Each month, the editors of the Oxford African American Studies Center provide insights into black history and culture and this month they looked at the Negro Leagues. Check out the other posts this month:
This week we honor Jackie Robinson. The entry was written by Davidson M. Douglas for the African American National Biography. The phote is from the Library of Congress
31 Jan. 1919–24 Oct. 1972, baseball player,
was born Jack Roosevelt Robinson in Cairo, Georgia, the son of Jerry Robinson, a farmworker and sharecropper, and Mallie McGriff, a domestic worker. Six months after Robinson’s birth, his father deserted the family. Faced with severe financial difficulties, Robinson’s mother moved her family to Pasadena, California, in pursuit of a better life. The Robinsons settled in a white Pasadena neighborhood—where they received a chilly reception—and Robinson’s mother supported her family in modest fashion as a domestic worker.
Robinson demonstrated his athletic prowess from an early age. After graduating from high school in Pasadena in 1937 as one of the city’s most celebrated athletes, he entered Pasadena Junior College. He established himself as an exceptional multi-sport athlete at Pasadena and won junior college All-American honors in football. By the time of his graduation from Pasadena in 1939, he was one of the most widely recruited athletes on the West Coast. Robinson eventually decided to enter the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), which he attended from 1939 to 1941. Playing four sports at UCLA, Robinson continued to display extraordinary athletic ability, causing one sportswriter to label him “the Jim Thorpe of his race” (Tygiel, 60). He twice led the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference in basketball scoring, averaged 11 yards per carry as an All-American running back during his junior year on the football team, and won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) broad jump championship in track and field. Ironically, Robinson’s weakest performance came in baseball; he played only one season at UCLA and had minimal success, batting only .097. Robinson was not the only athlete in his family; his older brother Mack finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter sprint at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Robinson dropped out of college during his senior year at UCLA to help support his family. After brief stints as an assistant athletic director at a National Youth Administration camp in California and as a player with two semiprofessional football teams—the Los Angeles Bulldogs and the Honolulu Bears—Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army in the spring of 1942.
The U.S. Army of the 1940s was a thoroughly segregated institution. Although initially denied entry into the army’s Officers Candidate School because of his race, Robinson, with the assistance of boxer Joe Louis, successfully challenged his exclusion and was eventually commissioned a second lieutenant. Robinson spent two years in the service at army bases in Kansas, Texas, and Kentucky. During this time Robinson confronted the army’s discriminatory racial practices; on one occasion he faced court-martial charges for insubordination arising from an incident in which he refused to move to the back of a segregated military bus in Texas. A military jury acquitted Robinson, and shortly thereafter, in November 1944, he received his honorable discharge from the army.
Following his discharge, Robinson—who continued to enjoy a reputation as an extraordinarily gifted athlete—spent the spring and summer of 1945 playing shortstop with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Robinson proved to be a highly effective player, batting about .345 for the year. At this time major league baseball did not permit black players to play on either minor league or major league teams, pursuant to an unwritten agreement among the owners that dated back to the nineteenth century. Pressure to integrate baseball, however, had steadily increased. Many critics complained of the hypocrisy of requiring black men to fight and die in a war against European racism but denying them the opportunity to play “the national pastime.” During the early 1940s a few major league teams offered tryouts to black players—Robinson had received a tryout with the Boston Red Sox in 1945—but no team actually signed a black player.
In the meantime, however, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, had secretly decided to use African Americans on his team. Rickey was convinced of the ability of black ballplayers, their potential gate attraction, and the injustice of their exclusion from major league baseball. Using the ruse that he wanted to develop a new league for black players, Rickey deployed his scouts to scour the Negro Leagues and the Caribbean for the most talented black ballplayers during the spring and summer of 1945. In particular Rickey sought one player who would break the color line and establish a path for several others to follow; he eventually settled on Robinson. Although Robinson was not the best black baseball player, his college education, experience competing in interracial settings at UCLA, and competitive fire attracted Rickey. In August 1945 Rickey offered Robinson a chance to play in the Dodgers organization but cautioned him that he would experience tremendous pressure and abuse. Rickey extracted from Robinson a promise not to respond to the abuse for his first three years.
