Today is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, a day in which every player on all 30 teams will wear Number 42 in honor of the former Dodger great.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia—a few miles north of the Florida line—January 31, 1919, as was the youngest of five children. His middle name is in honor of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who died 25 days before Jack was born. After Robinson’s parents split in 1920, Mallie McGriff moved to Pasadena, California, with her five young children. Robinson attended John Muir High School, where he was a standout athlete, lettering if four varsity sports. He played shortstop and catcher in baseball, guard in basketball, quarterbacked the football team and was a broad jumper for the track team. Robinson also played tennis, winning the boys singles championship in the 1936 Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament. Later that year, he earned a place on a Pomona baseball all-star team that included future Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Lemon. In 1937, Robinson followed his older brother Mack, who finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was later inducted into the University of Oregon Hall of Fame, to Pasadena Junior College, where he played four sports and broke his brother’s track records. In 1938, Robinson was one of ten PJC students named to the Order of Mast and Dagger for outstanding service to the school and a scholastic and citizenship record worthy of recognition. He was also elected to Lancers, a student police organization responsible for monitoring various school activities, before graduating PJC in spring 1939.
Robinson entered UCLA in fall 1939. He was one of four blacks on the football squad, making UCLA college football’s most integrated team. As a junior, Robinson led the nation in punt return yardage and averaged over 12 yards per carry, an NCAA record that still stands. In his senior season, he was named All-League after leading the Bruins in rushing, passing, total offense and scoring while again leading the nation in punt returns. In basketball, Robinson lead the southern division in scoring and was named Pacific Coast Conference MVP. In spring, he won the 1940 NCAA long jump title. Baseball was his worst sport—he only played one year and hit .097. Robinson left UCLA before graduating, playing semi-pro football for the Honolulu Bears in fall 1941. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. Robinson rose to second lieutenant, never saw combat action, and was honorably discharged in November 1944. The following year, he accepted a contract to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues for $ 400 a month. After appearing in the 1945 Negro League All-Star Game, Brooklyn Dodgers’ president and general manager Branch Rickey offered Robinson a spot on the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ International League affiliate, for the 1946 season. Robinson led the league in batting and fielding, was named IL MVP and led the Royals to victory over the Syracuse Chiefs in the 1946 Little World Series.
Six days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues. On Opening Day, he started at first base and scored a run before 26,623 fans at Ebbets Field [Daily Dose, October 30], over half of whom were black. Racial tension existed in the Dodger clubhouse and throughout the league, but Robinson gained the support of his manager, Leo Durocher, as well as teammate Pee Wee Reese who said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg encouraged Robinson, as did Larry Doby, who joined the Cleveland Indians in July 1947 to become the first black player to integrate the American League. Robinson played in 151 games, led the league in sacrifice hits and stolen bases and earned the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award. By the following year, a number of other black players had joined the league, including Satchel Paige [Daily Dose, July 7]. Besides Robinson, the Dodgers added three African-American players to their roster.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s major league debut brought an end to 60 years of segregation in professional baseball. Arguably the greatest athlete of all time, he was the first person in UCLA history ever to earn varsity letters in four different sports. He began his MLB career at 28—relatively late for a baseball player—was named Rookie of the Year. Two seasons later, he led the National League in batting average and stolen bases to earn MVP honors. Robinson played in six World Series, leading the “Boys of Summer” Dodgers to the title in 1955. A superb fielder, he twice led the league in fielding percentage among second baseman. Robinson’s combination of hitting ability and speed changed the game—he stole home 19 times in his career and has been called “the father of modern base-stealing.” He was a six-time All-Star whose character and discipline made a significant impact on the Civil Rights Movement in America. Mr. Robinson was the first black television analyst in major league baseball, first black executive of a major U.S. corporation and helped establish Freedom National Bank, an African-American owned financial institution based in Harlem, New York. In a poll conducted in 1947, Jackie Robinson was the second most popular man in the country, behind Bing Crosby. In 1999, he was listed on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He was elected to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Mr. Robinson died October 24, 1972, and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian awards of the United States.
On this date in 1947, Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American to play in major league baseball’s modern era. On this date 50 years later, Robinson’s jersey number, 42, was retired throughout Major League Baseball, the one and only time the league has afforded such an honor.
“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me….all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
– Jackie Robinson, on his legacy