1964; Louisville, KY, USA; Jackie Robinson wore an “Organization for Civil Rights” badge when he took part in a Louisville march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in March of 1964. Mandatory Credit: Bill Strode/The Courier-Journal-USA TODAY NETWORK
Richard Justice: Jackie Robinson opened doors and hearts, and that’s what MLB celebrates on this 76th anniversary of his debut
On this 76th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, his sport will commemorate what former MLB commissioner Bud Selig calls “the most important day in our history.”
In ballparks around the nation, Robinson will be celebrated for his courage and sacrifice, and for a life that changed this country—and some hearts—forever. Robinson didn’t change them all, and he’d want us to be mindful of the mountains yet to be climbed.
His life has always existed in two parallel universes. In one, he represents the ideal for which we strive. In the other, he’s a living, breathing man who was subjected to almost incomprehensible cruelty.
He lived with death threats and hate mail, pitchers throwing at his head and legs, catchers spitting on his shoes, and an endless string of taunts and curses from opposing dugouts and fans.
Try to imagine having a job in which you showed up every day not knowing if some random nut would decide to kill you. Imagine being constantly reminded that you are a second-class citizen. Oh, and being told to never respond, to turn the other cheek over and over.
While his white Dodger teammates stayed at the best hotels on the road, Robinson was sent to places that reeked of filth, places so uninhabitable he would soak his bedsheets in water to get a measure of relief from the sweltering nights.
It would not be a stretch to say his death at 53 in 1972 could be traced back to the cruelty he was subjected to in those first few seasons with the Dodgers.
Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, the man who signed him and brought him to the major leagues on April 15, 1947, pleaded with Robinson not to retaliate to any of the indignities. If he did, he’d be the one judged, and harshly.
This was the ultimate ask for a player as competitive as Jackie Robinson, a player who played the game fast and angry. Or as a white teammate once told him, “Jackie, they don’t all hate you because you’re black. Some of them hate you because of the way you play.”
“Boys of Summer” author Roger Kahn wrote: “Robinson could hit and bunt and steal and run. He had intimidation skills, and he burned with a dark fire. He wanted passionately to win. He bore the burden of a pioneer, and the weight made him stronger.”
Once seemingly assigned to the dustbin of history as a nearly forgotten figure in grainy black-and-white video, Robinson has been introduced to a new generation of fans with his No. 42 displayed in every park as well as an assortment of movies and books and a sport that educates every player about who he was and what he stood for.
Martin Luther King Jr. told Robinson that he forced Americans to see the world in a way they’d never seen it before. Once baseball changed, it became at least a little easier to change schools and restaurants and workplaces, and voting booths.
His debut with the Dodgers came a year before President Truman integrated the military, before Brown vs. Board of Education outlawed the segregation of public schools, and before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in ’64.
Shortly before his assassination in 1968, King told former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, “You’ll never know how easy you and Jackie and [Larry] Doby and [Roy Campanella] made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field.”
“Imagine,” Newcombe told the New York Post’s Peter Vecsey in 2009, “here is Martin getting beaten with billy clubs, bitten by dogs, and thrown in jail, and he says we made his job easier.”
Progress surely would have happened even if Jackie hadn’t played an inning for the Dodgers, or if he’d fallen on his face. But because he succeeded—because he was both a very good player and a good teammate and a leader, because he won the respect of virtually all his teammates, including some who adamantly opposed the idea of blacks and whites together—other barriers didn’t seem quite so insurmountable.
“You can’t talk about civil rights without talking about Jackie Robinson,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
When Robinson accepted Rickey’s invitation, he understood that there’d be risks. He also understood how much one man could influence the rest of the world.
“You’ve heard me say it a hundred times,” Selig told me. “Baseball is a social institution, and Jackie Robinson integrating the sport began the Civil Rights movement. What could we ever do more important than that?”
Selig ordered the retirement of Robinson’s No. 42 by every team in 1997. On this day, though, every major leaguer—at Ken Griffey Jr.’s suggestion—will wear it.
The Jackie Robinson Museum opened in Brooklyn last year, and Jackie got the Ken Burns treatment in a 2016 documentary. The late Chadwick Boseman starred in a powerful 2013 film, 42.
Harrison Ford lobbied for the role of Rickey, the man who signed Robinson and brought him to the Dodgers, because he loved what the man stood for, and he wanted to help tell the story of how baseball’s color line was broken in 1947.
If Rickey had not signed Robinson, who knows when America would have had its first black baseball player or its second wave of great players. Was there another baseball executive out there with the guts to do it? For that matter, was there another player out there with the resolve to absorb the torture without responding?
If Jackie Robinson hadn’t put on a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform in 1947, would we have had Frank Robinson and Willie Mays? How about Roberto Clemente? Robinson opened doors for him, too.
Yes, Americans would have done the right thing at some point, but if Jackie hadn’t arrived in 1947, if he hadn’t been as large a man off the field as on, how would the world look today?
Jackie Robinson eventually won over most of his teammates with his extraordinary talent and aggressive play. In fact, he probably was accepted as a baseball player before he was accepted as a man.
Once the Dodgers saw he could help them win, they looked at him in a different way. Once they got to know him, they saw that he was pretty much like them. No one will understand all he went through. Certainly, “42” captures some of it. His teammates saw parts of it. Mostly, though, the burden was his alone.
When the Dodgers unveiled a Jackie Robinson sculpture in 2017—the first statue of any kind at Dodger Stadium—its design was taken from Robinson’s steal of home against the Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
“I thought it captured Jackie Robinson’s significance in American history,” sculptor Branly Cadet said at the unveiling. “It takes courage and focus and timing to steal home. Similarly, those qualities were required of anyone breaking the color line. The day he stepped on that baseball field was an important day, not just in baseball, but in American history. We wanted to honor that.”
Capturing the moment in time struck Robinson’s family as appropriate because it reflected his attitude.
“That’s what he brought to Major League Baseball,” his daughter, Sharon, said.
Around the base of the 700-pound bronze display is embedded some of Robinson’s most memorable quotes, including one that’s a favorite of Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow:
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”