Baseball is a game of numbers, but one number—42—stands alone. 42 was Jackie Robinson’s uniform number, and it will never be worn again, in honor of the man who broke the color line in modern Major League Baseball. Before President Harry Truman ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military, before the civil rights protests across the South, before Brown v. Board of Education, before Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montgomery bus boycott, Jackie Robinson was the most visible fighter for racial equality in the United States and a powerful force in changing American attitudes about race. A great baseball player by any standard, Robinson was also a success in business and civic life. The grandson of a slave and the son of a poor sharecropper, he was, among his other firsts, the first black vice president of a major American corporation and the first black television sports analyst.
Jackie Robinson blazed onto the American scene on April 15, 1947, when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black player in the United States’ national pastime since the 1880s, when blacks were effectively banned from organized baseball. Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball was the result of an elaborate plan—“the great experiment”—by Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to integrate the game. Several conditions in the mid-1940s made the time right for Rickey’s bold move—World War II and the defeat of Nazism and its racist agenda; the persistent crusading of the black press and the American Communist Party; the internal migration of blacks from the South, making them a potential political force; and the triumphs of black track star Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics and world heavyweight champion Joe Louis. But Owens and Louis competed as individuals whereas a baseball player was part of a team. Roughly a third of all baseball players came from the South, so Rickey knew it would take a remarkable man to stand up to the abuse and threats he would face.
For two years, Rickey scouted the United States and the Caribbean until he found the right man, Jackie Robinson, shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. An outstanding athlete and fierce competitor, Robinson was the first four-letter man at UCL A, excelling in track, football, baseball, and basketball. An all-round athlete, he was also a champion golfer and standout tennis player and had been a lieutenant in the Army. Rickey, a devout Methodist, was also impressed by Robinson’s personal qualities: Robinson did not smoke or drink and was engaged to an accomplished young woman. The only possible drawback was his temper. Fiery and proud, he did not suffer inequality and prejudice without protest and had run afoul of racial strictures while in the Army.
Robinson’s first meeting with Rickey, on August 28, 1945, has passed into baseball legend. Rickey dramatically acted out the vile insults and abuse—“Nigger bastard! Porter! Shoeshine! Coon!”—that would be hurled at Robinson from hotel clerks and railroad conductors to hostile fans and opponents, as described by Donald Honig in Baseball America. After three hours of verbal and physical badgering, Robinson asked, “Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back?” “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey answered. Taking time to respond, Robinson finally replied, “Mr. Rickey, if you want to take this gamble, I will promise you there will be no incidents.”
At the close of the meeting, Rickey offered Robinson a contract to play for the Dodgers’ top farm team, the Montreal Royals, to be signed later and kept secret from everyone except Robinson’s mother and Rachel Isum, his fiancée. Two months later, on October 23, 1945, the president of the Royals called a press conference to “make a very important announcement.” With that announcement, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in organized baseball.
Branch Rickey’s warnings became reality when the Robinsons, married in February 1946, made their way to the Royals’ spring training camp in Daytona Beach, Florida. For the first time in their lives, the couple experienced Southern bigotry. Bumped off their flight to Florida, they were unable to stay with the team at its hotel; scheduled exhibition games were canceled when it was known that Robinson would play. Under the enormous pressure of performing well and the scrutiny of Northern and black newspapers, Robinson, buoyed by the support of black fans, played well enough to make the team. On the opening day, before a record crowd in Jersey City, New Jersey, Robinson made an explosive debut, going four for five with a home run, two stolen bases, three runs batted in, and four runs scored in a 14 ă1 Royals victory. The victory heralded a winning season for the Royals, who, spearheaded by Robinson, won the Little World Series. In the locker room after the final game, manager Clay Hopper, who only months before had asked Branch Rickey, “Do you really think a nigger’s a human being?” shook Robinson’s hand. “You’re a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman,” according to one biographer, Jules Tygiel.
