Celebrating Black History Month – Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson needs no introduction. His dedication to equality, unwavering spirit in the face of adversity and unparalleled athletic abilities speak for themselves.
He was at once Christopher Columbus, Marcus Garvey and, well, Jackie Robinson*, navigating uncharted racial territory, speaking on that territory’s behalf and playing sports unlike no one had ever seen before or since. No one else was like Jackie Robinson, that’s for sure.
Born in 1919, Robinson grew up in Pasadena, CA, and he earned his first athletic accolades on the tennis court. Yes, the tennis court. In addition to being a fantastic guard on the basketball team, a standout baseball player and the quarterback of his football team, Robinson also was an excellent tennis player.
He then parlayed those skills into a high-profile athletic career at UCLA, where he became the school’s first athlete to earn a varsity letter in four separate sports. To recap: Jackie Robinson was so good at sports that the track team let him participate without practicing, and by doing so, he went on to win the 1940 NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship in the long jump, infuriating an entire NCAA worth of athletes — who had presumably been training for nothing but the long jump all year — along the way.
If Jackie Robinson would have stopped after college, he would still be considered one of the greatest athletes ever to have graced a college campus. Thankfully, an emotion literally the whole world should feel, he didn’t stop playing sports after college.
After a stint serving in the Army during WWII (where he never saw action due to a shady court-martial that now seems like a precursor to the bigoted treatment he would see once a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers), Robinson briefly played football before getting a contract offer from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. The rest, as they say, is history.
Robinson would go on to shatter baseball’s color barrier the same way that the tip of a spark plug shatters a windshield. That is to say, he annihilated it. After breaking into the big leagues on April 15, 1947, Larry Doby would get his shot with the Cleveland Indians on July 5. Robinson’s Dodger teammate, Dan Bankhead, became the first black pitcher in the Major’s that August. In fact, by the end of 1947, the St. Louis Browns had integrated their roster as well.
And in 1949, Robinson, Doby, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe would make All-Star teams, becoming the first black All-Star selections.
After all, Robinson was the one who said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
But for all the wall-busting Robinson did, he was a fantastic baseball player. He won Rookie of the Year in 1947, the MVP in 1949, the World Series in 1955 and two stolen base titles (in 1947 and ’49).
He was named to six All-Star teams, the MLB All-Century team and his number, 42, is retired by every single Major League franchise. In fact, now that Mariano Rivera has retired, no active Major Leaguer will ever wear #42 again.
And nor should they. It’s easy to look back at Robinson’s debut, here in 2014, and say that integration was coming; decade upon decade stand in between now and then. But in all reality, integration wasn’t coming, unless Jackie Robinson became both the face and the aspirational figure.
America was not such a friendly place in 1947**, and Branch Rickey was both brilliant and daring for deciding to integrate the Dodgers. But had he not chosen Robinson, a man who was both mentally, physically and athletically prepared to handle the Guantanamo-style treatment he would later have to endure (in full light of everyone, mind you), things might not have happened so fast.
Because, again, 1947 America was a tough place to be different in. The Red Sox wouldn’t integrate their roster for another 12 years. The Tigers took 11 long years. The Phillies, 10. The Yankees, separated from The Dodgers at the time by just the Brooklyn Bridge, took eight years to sign Elston Howard. And all this came after Robinson’s dominating performance.
To say that a lesser man would have been crushed by the weight of the situation would be a gross underestimation. The way Robinson handled one of the most unfair scenario’s of the 20th Century — what, with all the class, dignity, success and humility — is a testament to the greatness of the man.
So instead of signing off with quotes from Robinson himself, it might be best to let others do the talking:
“Mine was an easy ride compared to Jackie Robinson’s. Jackie Robinson is a true legend.” — Sidney Poitier, actor, author, activist; first black man to win an Oscar for Best Actor.
“Jackie Robinson, as an athlete and as someone who was trying to make a stand for equality, he was exemplary.” — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA career-scoring leader.
“Robinson was important to all blacks. To make into the majors and to take all the name calling, he had to be something special. He had to take all this for years, not just for Jackie Robinson, but for the nation.” — Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, 660 career Home Runs.
“Jim Crow was king [where I was from]… and I heard a game in which Jackie Robinson was playing, and I felt pride in being alive.” — Lou Brock, former Stolen Base king.
“Jackie Robinson, we all have to tip our hat to him, because he made the game available to guys like me.” — Dave Winfield, Hall of Famer
*To name another “comparable” athlete in that situation seemed unfair to Robinson. Jesse Owens, maybe? Jim Thorpe? Babe Diedrickson? Carl Lewis? No. Those don’t work. They excelled in some sports, but not all of them. How about Deion Sanders? No letter in basketball. Bo Jackson? Same thing. Julius Peppers? No baseball. What about Jackie Robin… Er. See what I mean?
** Seriously. If you were anything but a Mayflower descendant, 1947 was petrifying. That was the year that the US kicked off the Marshall Plan (an effort to repair a massively broken Europe), and the year that the House Un-American Activities Committee created the “Black List” in Hollywood. Tough year for outsiders.