Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Jackie Robinson (January 31, 1919–October 24, 1972) was a professional baseball player who made history when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. When he stepped onto Ebbets Field that day, he became the first Black man to play in a Major League Baseball game since 1884. The controversial decision to put a Black player on a major league team prompted a barrage of criticism and initially led to Robinson's mistreatment by fans and fellow players alike. But he endured the discrimination and rose above it, going on to serve as a symbol of the civil rights movement and win both Rookie of the Year in 1947 and the International League MVP Award in 1949. Hailed as a civil rights pioneer, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Reagan.

Fast Facts: Jackie Robinson

Known for: Jackie Robinson is known for being the first Black player on a major league baseball team since 1884 and for lifelong civil rights activism

Also Known As: Jack Roosevelt Robinson

Born: January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia

Parents: Mallie Robinson, Jerry Robinson

Died: October 24, 1972 in North Stamford, Connecticut

Education: Pasadena Junior College, UCLA

Awards and Honors: National League Rookie of the Year in 1947, Intern`ational League Most Valuable Player in 1949, first Black man inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, Spingarn Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom

Spouse: Rachel Annetta Robison

Children: Jackie Robinson Jr., Sharon Robinson, and David Robinson

Notable Quote: “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.”

Early Life

Jackie Robinson was the fifth child born to parents Jerry Robinson and Mallie McGriff Robinson in Cairo, Georgia. His great grandparents had worked as enslaved people on the same property that Jackie's parents, both sharecroppers, farmed. In 1920, Jerry left the family and never returned. In 1921, Mallie received word that Jerry had died, but never made efforts to substantiate this rumor.

After struggling to keep the farm going by herself, Mallie was ordered off of the farm by the owner and forced to look for other forms of employment and a place to live. She decided to move the family from Georgia to California. Instances of violent racial riots and lynchings of Black people were growing more and more common in the summer of 1919, especially in the southeastern states, and Mallie did not feel that her family was safe. Seeking a more inclusive environment, Mallie and several of her relatives pooled their money together to buy train tickets. In May 1920, when Jackie was 16 months old, they all boarded a train for Los Angeles, California.

Growing Up in California

Mallie and her children moved into an apartment in Pasadena, California with her brother Samuel Wade, his wife Cora, and their family. She found work cleaning houses and eventually earned enough money to buy a house in a mostly-White neighborhood at 121 Pepper Street, but the family was still relatively poor in the abundantly wealthy city they now inhabited. The Robinsons continued to face extreme discrimination when they arrived in Pasadena, where Jim Crow and racial prejudice were in full force. Neighbors shouted racial insults at the family, attempted to buy them out of their home, and circulated a petition demanding that they leave the area. Mallie stood firm, refusing to abandon the house she had worked so hard to earn, but she was also conciliatory toward her oppressors. The neighbors called the cops on her children often and Mallie tried hard to keep the peace, eventually achieving some degree of acceptance from most.

With their mother away at work all day, the Robinson children learned to take care of themselves from an early age. Cora Wade did not work and looked after the Robinson siblings during the day, but Robinson entertained himself often. Determined to find companionship in a cruel neighborhood, he joined the "Pepper Street Gang."

This group, comprised of poor boys from minority groups, committed small offenses and acts of vandalism or pranks, at times fighting when they were assaulted by White children. Though these activities could scarcely be called crimes and some were merely acts of defense, Robinson had to answer to the police on many occasions—once escorted by the authorities at gunpoint for swimming in the city reservoir. Mallie sometimes pleaded with the police to go easier on her children, but the police captain in charge of youth activity in the area, Captain Morgan, was mostly a fair and paternal authority figure to the boys, guiding them and defending them as needed. Robinson later credited Morgan, Reverend Karl Downs, and a local car mechanic by the name of Carl Anderson with encouraging him to get off the streets and involved in safer activities. Anderson took it upon himself to mentor Black children in the area during a time when being Black meant near-constant oppression.

Young Jackie Robinson picture with his four older siblings and mother
Young Jackie Robinson, second from the left, poses with his family for a black-and-white portrait in 1925.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Becoming Involved in Sports

Robinson's siblings helped instill in him a fierce sense of competition and appreciation for sports. Brother Frank encouraged him by attending all of his sporting events. Willa Mae, also a talented athlete, excelled in the few sports that were available to females in the 1930s. Mack, the third eldest, was an inspiration to young Robinson. A world-class sprinter, Mack Robinson competed in the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and came home with a silver medal in the 200-meter dash. (He had come in a close second to sports legend and teammate Jesse Owens.) But despite Mack's success, he was largely ignored when he returned home and forced to take a low-paying job as a street sweeper. At times, he proudly wore his Olympics jacket while sweeping and this provoked the White people in the area who refused to celebrate a Black athlete's accomplishment.

