The Legend of Jackie Robinson

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Podcast Transcript

On April 15, 1947, a rookie infielder took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

All eyes in the world of baseball, and indeed the United States, were focused on this player and this game. However, this wasn’t the normal debut of a rookie player. 

This game marked the breaking of the long-standing color barrier that had kept hundreds of the greatest baseball players out of the major leagues. 

Learn more about Jackie Robinson and the breaking of baseball’s color barrier on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

In a previous episode, I covered the history of the Negro Leagues. These were the baseball leagues that were established because major league baseball had barred the entry of black players into the league. 

Just to recap, the color barrier in baseball dates back to the 19th century. 

It began with Moses Fleetwood, a black professional player who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. 

Cap Anson, one of the early stars of professional baseball, led a movement to ban the signing of black players. His team, Chicago White Stockings, refused to take the field against teams with black players. 

His insistence on keeping black players out of baseball became the agreed-upon policy by team owners and remained an unofficial policy for decades. 

When baseball hired its first commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, in 1920, he was the force behind keeping the color barrier intact for decades. He didn’t even want major league players to play in exhibition games against black players.

It wasn’t until his death in 1944 that the opportunity opened up to finally allow black players into the major leagues. By that time, the quality of players in the Negro Leagues had become widely known. It wasn’t just that some of the players were good; some of the players were all-time greats.

Any team that signed black players had an enormous potential competitive advantage. It was simply a matter of who would be the first team to sign a black player and who would be the first player. 

The baseball executive who took the initiative and was willing to take the blowback from other teams was the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. 

Rickey felt it was high time to allow black players into the major leagues, and he took it upon himself to make it happen. However, he also knew that if it was to be a success, the first player had to be the right player. It had to be someone who was not only an outstanding athlete but also someone of high moral character. 

Enter into the story, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. 

Jackie Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. His middle name, Roosevelt, was in honor of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had died earlier that month. 

His early life was not easy. His father abandoned his family when Jackie was only one year old, after which his mother, Mallie, moved Jackie and his four older siblings to Pasadena, California. 

His mother worked multiple jobs to raise her children. Jackie almost joined a local gang but was talked out of it by one of his friends. 

He attended John Muir High School, where he showed his athletic prowess. He was a four-sport star, lettering in football, basketball, track and field, and baseball. In addition to these sports, he was also an excellent tennis player. 

He attended Pasadena Junior College, where he again excelled in multiple sports, and then attended UCLA in 1939.

At UCLA, he became the first athlete to earn varsity letters in four sports. He was on the football team that didn’t lose a game, and he set the team record for yards per carry, a record that still exists today. 

He led the NCAA in punt returns in 1939 and 1940 and won the NCAA championship in the long jump in 1940. 

In fact, his worst sport was baseball, where he only hit .097 in his only season on the team. 

The thing to take away from this part of his life is that Jackie Robinson was a truly great multi-sport athlete. It was on a par with the likes of Jim Thorpe or Bo Jackson. 

In 1941, he played semi-professional football for the Honolulu Bears and then came back to Los Angeles to play for the Los Angeles Bulldogs in the Pacific Coast Football League.

However, the United States’ entry into World War II interrupted his plans. 

Robinson was drafted in 1942 and was admitted to Officer Candidates School. The Army was resistant to allowing black men into Officer Candidates School, but after pressure from heavyweight champion Joe Lewis, they were eventually admitted. Jackie was commissioned as a second lieutenant. 

His military career was put on hold when he was court-martialed for refusing to sit at the back of an integrated army bus. He was eventually acquitted of all charges. 

He served the remainder of the war at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he served as a coach for Army athletics.

After his discharge from the Army, he briefly served as the basketball coach for Samuel Huston College in Austin, Texas, before he was sent an offer to try out for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League team. 

He made the team and had a brief career with the Monarchs in 1945. In only 47 games, he hit .387 with five home runs and 13 stolen bases.

Robinson didn’t particularly enjoy playing for the Monarchs. After playing at the top tier of collegiate sports, he found the league unorganized and too influenced by gambling. 

That summer, he had a tryout for the Boston Red Sox. However, it was not a serious tryout. It was done to appease one of the Boston City Councilmen who supported integration. In fact, the team owners shouted racial slurs at him from the stands, and the Red Sox were the last major league baseball team to integrate in 1959. 

However, the Dodgers were serious. Rickey had been looking for a player to sign and eventually settled on Robinson. Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues at the time. Players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Page were better but were near the end of their careers. Robinson’s background as a college athlete and an officer in the army made him ideal for what the Dodgers wanted. 

Prior to signing Robinson, Rickey had a three-hour conversation with him, explaining everything that he would have to endure, including an almost daily onslaught of racial epitaphs and insults while he was playing. Furthermore, he explained that no matter what happened to him, he had to take it and not fight back. 

He knew that if Robinson fought back or insulted someone who insulted him, the story would be what he said, not what was said to him that warranted the response. 

On October 23, 1945, it was announced that Jackie Robinson would be playing the next season for the Dodgers’ farm club in the International League, the Montreal Royals. He was signed along with another black player, a pitcher by the name of Johnny Wright. 

In 1946, at the team’s spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida, Robinson and Wright felt the full blow of what he was going to endure. He was not allowed to stay with the rest of his teammates at the team hotel. 

In Stanford, Florida, the chief of police threatened to cancel the team’s games because they had black players on the roster. In Jacksonville, the stadium was literally padlocked shut to prevent the team from playing. 

The 1946 season in Montreal was great for Jackie. He was moved to second base from shortstop, had a.349 batting average, a .985 fielding percentage, and won the league’s MVP award. 

Just days before the start of the 1947 season, Jackie Robinson was formally called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers. His first game was an exhibition game against the Yankees on April 11. 

The first game of the season, and the game where he officially broke baseball’s color barrier, was on April 15 against the Boston Braves. 

There were 26,000 people in attendance, 14,000 of whom were African American. 

Not all the players on the Dodgers were happy with having Robinson on the team. However, the team’s manager, Leo Durocher, dealt with the troublesome teammates at a team meeting and said, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”

Other teams, particularly the St. Louis Cardinals, threatened to go on strike if they had to play against Robinson. National League President Ford Frick and Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler let it be known in no uncertain terms that if anyone boycotted games, they would be suspended. Frick stated, “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.”

Robison endured insults and very aggressive play from opposing players in every stadium he played at. 

In a game on April 22 against the Philadelphia Phillies, manager Ben Chapman shouted a tirade of some of the most horrible insults at Robinson throughout the entire game. In the end, it actually backfired as the team unified around Robinson. 

Cardinals star Enos Slaughter slid into second base with his cleats high in the air and made a seven-inch gash on Robinson’s leg. 

However, there were also players who supported Robinson. Hank Greenberg, a Jewish star who had to deal with similar insults, gave him his support. 

Pee Wee Reese, who was from Kentucky, famously put his arm around Robinson before a game in Cincinnati after he was subject to insults from the stands. 

Robinson managed to go through the entire 1947 season with dignity, turning the other cheek and never being baited by anyone who taunted him with racial slurs. 

He was rewarded by being named Rookie of the Year, albeit a rather old Rookie of the Year at 28 years old. The Dodgers won the National League and lost to the Yankees in the World Series. 

Once Robinson was in the majors, others soon followed. On July 5, Larry Doby debuted for the Cleveland Indians and became the first black player in the American League.

Later that year, Hank Thompson and Willard Brown played for the Saint Louis Browns, and Dan Bankhead became the first black pitcher, also playing for the Dodgers. 

In 1948, Roy Campanella became the Dodgers catcher, and Satchel Paige took the mound as a 42-year-old rookie for the Indians. 

In 1949, Robinson had his best season ever, hitting .342 with 37 stolen bases, 124 runs batted, and 122 runs scored. He was elected the league’s most valuable player. 

For the next several years, Robinson performed well for the Dodgers, eventually leading them to Brooklyn’s only World Series championship in 1955. 

In 1956, Jackie Robinson retired after a 10-year career. A 10-year career is short by Hall of Fame standards, but he wasn’t allowed to play before he was 28. 

In 1962, in his first year of eligibility, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, becoming the first black inductee.

His career post-retirement was just as groundbreaking. He became the vice president of the Chock full o’Nuts coffee company, becoming the first African American to be the vice president of a major company in American history. 

Jackie Robinson passed away at the young age of 53 on October 24, 1972, from a heart attack and complications from diabetes. 

The legacy of Jackie Robinson continued long after his passing. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Rookie of the Year award in both leagues is named after him. He has been the subject of movies, stage productions, and postage stamps. 

In 1997, Robinson’s uniform number, 42, was retired by every major league team. Players who wore the number at the time were grandfathered in, with the last player wearing the number being Mario Rivera in 2013. 

I should also note that despite the important role that Jackie Robinson played in shaping American society and culture, and that shouldn’t be overlooked, he was also a great baseball player.

Almost every list of the top 100 baseball players in history has Jackie Robinson on it. If you look at any list of the top second basemen in history, he is almost always listed amongst the top five. These assessments are based solely on statistics. 

Jackie Robinson’s life story remains a testament to the power of resilience and the impact of breaking down racial barriers in sports and society. 

His integrity and composure in the face of intolerance and bigotry paved the way for countless others to follow in his footsteps, not just in baseball but in many walks of life. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener TheyCallMeHolly, on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Interesting Daily

Interesting, informative, & unique. I feel like I reference something I’ve learned from this show once a week. Not only is it educational but even after joining the Completionist Club I have no idea the host’s political or religious affiliation, only that he is a die hard Packer’s fan & hates da Bears. Another bonus! Hoping the Montana chapter of the CC can meet on Wild Goose Island during the summer months.

Thank’s Holly! You actually have discovered my religious and political affiliation….the Green Bay Packers. As with any religion, we have saints, like Vice Lombardi and Reggie White, we have a heaven, which is Lambeau Field, and our own version of hell, which is Soldier Field. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.