Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Reason to Celebrate! Jackie Robinson Day

Note--This was adapted from a post that first appeared in this blog on April 15, 2012.

It has been called the most important day in the history of baseball.  It has also been cited as a turning point in American race relations.  On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson broke Big League Baseball’s previously impervious color barrier. 

He took the field to great expectations and scattered boos for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbet’s Field playing out of position at first base.  He failed to get a hit, but the club won.  He was the first African-American to play in the major leagues since Moses Fleetwood Walker’s turn with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the old American Association in the 1880s resulted in a player revolt that firmly established the color line. 

Robinson, an all around athlete who was a four letter man in high school and a star at multiple sports at Pasadena Junior College before going on to the University of Southern California at Los Angeles (UCLA).  Again he lettered in four sports and stood out in backfield of the football team that also featured Woody Strode.  Baseball was actually his weakest sport.  

Engaged to be married, Robinson dropped out of college just short of graduation first to work with the National Youth Administration (NYA) and then as football player in semi-pro and minor league teams in Hawaii and Los Angeles.  

After being drafted into an old Buffalo Soldier cavalry regiment at Ft. Riley, Kansas, Robinson got admitted to Officer Candidate School and graduated with a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant.  Assigned to an armored unit at Ft. Hood, Texas he was court-martialed for refusing to move to the rear of a segregated Army bus.  Although acquitted, he was separated from his unit which was sent to Europe and he never saw action. 

After receiving an honorable discharge Robinson took a job as athletic director at Sam Houston College.  The small college was not able to pay well so when the Kansas City Monarchs, a powerhouse of the Negro League, offered him $400 a month to play for them, Robinson snapped up the offer even though he did not consider himself a particularly good baseball player.

 Yet in that first season he hit .387 with 5 home runs and 13 stolen bases in only 47 games and played in the league All Star Game.  Some major league clubs were beginning to consider raiding the Negro League for its deep talent pool.  Robinson, educated and articulate as well as fine young player, attracted the attention of scouts who believed that White fans would never accept rough-and-tumble veteran Negro League stars like Josh Gibson and Satchel Page. 

Most interested of all was Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn club who was determined to end baseball segregation.  After a famous three hour meeting with Robinson in August 1945 in which he warned Robinson that he would face resistance and abuse and advised him that he “needed a Negro who had the guts not to fight back,” on the field.  Robinson reluctantly agreed, was signed to a $600 minor league contract and assigned to Brooklyn’s  Montreal Royals farm team.  

Spring training in 1946 in segregated Florida was a problem because the Brooklyn organization did not yet have its own facilities and had to rent stadium space as available in several cities.  Some canceled games, one padlocked a stadium without notice on a scheduled game day, and another refused to allow the team to even practice with Robinson and another Black prospect present.  It took high level intervention by Ricky to get City Island Ballpark in Daytona Beach to allow an exhibition game between the Royals and Dodgers.  

With all of the distraction and attention, Robinson struggled early in the pre-season and was shifted from shortstop to second base.  But when the Royals opened their season against the New Jersey Giants, Robinson went four for five at the plate including a home run, scoring four runs, driving in three and stealing two bases.  That performance made him the talk of baseball.  

And he kept it up, leading the International League with a .349 batting average and a .985 fielding percentage.  He was named the league’s most valuable player.  Although often heckled and harassed on the road, he had solid support from Montreal fans and he was such a draw across the league that more than one million fans saw games in which he played, astonishing attendance for any minor league.  With numbers like that, Robinson was obviously ready for the Big Show.  But was it ready for him?  

Rickey called him up to the big club the next spring.  Even players on his own club, many of them Southerners, groused and some threatened not to play.  Manager Leo Durocher called a team meeting saying, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.” 

Popular short stop Pee Wee Reece, himself a Southerner, smoothed Robinson’s way by publicly throwing his arm around his shoulders after particularly harsh race baiting by fans in Cincinnati.  

Around the National League players grumbled and the St. Louis Cardinals squad voted to strike.  Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler had to intervene with strong threats.  On the field Cardinal players and coaches, however, kept up the invective all season.  Many players sharpened their spikes for hard slides into base against Robinson.  He suffered one 7 inch gash and several other scrapes and bruises.
But through it all he held his tongue and never retaliated.  Despite the distractions, Robinson won the first major league baseball Rookie of the Year Award with 12 home runs, a .297 batting average and .425 slugging percentage, 125 runs scored, and a league leading 29 stolen bases.  Robinson went on to a storied career. 

After his shift to his natural position at second base in 1949, his defensive play began to sparkle as much as his vaunted offense and he was voted the League’s Most Valuable player.  He led the Dodgers to National League Pennants in 1947, ’49, ’52, ’53 and ’56 and the World Championship against the hated New York Yankees in 1955.  He was voted to the All Star team six times. 

In the course of his career he still often received death threats and fan harassment, but he became accepted by most players and managers and paved the way for more Black ball players.  He also finally earned the right to fight back on the field and to speak out publicly for civil rights.  

By 1956 his play was somewhat deteriorating due to the affects of diabetes.  In the off season Brooklyn owner Walter Alston, with whom he had a strained relationship, traded Robinson to the rival Giants just before he moved the team to Los Angeles.  Robinson decided to retire instead, making his announcement in an exclusive Look Magazine story without ever officially notifying Alston.  

Robinson became an executive at Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee company, helped found a Black owned Freedom National Bank in Harlem, became a leader in the National Association of Colored People (NACCP), and a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.  On other issues he could be conservative and publicly supported both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. 

Robinson was easily elected on the first ballot to the Hall of Fame in 1962. He became the first Black in a network game booth when he became a color analyst for ABC’s Baseball Game of the Week in 1965 despite severe vision loss due to diabetes. The Dodgers retired his uniform number 42 in 1972.  Later that year he made his last public appearance throwing out the first ball in Game 2 of the World Series.  

He died days later on October 24 of a heart attack.  He was only 53 years old. 

Since then many other honors have been heaped on his memory including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.  He easily made lists of the top 100 Baseball players of all time and the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th Century.  

On April 15, 1970 Major League Baseball permanently retired Robinson’s number 42 for all teams.  In following years players have worn Robinson’s number annually on what has become known officially as Jackie Robinson Day.

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