As early as first grade, Jackie Robinson showed athletic skill, but he quickly realized how many ways he was disadvantaged for being a Black American. He was not allowed to use the YMCA, which contained sporting equipment and facilities that would have allowed him to practice sports, and many arenas and fields were strictly segregated. Still, Robinson managed to draw attention for his athletic prowess, and his talent became even more evident when he reached middle school. A natural athlete, Robinson excelled at whatever sport he took up, including football, basketball, baseball, and track. He earned a reputation for being fiercely competitive and was only happy when he won. Highlights of his early sports involvement include an undefeated football season, winning the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament in singles, and playing for the Pomona all-star basketball team.

College Athletic Career

Upon graduation from high school in 1937, Robinson was sorely disappointed that he hadn't received a college scholarship despite his track record of athletic success. But determined to pursue a college degree anyway, he enrolled at Pasadena Junior College where he distinguished himself as a star quarterback, high scorer in basketball, and record-breaking long-jumper in track and field. And of course, he showed much promise in baseball. Boasting a batting average of .417, Robinson was named Southern California's Most Valuable Junior College Player in 1938.

Several universities finally took notice of Robinson, now willing to offer him a full scholarship to complete his last two years of college. Robinson couldn't decide where to attend. In May 1939, the Robinson family suffered a devastating loss. Frank Robinson sustained injuries from a motorcycle collision that soon took his life. Robinson was crushed by the loss of his big brother and his greatest fan, but he did not give up. He decided to enroll at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) to stay near his family and was determined to honor his brother's memory with a strong college career.

Robinson was as successful at UCLA as he had been in junior college. He was the first UCLA student to earn letters in all four sports that he played —football, basketball, baseball, and track and field—a feat he accomplished after only one year of enrollment. However, he later participated in only football and track. As a Black man, his involvement in mainstream college sports was unprecedented, and people were taking notice of his role in integration. At the beginning of his second year, Robinson met Rachel Isum, and the two would later date. Rachel was in school pursuing a nursing degree.

Jackie Robinson performing a long jump for the UCLA track and field team
Jackie Robinson was a track star during his time at UCLA, and he broke records with the long jump.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Leaving College

Robinson was a good student in addition to being a formidable athlete, but he was not convinced that earning a college degree would make him successful. He worried that despite getting a college education, he would have few opportunities to advance himself in any profession since he was a Black man. Jackie also had the welfare of his family on his mind, with his mother still struggling to make ends meet and his brother gone. In March 1941, only months before he was to graduate, Robinson dropped out of UCLA.

Robinson found a temporary job as an assistant athletic director at a camp in Atascadero, California in order to support his family financially. He later had a brief stint playing on an integrated football team, the Honolulu Bears, in Hawaii. Robinson returned home from Hawaii just two days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Army Career

In 1942, Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Riley in Kansas. Although the Army enforced barriers to Black enlistment during this time, Black Americans were part of a universal draft started in 1917 that did not contain provisions for race or ethnicity. Black Americans comprised a larger percentage of drafted young men in proportion to population than did White Americans. Paul T. Murray, author of "Blacks and the Draft: A History of Institutional Racism" in the Journal of Black Studies, speculates that Black Americans did not receive equal treatment in the draft and were drafted more often due to institutional racism. For reference, during World War I, 34.1% of Black draft registrants were selected for service while only 24.04% of White registrants were selected for service. In addition, Robinson's unit was segregated.

Perhaps beginning with his selection for service, Robinson faced harsh discrimination in the Army. However, this didn't stop him from fighting for his rights. When he was first enrolled, Robinson applied to Officers' Candidate School (OCS) although Black soldiers were informally restricted from joining this program. He was told privately that he couldn't join because he was Black. With heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis, also stationed at Fort Riley, on his side, Robinson petitioned for and won the right to attend OCS. Robinson was promoted to second lieutenant in 1943.

