1947: Jackie Robinson: sixty-five years ago, an African-American took the field in a Major League Baseball game, paving the way for the civil rights movement and America's first black president.[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
In 1947, blacks and whites couldn't legally marry each other in most Southern states. Restaurants, hospitals, and schools were racially segregated. And poll taxes, literacy tests, and other restrictions prevented most blacks from voting.
But on April 15 of that year, one of the events that helped change racial attitudes in the U.S. took place not in the courts or in Congress, but on a baseball field in Brooklyn, New York. Twenty-eight-year-old Jackie Robinson made his debut as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers on opening day against the Boston Braves, and America's pastime was officially no longer segregated.
It wasn't front-page news the next day--The New York Times mentioned it in its sports pages--but it later came to be seen as a civil rights milestone: Robinson took the field a year before President Harry S. Truman ordered the integration of the military, seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, and more than a decade before the civil rights movement became the focus of the nation's attention (see timeline, p. 20).
"He embodied the realization of the American Dream," says John Wilson, a history professor at Vanguard University in California and author of a book about Robinson. "Robinson was really an instrumental factor in us getting beyond our prejudices and coming closer to realizing our national ideals."
Right Man for the Job
Robinson's early life seemed to prepare him well for his role as a trailblazer. Born in 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, he grew up mostly in Pasadena, California. He was raised by his mother, Mallie, who took in washing and ironing to support her five children. (Robinson's father, a sharecropper, abandoned the family when Jackie was an infant.)
When the Robinsons moved to an all-white neighborhood in 1922, someone burned a cross on their front lawn. But the way Mallie Robinson handled such incidents left a lasting impression on Jackie.
"My mother never lost her composure," Robinson recalled in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made. "She didn't allow us to go out of our way to antagonize the whites, and she still made it perfectly clear to us and to them that she was not at all afraid of them."
Robinson excelled at sports from childhood. In 1940, he became the first athlete at UCLA to earn a letter in four sports--football, basketball, baseball, and track--in a single season.
With the U.S. fighting Germany and Japan during World War II, Robinson was drafted in 1942. In a segregated Army, he became one of the first blacks to attend Officer Candidate School and graduated as a second lieutenant.
One incident nearly derailed his military career. While stationed at Camp Hood, Texas, he refused to move to the back of the bus, as blacks were supposed to do, on a trip to the neighboring town of Temple. The driver summoned the military police, and the incident led to a court martial. But Robinson was acquitted of all charges and received an honorable discharge in 1944.
Though the major leagues had no written rule against black players, the "color line" had been observed since the 1880s. Team owners feared that white players would quit rather than play with blacks.
But Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, hated baseball's whites-only policy. The war had created a shortage of baseball talent, and Rickey figured it was the right time to sign some promising black players.
Robinson, a good ballplayer who had experience playing alongside white athletes, was Rickey's first choice. In 1945, he was invited to Brooklyn to meet Rickey.
No Fighting Back
"I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back," Rickey told Robinson, and he acted out situations Robinson might encounter: He pretended to be an opponent shouting racial epithets. He swung his fist at Robinson's head. No matter what happened, Rickey said, Robinson must not react.
Robinson signed a contract with the Dodgers and in 1946 joined a Dodgers farm team, the Montreal Royals, where he led the International League in batting. The team's manager, who initially opposed integrated baseball, told Newsweek that Robinson was "a player who must go to the majors."
But not all Dodgers were ready to accept Robinson: Some threatened to strike if he joined. By April 1947, Robinson was still playing for the Royals, and sportswriters were wondering whether he'd be promoted. "Only Rickey knows," wrote Arthur Daley in The New York Times, "and he ain't talkin'."
On April 10, days before the start of the 1947 season, Robinson got the call: He was now a Brooklyn Dodger.
A few of the Dodgers, especially shortstop Pee Wee Reese, supported and befriended Robinson. But many gave him the cold shoulder at first, prompting a sportswriter at the New York Post to call Robinson "the loneliest man I have ever seen in sports."
A few weeks into the season, the Philadelphia Phillies came to Brooklyn. The team and their manager, Ben Chapman, taunted Robinson with racial epithets. "Chapman did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers," Rickey later said. "When he poured out that stream of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and unified 30 men."
Robinson faced other hardships. On the road, he was often barred from staying in the same hotel as the rest of the team or eating in the same restaurants. He roomed with a black sportswriter who traveled with the team. Pitchers threw at his head, and runners hit him with spikes. He received hate mail, even death threats.
Some of these problems subsided as Robinson gained acceptance and other black players joined the majors. Eleven weeks after Robinson became a Dodger, the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby, who became the second black Major Leaguer. By 1951, there were 14 black players, and the color barrier was falling in other sports as well. (See chart, right.)
Civil Rights Hero
Robinson went on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 1947. In 1949, as the Dodgers' second baseman, he led the National League in batting (with a .342 average) and stolen bases and was voted the league's MVP.
He would lead the Dodgers to six pennants and a World Series title before retiring from baseball in 1957. In 1962, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Robinson became a business executive and continued to support civil rights, participating in voter-registration drives in the South and working with Martin Luther King Jr. to raise money for rebuilding black churches that had been burned in Georgia.