Robinson spent the 1946 baseball season with the top Dodgers minor league club located in Montreal. After leading the Montreal Royals to the International League championship and winning the league batting championship with a .349 average, he joined the Dodgers the following spring. Several of the Dodgers players objected to Robinson’s presence and circulated a petition in which they threatened not to play with him. Rickey thwarted the boycott efforts by making clear that such players would be traded or released if they refused to play.
Robinson opened the 1947 season as the Dodgers’ starting first baseman, thereby breaking the long-standing ban on black players in the major leagues. During his first year he was subjected to extraordinary verbal and physical abuse from opposing teams and spectators. Pitchers threw the ball at his head, opposing base runners cut him with their spikes, and disgruntled fans sent death threats that triggered an FBI investigation on at least one occasion. Although Robinson possessed a fiery temper and enormous pride, he honored his agreement with Rickey not to retaliate to the constant stream of abuse. At the same time he suffered the indignities of substandard segregated accommodations while traveling with the Dodgers.
Robinson’s aggressive style of play won games for the Dodgers, earning him the loyalty of his teammates and the Brooklyn fans. Despite the enormous pressure that year, he led the Dodgers to their first National League championship in six years and a berth in the World Series. Robinson, who led the league in stolen bases and batted .297, was named rookie of the year. Overnight, he captured the hearts of black America. In time he became one of the biggest gate attractions in baseball since Babe Ruth, bringing thousands of African American spectators to major league games. Five major league teams set new attendance records in 1947. By the end of the season, two other major league teams—the Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Browns—had added black players to their rosters for brief appearances. By the early 1950s most other major league teams had hired black ballplayers.
In the spring of 1949, having fulfilled his three-year pledge of silence, Robinson began to speak his mind and angrily confronted opposing players who taunted him. He also enjoyed his finest year, leading the Dodgers to another National League pennant and capturing the league batting championship, with a .342 mark, and the most valuable player award. Off the field, Robinson received considerable attention for his testimony in July 1949 before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in opposition to Paul Robeson’s statement that African Americans would not fight in a war against the Soviet Union. During the next few years Robinson, unlike many other black ballplayers, became outspoken in his criticism of segregation both inside and outside of baseball.
Robinson ultimately played ten years for the Dodgers, primarily as a second baseman. During this time his team won six National League pennants and the 1955 World Series. Robinson possessed an array of skills, but he was known particularly as an aggressive and daring base runner, stealing home nineteen times in his career and five times in one season. In one of the more memorable moments in World Series history, Robinson stole home against the New York Yankees in the first game of the 1955 series.
Robinson’s baserunning exploits helped to revolutionize the game and to pave the way for a new generation of successful base stealers, particularly Maury Wills and Lou Brock. Robinson batted .311 for his career and in 1962 became the first black player to win election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. On 15 April 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s first major league game, Major League Baseball, in an unprecedented action, retired Robinson’s number 42 in perpetuity.
After the 1956 season, the Dodgers traded Robinson to the New York Giants, their crosstown rivals. Robinson declined to accept the trade and instead announced his retirement from baseball. Thereafter, Robinson worked for seven years as a vice president of the Chock Full O’Nuts food company, handling personnel matters. An important advocate of black-owned businesses in America, Robinson helped establish several of them, including the Freedom National Bank in Harlem. He also used his celebrity status as a spokesman for civil rights issues for the remainder of his life. Robinson served as an active and highly successful fund-raiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and conducted frequent fund-raising events of his own to support civil rights causes and organizations. He wrote a regular newspaper column throughout the 1960s in which he criticized the persistence of racial injustice in American society, including the refusal of baseball owners to employ blacks in management. Shortly before his death, Robinson wrote in his autobiography I Never Had It Made that he remained “a black man in a white world.” Although a supporter of Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign, Robinson eventually became involved with the liberal wing of the Republican Party, primarily as a close adviser of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Robinson had married Rachel Isum in 1946, and the couple had three children. Robinson suffered from diabetes and heart disease in his later years and died of a heart attack in Stamford, Connecticut.
Probably no other athlete has had a greater sociological impact on American sport than did Robinson. His success on the baseball field opened the door to black baseball players and thereby transformed the game. He also helped to facilitate the acceptance of black athletes in other professional sports, particularly basketball and football. His influence spread beyond the realm of sport, as he emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s as an important national symbol of the virtue of racial integration in all aspects of American life.