Why Jackie Robinson Still Matters Today

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“Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.” – Jackie Robinson

This weekend the movie “42” debuts, a film about the first African-American to desegregate Major League Baseball, in the modern era. For children growing up today seeing an African-American President or baseball player is no big deal, but just a couple of decades ago such a thing was inconceivable.  

Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia.  Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers and was the youngest of five children.  After Robinson’s father left the family in 1920, they moved to Pasadena, California. Robinson’s mother worked various odd jobs to support the family. Growing up in relative poverty in an otherwise affluent community, Robinson and his minority friends were excluded from many recreational opportunities.

Recognizing his athletic talents, Robinson’s older brothers Mack and Frank inspired Jackie to pursue his interest in sports. At Muir High School, Robinson played several sports at the varsity level and lettered in four of them: football, basketball, track, and baseball. In 1936, Robinson won the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament and earned a place on the Pomona annual baseball tournament all-star team, which included future Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Lemon. After Muir, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College (PJC), where he continued his athletic career by participating in basketball, football, baseball, and track.

After graduating from PJC in spring 1939, Robinson transferred to UCLA, where he became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track. He was one of four black players on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team. In track and field, Robinson won the 1940 NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship in the Long Jump.

In 1942, Robinson was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. After his discharge, Robinson briefly returned to his old football club, the Los Angeles Bulldogs. In early 1945, while Robinson was at Sam Huston College, the Kansas City Monarchs sent him a written offer to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues.

During the season, Robinson pursued potential major-league interests. The Boston Red Sox held a tryout at Fenway Park for Robinson and other black players. The tryout, however, was a farce chiefly designed to assuage the desegregationist sensibilities of powerful Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick. Even with the stands limited to management, Robinson was subjected to racial epithets. Robinson left the tryout humiliated.

Other teams, however, had more serious interest in signing a black ballplayer. In the mid-1940s, Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, began to scout the Negro leagues for a possible addition to the Dodgers’ roster. Rickey selected Robinson from a list of promising black players. In a famous three-hour exchange on August 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face the racial animus without taking the bait and reacting angrily—a concern given Robinson’s prior arguments with law enforcement officials at PJC and in the military. Robinson was aghast: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” After obtaining a commitment from Robinson to “turn the other cheek” to racial antagonism, Rickey agreed to sign him to the Dodgers minor league affiliate.

Six days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues. On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his major league debut at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, including more than 14,000 black patrons. Robinson 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. Robinson 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.

Robinson also became a vocal champion for African-American athletes, civil rights, and other social and political causes. In July 1949, he testified on discrimination before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1952, he publicly called out the Yankees as a racist organization for not having broken the color barrier five years after he began playing with the Dodgers.

In his decade-long career with the Dodgers, Robinson and his team won the National League pennant several times. Finally, in 1955, he helped them achieve the ultimate victory: the World Series. After failing before in four other series match-ups, the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees. He helped the team win one more National League pennant the following season, and was then traded to the New York Giants. Jackie Robinson retired shortly after the trade, on January 5, 1957, with an impressive career batting average of .311.

After baseball, Robinson became active in business and continued his work as an activist for social change. He worked as an executive for the Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee company and restaurant chain and helped establish the Freedom National Bank. He served on the board of the NAACP until 1967 and was the first African-American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. In 1972, the Dodgers retired his uniform number of 42.

In his later years, Robinson continued to lobby for greater integration in sports. He died from heart problems and diabetes complications on October 24, 1972, in Stamford, Connecticut. He was survived by his wife, Rachel Isum, and their three children. After his death, his wife established the Jackie Robinson Foundation dedicated to honoring his life and work. The foundation helps young people in need by providing scholarships and mentoring programs.

Robinson like many of today’s African-American youth grew up in difficult conditions without a father and used sports as an outlet, facing racial hostilities on the daily basis Robinson always kept his composure and went forward in dignity and integrity. African-American males today see sports and music as their only way out of the “ghetto”; instead of encouraging our African-American boys to pick up a ball we should be encouraging them to take an interest in math, science, business, and engineering. Even in the age of Obama African-American boys still prefer basketball and football over the executive suite. After his baseball career ended Robinson became a successful businessman and continued his work as a civil rights activist so that African Americans may not only follow his lead on the baseball field but in the boardroom as well. Jackie Robinson’s story is still relevant today, because many African-Americans are still living it.

We need a cultural change in the African-American community, we should raise our boys not to only want to play on a professional team, but to one day own the team.

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