Not until five days before the 1947 season opened did Rickey announce that Robinson would be promoted to the Dodgers despite rumors that a few of the Brooklyn players had circulated a petition against Robinson. Robinson’s season started quietly, with none of the fireworks he had set off in his Montreal debut. The first home stand brought the Philadelphia Phillies to Brooklyn. The Phillies poured forth some of the ugliest invective in the history of the game—“probably the greatest cruelty in the American sports picture,” wrote the respected sportswriter J. Roy Stockton in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Their outburst brought threats of punitive action from National League Commissioner Happy Chandler and, more important, roused Robinson’s teammates to his support. As the Dodgers headed to St. Louis, the New York Herald Tribune reported that the Cardinals were urging the National League to strike against Robinson. Whether there actually was a threat is not entirely clear, but the rumor prompted Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick to lay down the law: “I don’t care if it wrecks the National League.... This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another,” the New York Herald Tribune reported. “Jim Crow in baseball had lost the war,” one biographer, Arnold Rampersad, noted. On July 5, Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, signed Larry Doby of the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues, thus integrating the American League. By the time Robinson retired in 1957, every team in Major League Baseball had black players except the Phillies, Detroit Tigers, and Boston Red Sox. In 1959, the Red Sox, the last team to integrate, fielded their first black player.
Two months into the 1947 season, Robinson was an accepted member of the Dodgers, eating and spending off-hours time with his teammates and forming lasting friendships with several players, Pee Wee Reese and Gil Hodges, among them. Rachel Robinson was also one of the Dodger wives, joining in the gossip and general socializing. Despite continued harassment—Robinson led the league in hit-by-pitched balls and was spiked a number of times—Robinson hit his stride by midseason, and the Dodgers packed stadiums across the country, breaking attendance records in every city but Cincinnati, with fans black and white flocking to the ballparks. His base-running, aggressive style, and innate competitiveness sparked the team and evoked comparisons to Ty Cobb. The talented rookie earned a place on the All-Star team with more than 300,000 votes, and the day after the Dodgers won the pennant—the first time in six years—was declared Jackie Robinson Day at Ebbets Field. The same week Robinson appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and J. Taylor Spink, publisher of the Sporting News, flew to New York to personally present him with the first Rookie of the Year Award, based “not on the trail-blazing that he did, ⁄ but solely on the basis of his hitting, his running, his defensive play, his team value.”
Robinson’s success spread much further than baseball. His restraint in the face of extreme provocation, his dignity, his intelligence, made him a champion for blacks but also won the respect and admiration of whites. In a poll conducted by a newspaperman in November, he was voted the second most popular man in the United States after Bing Crosby, ahead of President Truman and General Dwight Eisenhower. He endorsed such nationally advertised products as Homogenized Bond Bread and Borden’s Milk. He had a local radio show and wrote a newspaper column. The Sporting News estimated that in 1947 Robinson made more money than any other baseball players except Bob Feller and Hank Greenberg.
Robinson’s baseball career alone would have won him a place in the sport’s history. After his tension-filled first season, Robinson’s game became more daring and more confident. In his 10-year career, he compiled a lifetime.311 average, stole 197 bases, scored 947 runs, had 867 RBIs, and hit 137 home runs. In 1948, he moved from playing first base to second, his preferred position, and in 1949, with a league-leading batting average of.342, he won the Most Valuable Player Award. By 1950, Robinson was the highest paid Dodger; a fine fielder, he led the league in double plays that year. Once on base, Robinson rattled pitchers to the point of distraction as he darted back and forth on the base paths, stealing home 19 times at a time when that was a rare play. During Robinson’s tenure on the team, the Dodgers, bolstered by several other black players, won seven pennants and the 1955 World Series, remembered for Robinson’s steal of home in the first game. By that time, however, Robinson’s game was declining, and he had made up his mind to seek a career outside baseball. In 1957, as the Dodgers informed him he had been traded to the rival New York Giants, Robinson announced his retirement and joined Chock Full O’Nuts, a New York coffee shop chain, as vice president in charge of personnel. With this appointment, he became the first black man to appear on the financial pages of the New York Times.
