In April 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball when he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. From the 1880s until 1947 African Americans only played professional baseball in what were called the “Negro Leagues”.
In NYC at that time there were 3 major league baseball teams: The Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Yankees, and the New York Giants. Most boys I knew in New York City in the 1940s were fans of one of those teams and much of our free time was spent talking/arguing about baseball. I grew up in Staten Island, a borough of New York City. It is an island only 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from Brooklyn, where my mother was born and grew up. I became a Dodger fan. I knew every Dodger’s uniform number and kept track of their batting averages.
Jackie was a great baseball player and became my hero. When I came home after school, I often listened to the end of the Dodger games on radio. I remember being confused by hearing Dodger fans booing Jackie Robinson. Jackie’s agreement with Branch Rickey, the general manager and part owner of the Dodgers who hired him, was that he would not respond publicly to racial taunts. He received many of them and suffered many indignities. If you watch the movie “42”, produced in 2013, you will get some idea of the racism that he endured in his first season with the Dodgers. It was brutal.
Jackie became a hero for many people, and a role model for African Americans especially, but also many whites. The song Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball, written in 1948, gives you some idea of his legend. There are 2 versions on YouTube. Subtitles are available on one version And there is a 1949 version by the famous Count Basie orchestra; the music is better, but there are no subtitles.
Some white boys wished they were African American so that they could play baseball like Jackie. His joy of playing baseball and of “rattling” (distracting) the pitchers by dancing off the base and threatening to steal* was a joy to watch. There is a video of him stealing home in a World Series game. I still treasure the memories of the 3 or 4 times I saw Robinson play live at Ebbets field.
The last game that I attended at Ebbets field was in May of 1956. It was between the Giants and Dodger and I attended with 2 friends. Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter** and Jackie made an outstanding play that saved the no-hitter. Erskine remembered that game years later.
Robinson fought racism his entire life. While serving in the military (1942-44), he was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus. Frequently he was separated from his teammates at hotels. He was the target of vicious racist taunts in the major leagues, not only from spectators, but from other players and even managers. However, he also received important support from some whites, Branch Rickey in particular, but others as well. On learning that one team owner had discovered a plot among white players to go on strike rather than play on the same field with Robinson, Ford Frick, the president of the National League at the time sent this message through the owner:
“If you do this you will be suspended from the league. You will find that the friends you think you have in the press box will not support you, that you will be outcasts. I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. All will be suspended and I don’t care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right to play as another. The National League will go down the line with Robinson whatever the consequences. You will find if you go through with your intention that you have been guilty of complete madness.”Source: Jackie Robinson: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad, Kindle edition, location 3819
Robinson played in 6 World Series and contributed to the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series championship. After he retired, he played an active role in business and politics, especially in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. He wrote articles for 2 newspapers in New York City and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. I did not know any of this until I read the biography by Rampersad.
As years passed, Robinson spoke out strongly against racism and was criticized by many for doing so. He spoke his mind — even criticizing other civil rights leaders, when he thought it justified. In response to the criticism of Robinson for these statements, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “He has the right, because back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides. . . .”
Jackie Robinson appeared with Martin Luther King at many rallies, fundraising events, and demonstrations.
Jackie Robinson and Rachel Issum were married in 1946. She was the main source of support for him while he played major league baseball. After his retirement from baseball in 1956 she continued with her nursing career and obtained a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing. Rachel Robinson worked as a researcher and clinician at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, then became an Assistant Professor at Yale School of Nursing, and later still, the Director of Nursing at the Connecticut Mental Health Center. She is age 96.It is interesting to listen to her memories of Jackie’s initial interview with Branch Rickey.
Jackie Robinson died in 1972 of a heart attack at age 53. in recognition of his achievements on and off the field, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Invitation to reflect: Pair up with a friend, and each take a roughly equal amount of time to talk about the following, or write in a journal.
- What are your earliest memories of seeing or experiencing racial prejudice when you were growing up? How did they affect you?
- How do you see racism operating today?
*A baserunner steals a base by successfully advancing to the next base while the pitcher is throwing the ball to the batter.
**Erskine did not allow a Giant batter to reach base by batting the ball. This is a rare feat for a pitcher, especially at the major league level.
The sources for this article are my memory and Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad.