“I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me...all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”—Jackie Robinson
Many of us know about the phenomenal Jack “Jackie” Roosevelt Robinson. He was a renaissance man of the sporting world and a Major League Baseball and Brooklyn Dodger legend.
Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. His mother moved the family to California in 1920, and he grew up in Pasadena, California. In the 1930s, at John Muir High School (Muir Tech) in Pasadena, Robinson played several sports and excelled in football, basketball, track, and baseball. He was also a member of the tennis team. Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College and was accepted into UCLA in 1939, where he became the school's first athlete to win varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football, and track. Ironically, while at UCLA, baseball was his worst sport!
Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1942 and assigned to a segregated cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. He fought to be able to attend Officer Candidate School along with friend and fellow soldier, heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis. After their protests and help from Truman Gibson, a civilian aid to the Secretary of War, Robinson, and Louis were accepted.
On July 6, 1944, Robinson boarded a desegregated Army bus at Fort Hood, in Killeen, Texas. The driver ordered him to the back of the bus, and Robinson refused, which resulted in a court-martial and caused him to miss being deployed overseas. Initial multiple charges were reduced to two involving insubordination during questioning and Robinson was acquitted, but the incident stayed with him.
Robinson is known for being the first African American to play for a major league baseball team; however, other players could make that claim. According to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), the first African American to play major league baseball was William Edward White (October 1860 – March 29, 1937). Little is known about White, but it appears he was a former slave who passed for Caucasian, which may have been the reason he played in the majors, for the Providence Graves of the National League, in just one game, in 1879.
Two other players were brothers Moses Fleetwood Walker (October 7, 1856 – May 11, 1924) and Weldy Wilberforce Walker from Mt. Pleasant, Ohio. Moses played for Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. Moses played in only 42 games because of injuries, and his brother Weldy played in 5 games. As Robinson would later, the brothers faced virulent racism and became Civil Rights activists and edited a newspaper, The Equator.
By all accounts though, it was Robinson who transformed the game by being the first African American player who brought about an end to segregation in professional baseball.
In early 1945, Robinson played in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs. Later that year, the Boston Red Sox gave Robinson a “token” tryout with other African American players, with no intention of integrating the team. The tryout was an attempt to placate a powerful Boston politician who was vocal about desegregation. Robinson was humiliated. In the end, the Red Sox did not integrate until 1959, the last Major League Baseball team to do so. In February 1946, Robinson married his college sweetheart Rachel Isum.
Other teams recognized Robinson’s talent and in 1946 Branch Rickey, president, and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson to their minor league team in Montreal, paving the way for his April 15, 1947 debut with the Dodgers. Robinson was known for his impatience with racial discrimination since his junior college days. Rickey wanted assurances from Robinson that he could handle the storm he was about to face. Robinson was ready.
Dodger management let it be known it wouldn’t stand for dissension from its players regarding Robinson. Other teams, however, threatened to strike. The press and the National League supported Robinson, and the baseball commissioner stated that striking players would be suspended. Strikes were averted. This didn’t stop some teams from targeting Robinson and harassing him verbally and attacking him physically. Fans in many stadiums hurled racial epithets and threw things at him. Death threats were common.
At the end of his first season, Robinson played in 151 games, had a batting average of .297, an on-base percentage of .383. He had 175 hits, scoring 125 runs, including 31 doubles, 5 triples, and 12 home runs, with 48 runs for the year. He led the league in sacrifice hits, with 28, and in stolen bases, with 29. He won the very first Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award (now called the Jackie Robinson Award). Separate National and American League Rookie of the Year honors were not awarded until 1949. In 1949 he was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. He was a six-time All-Star team member and twice the league’s stolen base leader. With Robinson, the Dodgers were in the World Series six times, winning finally in 1955.
While Robinson kept his promise to Rickey that he wouldn’t display anger on the field; he was openly critical of segregated hotels and restaurants that courted Dodger business. In 1953 he was an editor for the African American sports magazine Our Sports which was critical of segregation in sports.
Robinson retired from baseball in 1956, partially because he was diagnosed with diabetes, which had begun to slow him down.
Jackie Robinson and his wife Rachel had three children. After retiring, he became a vice president for the Chock full O’ Nuts coffee company, again a first for an African American. He was actively involved in Civil Rights, serving on the board of the Nation Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1957-1964. He protested the lack of diversity in Major League Baseball’s management levels. In 1964, Robinson and businessman Dunbar McLaurin founded the Freedom National Bank, a black-owned and operated commercial bank based in Harlem. He served as the bank's first chairman of the board. In 1970, Robinson established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for low-income families.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said of Robinson that he was "a legend and a symbol in his own time," and that he "challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.”
He was active also in politics, declaring himself an independent, campaigning for presidential candidates Richard Nixon in 1960, Nelson Rockefeller in 1964 and then against Nixon for Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
Robinson became the first African American player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1962, his first year of eligibility. In 1997 Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s jersey No. 42 across all major league teams. He was the first player in any sport to be honored in this way.
The library has a wide selection of materials and photos about the pioneer baseball player; below is a curated list we put together.