From the beginning of his baseball career, Robinson had had interests outside sports. He endorsed many national products, he played himself in the Hollywood movie The Jackie Robinson Story (1950) with Ruby Dee as Rachel, and he was active in civic and charitable organizations. Robinson’s militancy on civil rights had led to friction with some of his black teammates, especially easygoing Roy Campanella, the Dodgers’ star catcher. His prominence sometimes led to uncomfortable situations, the most notable an invitation to testify before the House Un-American Committee in 1949 on a comment made by Paul Robeson. Robeson, the actor, concert singer, All-American athlete, and early civil rights activist, was living in Europe and at a conference in Paris stated that American blacks would not fight for the United States in a war against the Soviet Union. Fearing that Robeson’s statement would reflect badly on blacks, Robinson appeared before the committee. He did not shrink from the importance of fighting discrimination—“I was an expert on being a colored American, having had thirty years of experience at it, and I knew how difficult it was,” he told the committee. But Robinson and tens of thousands of other blacks had fought for their country, and he was proud of his service. He stood by Robeson’s right to his opinions but thought the statement, “if Mr. Robeson actually made [it], sounded very silly to me.” While he was lauded in the white press, reaction in the black press was mixed. Robinson returned to Brooklyn that day and scored two runs, one with a steal of home.
With his retirement from baseball, Robinson was able to devote more attention to business and civic activities. As one of the most prominent black figures in the United States, he had many opportunities, from a radio program on WNBC to a nationally syndicated column in the liberal New York Post, and was a sought-after speaker and spokesman. These were years of increasing confrontation in the struggle for civil rights, and Robinson carried his lifelong fight for equality to the front. In 1957, he headed the NAACP’s million-dollar Fight for Freedom campaign, touring the country speaking and fund-raising, and served on the NAACP board from 1957 to 1967. In 1956, the NAACP awarded him its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, the first given to an athlete.
Robinson’s involvement with civil rights increasingly involved him in politics, with politicians from both parties seeking his support. A registered independent and staunch anti-Communist, Robinson was impressed by Richard Nixon, whom he met in 1952 at the Republican National Convention, and campaigned for Nixon during his 1960 presidential race, a decision he came to regret. In 1962, Robinson met Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York and two years later, having resigned from Chock Full O’Nuts, accepted Rockefeller’s offer to serve as a deputy national director in the governor’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He went on to serve as a special assistant to Rockefeller when the governor was reelected in 1966. In 1968, he had to leave Rockefeller’s staff when he decided to campaign for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, in his unsuccessful presidential bid. Robinson then turned his energies to helping found and later direct the Freedom National Bank. In 1970, with several partners, he formed the Jackie Robinson Construction Corporation to build low- and moderate-priced housing.
In 1962, Robinson, with Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility; they were the first two players to achieve that honor. Ironically, in 1945, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Courier, Feller had predicted no future for Robinson in big league baseball. A few days after Robinson’s Hall of Fame induction, he was honored at a testimonial dinner organized by the Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Both his mother and Branch Rickey, a father figure to Robinson, attended, as well as many prominent civic, religious, sports, and business leaders.
But the 1960s were a time of personal difficulties for Robinson. Rachel and he, with their children Jackie Jr., Sharon, and David, lived in all-white Stamford, Connecticut, in a large and comfortable house, but times were changing. Robin-son’s belief in integration and his political activism led to sharp public exchanges between him and Malcolm X, an exponent of black power, in New York’s Amsterdam News. Once the respected symbol of the black man in the United States, Robinson was now tagged an Uncle Tom by young activists. But progress toward civil rights was slow, and Robinson himself was losing hope. He titled his autobiography I Never Had It Made, the life of “a black man in a white world.” Relating his commitment to social justice and efforts in the civil rights movement, Robinson ranged far beyond his baseball career. In a deeply personal account, he recalls his elder son, Jackie Jr., had had a troubled childhood and adolescence. He joined the Army, but rather than the discipline he hoped for, he found himself in Vietnam, even more troubled and out of place than he had been in Connecticut. He returned with a drug addiction. After an arrest, he underwent a long but successful rehabilitation and was fully reunited with his family and his father, who was now speaking publicly on the drug problem. But on a spring night in 1971, Robinson was awakened to learn that Jackie Jr. had died in a late-night car accident.
Debilitated by diabetes and heart disease, with a head of white hair, almost blind, and walking with difficulty, Robinson was a shocking contrast to his youthful self when he appeared at Dodger Stadium in June 1972 at a ceremony in which the Dodgers retired his number to mark the 25th anniversary of his debut in the majors. A few months later, he was again honored by Major League Baseball when he was invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the second game of the World Series and awarded a plaque commemorating his debut. True to his principles, Robinson expressed his pride and pleasure but looked forward to the day when he would “see a black face managing in baseball.” Nine days later, Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53.
