It’s difficult for those under age 50, and especially for Caucasians under age 50, to conceive of the pressure Jackie Robinson faced when in 1947 he broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Our racial climate has improved so much, it’s hard to appreciate what Jackie Robinson endured.
Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Robinson. Rickey was convinced the young player had the strength of character necessary to be the first African-American in baseball since the 1880s. Indeed, Robinson was called the most vile names, but didn’t take the bait. Some of his own teammates threatened to strike, as did other teams, notably the St. Louis Cardinals. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher quashed the rebellion in his clubhouse, and Commissioner Happy Chandler threatened any striking player with suspension.
Robinson wasn’t merely a racial token, though – he was a bona fide star. He earned National League Rookie of the Year honors for that contentious 1947 season. He led the Dodgers to a World Series title in 1955, along with five other trips to the World Series. He played in six consecutive All-Star Games. He was the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949, and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (Great American Things, March 26, 2010) in 1962.
Jackie Robinson’s legacy goes far beyond his baseball accomplishments, of course. Besides being the first African-American elected to the Hall of Fame, he was also the first to be an analyst on national TV games. He was vice president at Chock Full o’ Nuts, and was chairman of the board of the bank he co-founded, Freedom National Bank in Harlem. He believed in building housing for low-income families, leading him to establish the Jackie Robinson Construction Company.
He said this about his experience in baseball: “The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it.”