American Lives 2: Jackie Robinson

by Gail Forman

Clock Icon 12 minute read

Jackie Robinson

In the 1940s, baseball was the U.S. "national pastime." But professional teams were separated by race. Blacks played in the Negro Leagues. Whites played in the American and National Leagues—the major leagues. In 1947, Jackie Robinson changed that. He joined the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the first black player to cross baseball's color line in the 20th century.

Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, in 1919. He was the youngest of five children. When he was an infant, the family moved to Pasadena, California.

Robinson showed an amazing ability to excel at any sport. In high school, he starred on four teams. He played football, baseball, and basketball, and he ran track. He won a football scholarship to UCLA. But he had to leave college early to help support his mother.

During World War II, Robinson joined the army. At first, the army told him that a black man couldn't attend officer training. But Robinson didn't give up. He got the training. In time he became a first lieutenant.

After Robinson left the army, he played baseball in the Negro Leagues. He was an outstanding player.

At that time, Branch Rickey was general manager of the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey knew that it was unfair to keep black players out of the major leagues. And he was impressed with Robinson's skills. He wanted Robinson on his team.

Rickey also knew that many people would insult the first black major leaguer. Some would try to hurt him. But if the player fought back, many people would blame the player. They would say, "This proves that blacks and whites can't play baseball together." To succeed, Rickey thought, the player had to hold his temper.

Rickey met with Robinson. He asked if Robinson could stay calm when people mistreated him. He asked Robinson not to fight back for two years. It was a difficult decision. But finally Robinson agreed. Rickey hired him. Robinson played one season for the minor league Montreal team. Then in April 1947, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Robinson had problems right away. Some fans cheered him, but others yelled racial taunts. People threw things onto the field. Often, opposing players deliberately tried to hurt or upset him. Pitchers threw balls at his head. Base runners slid into him. Catchers spit on his shoes.

There were more problems when the Dodgers traveled. Some hotels wouldn't rent Robinson a room. Some restaurants refused to serve him. In Philadelphia, the Phillies manager shouted racial slurs. Robinson got hate mail and even death threats.

These problems angered Robinson. But he was strong enough to stay calm. He kept his promise to Rickey. And through it all, he played outstanding baseball. He was very competitive. He was a daring base runner, a skillful fielder, and an excellent hitter. Sporting News named him the 1947 "Rookie of the Year."

Robinson played 10 seasons for the Dodgers. And he kept playing excellent baseball. He was famous for stealing bases. He stole home 19 times—once in the 1955 World Series. In 1949, he was the National League's Most Valuable Player.

Robinson retired from baseball in 1956, at age 37. In 1962, he was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame. That was the first year that he was eligible.

Robinson's success was an inspiration to many Americans, especially blacks. Historian Roger Wilkins, who is black, was 15 years old in 1947. Wilkins didn't know Robinson personally, but he felt close to him. He felt Robinson "was carrying me right on his shoulders."

All over the country, black preachers asked their congregations to pray for Robinson's success. There were Jackie Robinson movies, songs, and even comic books.

Robinson's courage helped integrate baseball. Soon more black players were playing in the major leagues. By 1959, all the teams were integrated.

After retiring, Robinson continued his work for racial justice. He demanded that major league baseball hire black managers and coaches. He worked for the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). He wrote to government officials about civil rights.

Jackie Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972. He is remembered for his courage, dignity, and skill.

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