Like King, Robinson dreamed of a race-blind society. In his 1972 autobiography, he wrote that "a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives," and that he couldn't consider his work complete "until hatred is recognized as a disease" and "every man can vote and any man can he elected if he qualifies."
The day a black man would hold the highest office in the U.S. would come 36 years after Robinson wrote his book, when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. But Robinson didn't live to see that day. His last public appearance was at the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati. Diabetes had taken a toll on his health; he walked with a cane and was nearly blind. He died that October of a heart attack. He was 53.
Robinson would also miss out on another baseball milestone involving his old team, the Dodgers. This past March, nearly 65 years to the month since Jackie Robinson desegregated baseball, former L.A. Lakers basketball star Magic Johnson bought the Dodgers (who moved to L.A. in 1958), becoming the first African-American to own a Major League Baseball franchise.
Robinson was certainly on Magic Johnson's mind when he closed the deal.
"I take very seriously," Johnson told the Los Angeles Times, "the honor of being a minority owner in an organization where Jackie Robinson played."
TIMELINE The Civil Rights Era
Jackie Robinson joins the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
President Harry S. Truman signs executive orders integrating the military and banning racial discrimination in federal employment.
The Supreme Court rules in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools are unconstitutional, overturning the doctrine of "separate but equal."
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Rosa Parks is arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger, setting off a yearlong bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr.
Little Rock Nine
Federal and National Guard troops intervene on behalf of nine black students blocked from entering all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Four black college students stage a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter In Greensboro, North Carolina. Six months later, the store begins serving blacks.
'I Have a Dream'
More than 200,000 people participate in the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gives his most famous speech.
Civil Rights Laws
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation in public places and employment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 bans literacy tests, poll taxes, and other obstacles to black voter registration.
Additional reporting by Veronica Majerol.
Integration of Major Sports in the U.S. SPORT YEAR INTEGRATED Football 1946 Baseball 1947 Basketball 1950 Tennis 1950 Hockey 1958 Golf 1961 SOURCES: NFL, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL, NBA, UNITED STATES TENNIS ASSOCIATION, NHL, PGA
Review the clipping from The New York Times of April 16, 1947, about Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers (p. 19).
* Does it surprise you that Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier did not receive more-prominent coverage at the time it occurred?
Why or why not?
* What might the details and quotes in the news clipping suggest about Robinson? his fellow players? racial views in 1947?
* Has America's view of Jackie Robinson changed since "Opening Day at Ebbets Field" was written? If so, how?
How important do you think Jackie Robinson was to the cause of civil rights in the U.S, and why? Write an essay backing your point of view with facts and examples from the article.
Take a stand: Jackie Robinson said that his work wouldn't be complete until "hatred is recognized as a disease." Has that mission been accomplished?
In what ways did Robinson's childhood prepare him for the trailblazing rote he would play in Major League Baseball?
What do you think Branch Rickey meant when he challenged Robinson to have "guts enough not to fight back"? Why did Rickey consider this important? Do you think it was an easy undertaking for Robinson? Explain.
What qualities did Jackie Robinson exemplify as he integrated baseball?
How did the integration of baseball affect the U.S. as a whole?
How did Robinson continue to champion civil rights after he retired from baseball?
In 1997, Robinson's number (42) was retired throughout Major League Baseball. He's the only player MLB has honored in this way.
Correspondence between Jackie Robinson and three White House administrations in his role as a civil rights advocate, from the National Archives
(1) Jackie Robinson was invited to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 by general manager
a Arthur Daley.
b Branch Rickey.
c Pee Wee Reese
d Ben Chapman.
(2) During his time in the U.S. military, Robinson was court-martialed for
a demanding that his unit be desegregated.
b fighting with a white serviceman about Jim Crow laws.
c refusing to move to the back of the bus during a trip.
d applying to the then-all-white Officer Candidate School.
(3) Which of these statements does NOT accurately describe Robinson's early years in Major League Baseball?
a He often received hate mail and death threats.
b He was often barred from eating in the same restaurants as his teammates.
c He was supported by some feLLow players but given the coLd shoulder by others.
d He was not permitted to receive Major League Baseball honors or awards because of his race.
(4) After retiring as a Major League Baseball player, Robinson
a became general manager of the PhiLadeLphia Phillies.
b became a businessman and worked in the civil rights movement.
c entered politics and ran for the U.S. Senate.
d fought unsuccessfully to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
(5) Recently, Magic Johnson achieved a milestone by becoming the first African-American to
a own a Major League Baseball franchise.
b manage a professional basketball, team.
c be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
d achieve All-Star status in two professional sports.
(1) Why did the Dodgers' general, manager think the time was right in 1947 to sign a black player?
(2) Why do you think it took some time for Jackie Robinson's baseball debut to be recognized as a civil, rights milestone?
(3) Why do you think a sports figure played such an important role in changing racial, attitudes in the U.S.?
(1) [b] Branch Rickey.
(2) [c] refusing to move to the back of the bus during a trip.
(3) [d] He was not permitted to receive Major League Baseball honors or awards because of his race.
(4) [b] became a businessman and worked in the civil rights movement.
(5) [a] be an owner of a Major League Baseball franchise.