The great Jackie Robinson™ remains the most significant player in baseball history
By Chuck Mindenhall
April 15, 2016
When he broke into the Big Leagues, Jackie Robinson was asked by Brooklyn Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey to bite his lip as he made his transition into history. It was 1947. Racial tension was still largely unchecked in America’s favorite pastime. It was a white man’s game. Robinson, who’d played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro League, was the first African-American ballplayer to break the color barrier. He was the right man for the task. A full decade before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus en-route to becoming the “mother of the freedom movement,” Robinson was in Texas, at Fort Hood serving in the United States Army, refusing to do the same thing, right there in the heart of segregation.
Robinson was a big man who just happened to be a great second baseman. Those two things conspired to make him an icon of the 20th Century.
Imagine what it was like for the outspoken Robinson — famously remembered as No. 42, which, for representing all that he did will never be worn again by another Major League ballplayer — entering into an all-white league, where he endured racial epithets from fans, managers, media, players and even from his Brooklyn Dodger teammates, who at one point sent around a petition to have him removed. Imagine having to endure all of this without a license to speak up for himself.
That first year in the majors was a tough one for Robinson. He promised Rickey he would take what was dished to him without retaliation. His reward for realizing a childhood dream was hatred. Isolation. Loneliness. To be called a “baboon,” and have people yelling “how about a shine, boy?” as he took the field, or when he returned to the dugout.
Yet Robinson played on as a rookie with the Dodgers in post-war America in 1947 and slowly — pitch by pitch, base by base, ballpark by ballpark — began to change something more than the game. He changed attitudes. As a pioneer in baseball, he became the floodgate for social change. In a very real sense, he paved the way for generations to come, while standing as salvation for the generations that came before him.
And for that, Jackie Robinson became the most significant baseball player of all time.
“Robinson was important to all blacks,” said Willie Mays, who appeared in a record 24 all star games. “To make it into the majors and to take all the name calling, he had to be something special. He had to take all this for years, not just for Jackie Robinson, but for the nation.”
Yet though he came to represent so much more than the game, the things he did within it were great as well. He won the Rookie of the Year in 1947, hitting .297 for season and leading in seven different offensive categories, including stealing more bases than anyone in baseball. By 1948, Robinson was starting to walk the walk, and talk the talk. He began to express himself. By 1949, his finest season in which he kept a .342 batting average and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, Robinson doing just that. He was a fiery second basemen who spoke his mind. He embraced everything he’d come to represent, yet his passion for competition spilled out both on the field and off.
The Dodgers won the pennant that year. And Robinson was a big reason for it.
Robinson’s star didn’t just hover over Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, where he wowed crowds for all 10 years of his pro career. By the 1950s, it became an event when Robinson and the Dodgers came to town. Thousands of people flocked at every stop to see the game’s great firebrand, who had inspired thousands by tearing down the game’s barriers. Robinson was a showman on the base paths, playing mind games with pitchers to the point somebody called him “Ty Cobb in technicolor.” Looking very much like Cobb, Robinson famously stole home during the first game of the 1955 World Series, leaving catch Yogi Berra to fume his protestations at the umpire.
He was a fun player to watch.
When the Dodgers sold him to the Giants for $30,000 in 1957, Robinson — ever his own man — simply quit the game. He had left his mark. His impact on the sports landscape was immense. But he wasn’t done with what he started. He continued to push for civil rights throughout his life, penning a regular column for the New York Post, and speaking out whenever he had a platform.
“Whatever success I’ve had in professional baseball,” said Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark in 1974, a record that stood for 33 years. “Is simply because of Jackie Robinson paving the way for me to get to where I am today.”
There will never be another #42. Yet he opened the door for thousands to stand there in his place.
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