson eventually was acquitted of the charges and given an honorable discharge.

His former unit, the 761st Tank Battalion, was the first black tank unit to see combat in World War II, but Robinson’s court proceedings prevented him from being deployed overseas. His honorable discharge in November of 1944 coincided with the 761st being sent to Europe, where many members of the battalion suffered casualties.

8. Returning to baseball in 1945, Robinson played his lone season in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs, hitting .387 with 13 steals in 47 games. Although Robinson wasn't considered the best player in the league by his own peers—many felt fellow baseball legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson were better—Branch Rickey ultimately chose Robinson because of his demeanor and courage. This was captured in the 1996 TV movie Soul of the Game, which starred Blair Underwood as Robinson, and in Pride Against Prejudice, the biography of Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, in which Doby was quoted as saying

One of the things that was disappointing and disheartening to a lot of the black players at the time was that Jack was not the best player. The best was Josh Gibson. I think that's one of the reasons Josh died so early—he was heartbroken.

9. After Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson to the Montreal Royals, a minor league affiliate of the Dodgers organization on Oct. 23, 1945, Robinson led the Triple-A International League with a .349 batting average in 1946, while winning the league’s MVP award and helping the Royals win the championship. With the mounting interest surrounding Robinson's inevitable major league debut, more than one million people went to games involving the Royals in 1946.

10. Robinson became the first African-American player to reach the major leagues in modern history on April 15, 1947. In his first at-bat, the 28-year-old Robinson grounded out against Johnny Sain of the Boston Braves.

11. Attendance at Ebbets Field for the first game Robinson played was 26,623, including 14,000-plus black patrons.

12. Although Robinson played primarily second base in his 10-year career, he actually played first base in his first MLB game and exclusively throughout his rookie year because veteran Eddie Stanky was entrenched at second base.

13. On April 18, 1947, Robinson hit his first major league home run off Dave Koslo of the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds.

14. After batting .297, leading the National League with 29 stolen bases and helping the Brooklyn Dodgers to the pennant, Robinson won the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year Award in 1947. The National and American Leagues did not adopt separate awards until 1949.

15. In 1949, Robinson was voted as the starting second baseman for the National League in the MLB All-Star Game, the first All-Star game to include black players. In addition to Robinson, fellow African-Americans Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe—who were Robinson’s teammates on the Dodgers—and Larry Doby (Cleveland Indians) also played in the game.

16. That same year, Robinson became the first black player to win National League MVP with a .342 batting average, 124 RBI and 37 steals (all career-bests), beating out the St. Louis Cardinals’ Stan Musial.

17. The song "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" by Buddy Johnson was released in 1949 and reached No. 13 on the charts.

18. Robinson starred as himself in the 1950 biographical film The Jackie Robinson Story, which was well-received by both critics and fans. 

19. In 1950, Robinson’s contract reached $35,000, making him the highest-paid player in Dodgers history at the time.

20. While on the losing end of Bobby Thomson’s famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” in the final game of a three-game playoff series to determine the 1951 NL pennant winner, the uber-competitive Robinson—whose 14th-inning home run in the final game of the regular season had salvaged the Dodgers' postseason hopes by forcing a tie with the Giants—closely watched Thomson round the bases to ensure he touched each one on his celebratory trot.

21. In 1952, Robinson publicly called the New York Yankees a racist organization for failing to have a black player on the roster five years after he first played in the major leagues. Meanwhile, within that same period of time, 150 African-Americans were playing in organized pro baseball in either the major leagues or the minors.

22. In his career, Robinson was a part of six pennant-winning Dodgers teams. As for the opponents, well, you'll notice a trend.

*By the time the Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, finally beating the Yankees, Robinson was no longer an everyday player. In fact, he had been displaced at second base by fellow African-American Jim Gilliam and did not even play in the clinching Game 7 of the World Series.

23. In 1956, Chuck Berry, the African-American rock and roll legend, released a song called “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” which has been called the first rock song to express pride in being black. In the biography Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berry, author Bruce Pegg speculated that the “brown eyed handsome man” mentioned in the final verse of the song was likely intended to be Robinson:

And the last verse…takes on added meaning given the year and the race of the protagonist. It described a last-minute home run scored with “two, three the count with nobody on” by the brown-eyed handsome man. In 1956, audiences would have instantly recognized this as a reference to Jackie Robinson, who a decade earlier and at tremendous personal cost, had broken the color barrier…

24. In December of 1956, with Branch Rickey no longer a part of the Dodgers organization, owner Walter O’Malley traded Robinson to the New York Giants for pitcher Dick Littlefield and $30,000, but the deal was never officially completed because Robinson refused to report to his new team, instead choosing to retire.

