Sixty-five years ago last Sunday, a man named Branch Rickey took a gamble. He chose to roll the dice when others would have called him foolish. Sixty-five years ago, Rickey took a chance on a young man from Cairo, Ga., who attended UCLA. This young man had talent and could run like the wind. He was a pretty good football player for the Bruins as well as a basketball player.
This young man had a couple of things going against him. One was the times he lived in. America was still divided along gender and race lines and the other was the color of his skin. Add to that the fact that there were no Major League teams south of the Mason-Dixon line meant that this move would be looked at with scorn and derision and the odds were stacked against him.
The young man would go into ballparks all over the nation, a nation that he thought he was a citizen. A nation that was still separate and very unequal. There was name calling, the N-word was thrown around as if it were nothing. It probably hurt him and he could have given up and gone back to Cairo. He chose not to. In fact, he chose to be the bigger person. He would later be judged by the content of his character and not his skin color, as Dr. King once said, and turn out to be one of the best second basemen to play the game. For that, the game of baseball is better for it. He could have responded to the name calling, perhaps even thrown a punch if he wanted to but he chose to listen to his better angels. Rickey even told the young man that he would endure some things that would have broken most people. He not only rose to the occasion, he stood out and gained respect not just from the African-American community but whites as well.
He was also derided by opposing teams. Some, notably the St. Louis Cardinals, threatened to strike if Robinson played. After the threat, National League President Ford Frick and Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler let it be known that any striking players would be suspended. Robinson nonetheless became the target of rough physical play by opponents (particularly the Cardinals). At one time, he received a seven-inch gash in his leg. On April 22, 1947, during a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, Phillies players called Robinson the n-word from their dugout and yelled that he should “go back to the cotton fields.” Rickey later recalled that Phillies manager Ben Chapman “did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. When he poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and united 30 men.”
He received significant encouragement from several Major League players. Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese once came to his defense with the famous line, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” In 1948, Reese put his arm around Robinson in response to fans who shouted racial slurs at Robinson before a game in Cincinnati. Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, who had to deal with racial epithets during his career, also encouraged the young man. After colliding with him at first base on one occasion, Greenberg whispered a few words into his ear, which he later characterized as “words of encouragement.” Greenberg had advised him that the best way to combat the slurs from the opposing players was to beat them on the field.
He eventually finished the season having played in 151 games for the Dodgers, with a batting average of .297, an on-base percentage of .383, and a .427 slugging percentage. He had 175 hits (scoring 125 runs) including 31 doubles, 5 triples, 12 home runs, driving in 48 runs for the year and led the league in sacrifice hits, with 28, and in stolen bases, with 29. His cumulative performance earned him the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award (separate National and American League Rookie of the Year honors were not awarded until 1949).
The young man was not only good with the bat and his glove at second base. He used his speed to his advantage against his opponents, becomming one of only two players during the span of 1947-56 to accumulate at least 125 steals while registering a slugging percentage over .425 (Minnie Miñoso was the other), accumulating 197 stolen bases in total, including 19 steals of home. None of the latter was a double steal (in which a player stealing home is assisted by a player stealing another base at the same time) and has been referred to by author David Falkner as “the father of modern base-stealing.”
65 years ago yesterday, teams all over Major League Baseball wore the number 42 on their jerseys (even the coaches and managers and umpires). Granted, it was confusing for those that were watching either on television or at the ballpark but it was worth the trouble.
He would play his entire career in a Dodger uniform and win one World Series in six tries as a Brookyln Dodger. He left a legacy that basically said “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me … all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” He retired from the game on Jan. 5, 1957, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1962, encouraging voters to consider only his on-field qualifications, rather than his cultural impact on the game. He was elected on the first ballot, becoming the first black player inducted into the Cooperstown museum.
He protested the Major Leagues’ ongoing lack of minority managers and central office personnel and turned down an invitation to appear in an old-timers’ game at Yankee Stadium in 1969. He made his final public appearance on Oct. 15, 1972, throwing the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the World Series. He gratefully accepted a plaque honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of his MLB debut, but also commented, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” This wish was fulfilled only after his death: following the 1974 season, the Cleveland Indians gave their managerial post to Frank Robinson (no relation), a Hall of Fame-bound player who would go on to manage three other teams. Despite the success of these two Robinsons and other black players, the number of African-American players in Major League Baseball has declined since the 1970s.
On Oct. 24, 1972, he died of a heart attack at home in Stamford, Conn., at age 53. His funeral service on Oct. 27, 1972, at New York City’s Riverside Church attracted 2,500 admirers. Many of his former teammates and other famous black baseball players served as pallbearers, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson gave the eulogy. Tens of thousands of people lined the subsequent procession route to Robinson’s interment site at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, where he is buried next to his son Jackie and mother-in-law Zellee Isum. The parkway, which bears his name, also runs through the cemetery.
He was a young man that came from a time where all men and women were not equal either in stature or social standing. He could have used his fists to respond to those that taunted him. He chose not to. He turned the other cheek and would eventually draw others to his side and his cause, a cause that is still alive and well to this day.
That young man? Jackie Robinson.