He was the first black star of Major League Baseball. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. Robinson “broke the colour line” on 15 April 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him on first base – ending the racial segregation that had relegated black players to the Negro leagues for six decades.
He was a naturally gifted sportsman. Raised by a single mother in Pasadena, Robinson played five sports to varsity level: as well as baseball, he was quarterback on the football team, guard on the basketball team, a champion long-jumper and won national tennis tournaments. For a few years, in fact, baseball was his “worst” sport. His older brother Mack was a gifted athlete, too, and won the 200 metres silver medal at the 1936 Olympics – behind none other than Jesse Owens.
He fought in the Second World War. Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1942 and, thanks to protests from boxer Joe Louis, became one of the first black soldiers accepted into Officer Candidate School.
Racial abuse in baseball was still routine. Robinson had try-outs for Boston Red Sox but even with just management watching, was still subjected to racial insults. (The Red Sox would become the last major team to integrate its roster, 14 years later.) When he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson had a three-hour interview, and was questioned about whether he could face racial animosity without reacting angrily – as he’d occasionally done in his school and army days. Robinson asked: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Dodgers manager Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford in the film, 42) replied: “No, I’m looking for a Negro with guts enough not to fight back.” Many of his own team refused to play with him at first. At spring training in racially charged Florida, Robinson was not allowed to stay at the team hotel and police chiefs called off friendly games if he was playing.
His arrival transformed the racial profile of baseball crowds. When Robinson made his Major League debut at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, more than half of the 26,000 crowd were black. Black fans began flocking to see the Dodgers when they came to town, abandoning their local and Negro league teams.
He was one hell of a player. Over ten seasons, Robinson played in six World Series, helping the Dodgers win the 1955 title. He was also selected for six consecutive All-Star Games and in 1949, became the first black player to win the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. He was also the first black player inducted into the Baseball Hall Of Fame.
His cultural impact was huge. Martin Luther King said Robinson was “a legend and a symbol in his own time, who challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said Robinson’s “accomplishments were a monumental step in the civil-rights revolution in America, allowing black and white Americans to be more respectful and open to one another and more appreciative of everyone’s abilities.” According to a 1947 poll, Robinson was America’s second most popular man, behind Bing Crosby.
He even blazed a trail after retirement. Robinson retired from the game in 1957, suffering physical ailments that doctors eventually diagnosed as being due to diabetes. He became the first black TV sports analyst and the first black vice president of a major American corporation, with a post at Chock Full o’Nuts. He went on to co-found the black-owned Freedom National Bank and set up a construction company to build housing for low-income families.
He died young. Robinson died in 1972, aged just 53, from complications of heart disease and diabetes. His funeral service attracted 2,500 mourners, with Rev Jesse Jackson delivering the eulogy.
He’s still a hero. Robinson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal. In 1997, all Major League Baseball teams “retired” the number 42 in tribute to Robinson. He was the first pro athlete in any sport to be so honoured. Time named him of its list of 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Each year on 15 April, Major League Baseball also marks Jackie Robinson Day, on which every player on every team wears number 42.