25. Although it’s an unofficial stat, Robinson stole home 19 times, which ranks first among players who debuted after 1920 and places him among the all-time leaders.

26. Robinson’s most famous steal of home came against the Yankees and catcher Yogi Berra in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, setting the tone for the only title the Dodgers would win in six appearances with Robinson. Whether Robinson actually was safe or out has been the center of debate for decades, with Berra insisting he tagged Robinson out despite umpire Bill Summers calling him safe.

27. After retiring from baseball, Robinson joined coffee company Chock full o’Nuts in 1957 as director of personnel.

28. In 1962, Robinson became the first African-American to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his first time on the ballot with 77.5 percent of the vote. In his induction speech, Robinson made sure to thank Branch Rickey—Robinson called him "a man who I considered a father"—as well as his mother and his wife Rachel Robinson, all three of whom were in attendance.

29. Robinson became the first African-American network television broadcaster for MLB when he was hired by ABC in 1965. It only lasted until 1966, when he was hired as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (of the Continental Football League). In 1972, he worked in the booth part-time on Montreal Expos games.

30. Robinson was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 2 of the 1972 World Series in honor of the 25-year anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in baseball. Robinson initially declined because he was disappointed with the lack of black managers in the game. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, however, convinced Robinson that the sport was working on this matter, so Robinson agreed to take part in the ceremony. 

Only nine days later, Robinson passed away from a heart attack and complications with diabetes. Less than three years after Robinson's first pitch, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager—a player-manager for the Cleveland Indians—in MLB history.

31. A year after Robinson died, his wife Rachel started the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973. The not-for-profit organization has provided $22 million in direct scholarship grants toward its primary objective: 

Uniquely, JRF provides generous four-year college scholarships in conjunction with a comprehensive set of skills and opportunities to disadvantaged students of color to ensure their success in college and to develop their leadership potential.

32. UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium, home to the Bruins baseball team, opened in 1981.

33. Robinson’s journey was also made into a Broadway musical called The First, which starred David Alan Grier but lasted only 37 performances in 1981.

34. A year later, in 1982, the United States Post Office issued the Jackie Robinson Black Heritage stamp to celebrate the 35th anniversary of his debut, making him the first Major League Baseball player ever depicted on a U.S. stamp. His likeness would later appear on two more stamps.

35. The Rookie of the Year Award was renamed the Jackie Robinson Award in 1987, 40 years after Robinson won the inaugural honors.

36. In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut, the U.S. Mint put his likeness on gold and silver commemorative coins, which were collector's items available for sale only between Aug. 16, 1997, and Aug. 16, 1998.

37. Robinson's No. 42 jersey, which already had been retired by the Dodgers franchise in 1972, was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut. This was the first time an entire professional sports league retired a player’s number. To date, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, whose No. 99 was retired across the NHL in 2000, remains the only other.

38. When MLB retired Robinson's number, there were 14 players wearing No. 42 in 1997, and they were allowed to continue to do so:

*In 2013, only one player remains with the number: Mariano Rivera of the Yankees. Rivera told MLB.com's Barry M. Bloom in 2012 what it means to wear Robinson's old number:

"I'm honored to wear it, to use it. It's wonderful. As a minority, being the last one to use No. 42 is tremendous. I'm really, really proud and thankful to wear No. 42."

Of course, the 43-year-old Rivera, who became the Yankees closer in 1997—the same year No. 42 was retired—has already said the 2013 season will be his last, so Robinson’s 42 will no longer be worn on a major league field except for every April 15 when all players will wear it on Jackie Robinson Day.

39. The last Dodgers player to wear No. 42 was not Robinson, but pitcher Ray Lamb, who did so upon being called up to the majors late in the 1969 season. Lamb, however, gave the number up at season’s end because he felt uncomfortable wearing those digits.

40. Director Spike Lee, who tried to bring his version of Robinson's story to the big screen in a film that would have featured Denzel Washington, famously wore Robinson’s No. 42 Dodgers jersey in his 1989 movie Do the Right Thing.

41. In 2005, a statue of Robinson and Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese made by sculptor William Behrends was erected outside KeySpan Park (now MCU Park) in Brooklyn to commemorate the inspiring moment when Reese put his arm around Robinson on the field in response to fans shouting racial slurs. Rachel Robinson told the New York Times' Ira Berkow the following regarding Reese's action:

I remember Jackie talking about Pee Wee's gesture the day it happened. It came as such a relief to him, that a teammate and the captain of the team would go out of his way in such a public fashion to express friendship.

42. "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."—Jackie Robinson

Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and has admired Jackie Robinson since writing a class report on the Dodgers legend in 7th grade.

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