Seventy years ago today, Jackie Robinson broke the ‘color bar,’ becoming the first African American in the modern era to play major league baseball.
It was a monumental feat. Jim Crow – the legal separation of the races – ruled life in the South. African Americans who violated the legal and social codes of Jim Crow faced lynching, oppression and terror. In the north, while this legal framework was lacking, life for African Americans was still segregated – through de facto segregation of housing and education and lack of economic opportunity.
When Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers on 15 April 1947, he knowingly accepted the prospect years of racial abuse and discrimination. During his first season – and beyond – insults were hurled at him by baseball players and fans and the wider public. Not only his role in desegregating the sport, but his grace in facing that torrent of abuse has secured Robinson’s legacy – as a baseball, sports and civil rights hero.
Jackie Robinson, 1950. NARA Archives, ARC identifier: 6802718
The decision to integrate baseball was taken by Happy Chandler, who became the Commissioner of Baseball in 1945. Chandler was a former Senator and Governor of Kentucky who believed that “if [African-Americans] can fight and die on Okinawa, Guadalcanal (and) in the South Pacific, they can play ball in America” (Elias, 2010, p.164). Chandler was also under pressure to act: from the black press and black activists who were increasingly active during the war. Branch Rickey – the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers agreed with Chandler, and set out to find an African American baseball player who had the talent and the ability to withstand the inevitable attacks he would face. Jackie Robinson was called to a meeting with Rickey in August 1945 – when Rickey famously grilled Robinson on his ability to withstand racial abuse. Pressed repeatedly, Robinson asked Rickey “do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back?” Rickey responded “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back!” (Finkelman, 2009, p.236).
Robinson was that player. His commitment to non-violence in the face of countless racist epithets thrown at him by opponents and spectators was incredible. His courage and example was of monumental importance to later civil rights activists. Paying tribute to Robinson upon his induction into the Baseball hall of fame in 1962, Martin Luther King said: ‘‘back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable [Robinson] underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides’’ (King, 1962).
To find out more, listen to this special edition of the podcast ‘It’s Not Rounders’ in which I talk about Jackie Robinson and his contribution to baseball and the civil rights movement.
Elias, R., (2010) The Empire Strikes Out: How Baseball Sold U.S. Foreign Policy and Promoted the American Way Abroad, New York: The New Press
Finkelman, P, (ed.) (2009), Encyclopedia of African American History: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century: 1896 to the Present, Vol.1, Oxford: Oxford University Press
King, M. L., (1962), ‘Hall of Famer,’ New York Amsterdam News, 4 August. Available here: http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/mlks-column-jackie-robinsons-induction-hall-fame