Robinson’s fight for equality began long before April 15, 1947. Born Jack Robinson on January 31, 1919, in southern Georgia, he was given the middle name Roosevelt for President Theodore Roosevelt, an early opponent of racism. Shortly after Robinson’s birth, his father abandoned the family, and his mother, Mallie, moved her young family of four sons and a daughter to Pasadena, California. She soon bought a house on an all-white street. It was there that Robinson grew up and, at eight, had his first direct encounter with racism although the family had faced many unfriendly incidents and Pasadena’s segregated facilities limited their activities. “Nigger, nigger, nigger,” a little girl called. “Cracker,” Robinson responded, using the word he knew was insulting. A stone-throwing fight with the little girl’s father ensued, stopped only when his wife criticized her husband for fighting with a child.
Even as a young boy, Robinson was noted for his athletic skill, but he was also part of a gang of troublemakers. Sports and his religious faith drew Robinson away. At school he starred on the basketball, track, football, and baseball teams. After an outstanding sports career at Pasadena Junior College, he transferred to UCLA, where he lettered in four sports and, more important, met Rachel Isum, to whom he became engaged in 1943. Believing that a black man could not get a suitable job and had no future in athletics, he left college before graduating and took a government job that ended with the outbreak of World War II. He then took an offer to play football in Honolulu and at season’s end was on his way back to California when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Shortly after, he was drafted. Refused entry to Officers’ Candidate School, Robinson spoke to Joe Louis, who was stationed at the same base. Louis made a call to Washington, and Robinson and others in his unit were soon enrolled. He was graduated as a lieutenant.
Robinson’s army career was marked by open discrimination and his vocal objection to it, culminating in a court-martial. Knowing that military buses had been desegregated, Robinson refused to move to the back of an army bus when ordered by the driver. Robinson stood his ground and, when the bus pulled in, was taken off by the military police. Fueled by Robinson’s protests, the incident escalated into a court-martial for insubordination. The charges were weak, and Robinson was acquitted; he left the army with an honorable discharge. When deciding whether to sign Robinson, Rickey considered Robinson’s reputation, from his childhood scrapes through the court-martial, and he liked Robinson’s fighting spirit. Thus Rickey and Robinson’s noble experiment began.
That experiment and the success of Robinson’s lifework have been both honored and institutionalized in the years after his death. In 1987, the Rookie of the Year Award was named for him. On April 15, 1997, Robinson’s uniform number was officially retired throughout Major League Baseball; with the retirement of Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, number 42 will never be worn again. In 2004, Major League Baseball designated April 15 as Jackie Robinson Day, and since 2007 all uniformed baseball professionals wear 42 on that day. After Robin-son’s death Rachel Robinson, with partners, took over the construction company, building well over 1,500 affordable units. She also founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has awarded hundreds of college scholarships. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan presented Rachel Robinson with a posthumous Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, for Robinson, and in 2003, President George W. Bush presented her with the Congressional Gold Medal, a similarly high honor. Robinson has appeared on three U.S. postage stamps, the first baseball player so honored, and numerous buildings and civic sites have been named for him. Still recognized as a pioneer in the fight for civil rights, Robinson is the subject of dozens of biographies for children.
It is almost impossible, after the election of a black president in the United States, to picture the segregated society Jackie Robinson grew up in and the barriers, both open and hidden, he had to overcome, as well as the humiliation and abuse he endured. Born with a strong sense of justice and a fierce commitment to his principles, Robinson knew he carried the burden for all black Americans. His fight was theirs, a fight from which he never withdrew, and his achievements in and beyond baseball are testimony to his success in paving the way for those who followed. Summing up Robinson’s contribution in 1997, Jules Tygiel writes, “Today, fifty years after he first graced us with his pride, his courage, his passion, and his vision, our nation... has yet to produce a more compelling prophecy of a just, interracial society than that which we envision when we invoke the memory of Jackie Robinson.”
—Maron L. Waxman
Honig, Donald. Baseball America. New York, Macmillan, 1985.
Jackie Robinson’s papers have been deposited in the Library of Congress, and the online LOC American Memory has several features on his career.
Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Robinson, Jackie, as told to Alfred Duckett. I Never Had It Made. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Tygiel, Jules. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. Expanded ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.