Talkin’ Baseball: Jackie Robinson

Jack “Jackie” Roosevelt Robinson: 31 January 1919 – 24 October 1972

My baseball posts won’t be complete without a tip of a cap to the late, great, legendary Jackie Robinson. This exceptional man faced some of the worst racism imaginable when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947: racist taunts from the crowds and other players (even those on his own team), baseballs hurled at his head, getting cut by cleats, and asshats throwing a black cat onto the field. Today marks Jackie Robinson Day, which is the 66th anniversary of his breaking the “colour barrier” in Major League Baseball. The sport was segregated in 1889 and the formation of the Negro Leagues shortly followed – how else would Black people be able to play (and watch) the sport referred to as “the Great American Pastime?” From the official Jackie Robinson website:

“Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers. His mother, Mallie Robinson, single-handedly raised Jackie and her four other children. They were the only black family on their block, and the prejudice they encountered only strengthened their bond. From this humble beginning would grow the first baseball player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier that segregated the sport for more than 50 years.

Growing up in a large, single-parent family, Jackie excelled early at all sports and learned to make his own way in life. At UCLA, Jackie became the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. In 1941, he was named to the All-American football team. Due to financial difficulties, he was forced to leave college, and eventually decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. After two years in the army, he had progressed to second lieutenant. Jackie’s army career was cut short when he was court-martialed in relation to his objections with incidents of racial discrimination. In the end, Jackie left the Army with an honorable discharge.

In 1945, Jackie played one season in the Negro Baseball League, traveling all over the Midwest with the Kansas City Monarchs. But greater challenges and achievements were in store for him. In 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey approached Jackie about joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Major Leagues had not had an African-American player since 1889, when baseball became segregated. When Jackie first donned a Brooklyn Dodger uniform, he pioneered the integration of professional athletics in America. By breaking the color barrier in baseball, the nation’s preeminent sport, he courageously challenged the deeply rooted custom of racial segregation in both the North and the South.”

I will admit that I haven’t always loved baseball. The shameful history of segregation, plus the disgusting treatment pioneers like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Larry Doby, and Josh Gibson received during their careers, made it difficult to care about. On top of that, I played Little League for one brief season and hated every second of it. Our team was the worst – our coach was a stinkin’ alcoholic! We practiced in the rain, which was a miserable experience – but it led to our only ‘victory’ by default; the opposing team didn’t show up for a game because it was raining too hard! The ‘Bad News Bears’ had nothing on us, LOL…but, I digress. I started paying attention to baseball when I worked at the Kingdome in Seattle, and discovered that I actually enjoyed watching the game! I’m still figuring out the pitching terms such as “inside slider” and finally learned what it means when a batter “fouls out,” so it’s an ongoing process.

More on this legendary gentleman from Wikipedia:

Early life

“Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, during a Spanish flu and smallpox epidemic. He was the youngest of five children born to Jerry and Mallie Robinson, after siblings Edgar, Frank, Matthew (nicknamed “Mack”), and Willa Mae.[7][8] His middle name was in honor of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who died twenty-five days before Robinson was born.[9][10] After Robinson’s father left the family in 1920, they moved to Pasadena, California.[11][12][13] The extended Robinson family established itself on a residential plot containing two small houses at 121 Pepper Street in Pasadena. Robinson’s mother worked various odd jobs to support the family.[14] Growing up in relative poverty in an otherwise affluent community, Robinson and his minority friends were excluded from many recreational opportunities.[15] As a result, Robinson joined a neighborhood gang, but his friend Carl Anderson persuaded him to abandon it.[15][16][17]

John Muir High School

In 1935, Robinson graduated from Washington Junior High School and enrolled at John Muir High School (Muir Tech).[18] Recognizing his athletic talents, Robinson’s older brothers Mack (himself an accomplished athlete and silver medalist at the 1936 Summer Olympics)[17] and Frank inspired Jackie to pursue his interest in sports.[19][20] At Muir Tech, Robinson played several sports at the varsity level and lettered in four of them: football, basketball, track, and baseball.[13] He played shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, and guard on the basketball team. With the track and field squad, he won awards in the broad jump. He was also a member of the tennis team.[21]

In 1936, Robinson won the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament and earned a place on the Pomona annual baseball tournament all-star team, which included future Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Lemon.[22] In late January 1937, the Pasadena Star-News newspaper reported that Robinson “for two years has been the outstanding athlete at Muir, starring in football, basketball, track, baseball and tennis.”[23]

Pasadena Junior College

After Muir, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College (PJC), where he continued his athletic career by participating in basketball, football, baseball, and track.[24] On the football team, he played quarterback and safety. He was a shortstop and leadoff hitter for the baseball team, and he broke school broad-jump records held by his brother Mack.[13] As at Muir High School, most of Jackie’s teammates were white.[22] While playing football at PJC, Robinson suffered a fractured ankle, complications from which would eventually delay his deployment status while in the military.[25][26] Also while at PJC, he was elected to the Lancers, a student-run police organization responsible for patrolling various school activities.[27] In 1938, he was elected to the All-Southland Junior College Team for baseball and selected as the region’s Most Valuable Player.[20][28] That year, Robinson was one of ten students named to the school’s Order of the Mast and Dagger (Omicron Mu Delta), awarded to students performing “outstanding service to the school and whose scholastic and citizenship record is worthy of recognition.”[29]

An incident at PJC illustrated Robinson’s impatience with authority figures he perceived as racist—a character trait that would resurface repeatedly in his life. On January 25, 1938, he was arrested after vocally disputing the detention of a black friend by police.[30] Robinson received a two-year suspended sentence, but the incident—along with other rumored run-ins between Robinson and police—gave Robinson a reputation for combativeness in the face of racial antagonism.[31] Toward the end of his PJC tenure, Frank Robinson (to whom Robinson felt closest among his three brothers) was killed in a motorcycle accident. The event motivated Jackie to pursue his athletic career at the nearby University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he could remain closer to Frank’s family.”

Jackie Robinson was posthumously awarded both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for his achievements on and off the baseball field. An interesting side note: one of his older brothers, Mack Robinson, won a silver medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where the late, great, legendary Jesse Owens put Hitler’s Aryan punks to shame!

You shattered a big barrier in 1947 – we’ve come a ways since then, but there is still a long way to go! Rest in peace, good sir – you are truly one of the greats. The quote below says it all…

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