Already known for his talent on the baseball field, Robinson was soon approached to play on Fort Riley's baseball team, but this offer was conditional. The team policy was to accommodate opposing teams who refused to play with a Black player on the field by granting their request to remove Black players for that game. In other words, Robinson would have been expected to sit out if a team didn't want to play with him. Unwilling to accept this restriction, Robinson refused to play at all.

Jackie Robinson wearing U.S. Army uniform

Sports Studio Photos / Getty Images

Court-Martial of 1944

Robinson was later transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, where he continued to advocate for civil rights. Riding on an Army bus one evening with a female friend, he was ordered to go to the back of the bus by the bus driver, who mistakenly believed the woman to be White (she was Black, but her lighter skin made him think her White) and assumed she did not want to sit with a Black man. Fully aware that the Army had recently outlawed segregation on its vehicles and tired of being persecuted for the color of his skin, Robinson refused. Even when military officers arrived, Robinson stood his ground, shouting at them in defense and demanding fair treatment.

Following this event, Robinson was arrested and court-martialed for insubordination. The Army dropped its charges when no evidence could be found of any wrongdoing on Robinson's part, and Robinson was honorably discharged in 1944.

Back in California, Robinson and Rachel Isum got engaged.

Playing in the Negro Leagues

In 1945, Robinson was hired as a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs, a baseball team in the Negro Leagues. In major league professional baseball, there was an unwritten rule that Black players were not allowed. Black and White players had played together in the mid-nineteenth century until Jim Crow laws, which legalized segregation, were passed in the late 1800s. The Negro Leagues were formed in the early 20th century to accommodate the many talented Black players who were shut out of Major League Baseball. Players in the Negro Leagues were paid much less and subjected to worse treatment than major league players.

The Monarchs had a hectic schedule, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles by bus in a day. Racism followed the men wherever they went, and players were turned away from hotels, restaurants, and restrooms simply because they were Black. At one service station, the owner refused to let the men use the restroom when they stopped to get gas. A furious Robinson told the proprietor they would not buy his gas if he didn't allow them to use the restroom, persuading the man to change his mind. Following that incident, the team made a habit of not buying gas from anyone who refused to let them use the facilities.

Robinson had a successful year with the Monarchs, leading the team in batting and earning a spot in the Negro League's all-star game. Absorbed in this game, Robinson was unaware that he was being closely watched by baseball scouts from the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Crowd of people entering Kansas City Municipal Stadium where the Kansas City Monarchs played

Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

Meeting With Branch Rickey

Dodgers president Branch Rickey, determined to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball, was looking for the ideal candidate to prove that Black players had a place in the majors. This has often been referred to as "Baseball's Great Experiment." Rickey saw Robinson as that man, as Robinson was not only a talented athlete but also educated and respectable. He had played alongside White people in college, so he had experience facing public scrutiny and discrimination from people who felt he shouldn't be allowed on the field. But knowing that leading the charge of integrating major league baseball would be a trying experience for Robinson, Rickey was relieved to hear that he had his family Rachel in his life to encourage and support him.

Meeting with Robinson in August 1945, Rickey prepared the player for the kind of abuse he would face as the lone Black man in the league. He would be subjected to verbal insults, unfair calls by umpires, pitches intentionally thrown to hit him, and more. Off the field as well, Robinson could expect hate mail and death threats. For the player's safety and the long-term possibilities this opportunity presented, Rickey wanted to know that Robinson could deal with such adversity without retaliating, even verbally, for three solid years because he felt that this was the only way the world would tolerate a Black player. Robinson, who had always stood up for his rights, found it difficult to imagine not responding to such abuse, but he realized how important it was to advance the cause of civil rights in this way and agreed to do it.

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey shaking hands
Jackie Robinson and Dodgers President Branch Rickey shake hands after Robinson signs a 1948 contract.

Bettmann / Getty Images

Playing for the Montreal Royals

Like most new players, Robinson started out on a minor league team and became the first Black player in the minors. In October 1945, he signed with the Dodgers' top farm team, the Montreal Royals. Before the start of spring training, Robinson and Rachel Isum were married in February 1946 and headed to Florida for training camp two weeks after their wedding.

Enduring vicious verbal abuse at gamesfrom those both in the stands and the dugoutRobinson nonetheless proved himself especially skilled at hitting and stealing bases, and he helped lead his team to victory at the Minor League Championship Series in 1946. Robinson and Rachel married in 1946. Topping off Robinson's stellar year, Rachel gave birth to Jack Robinson Jr. on November 18, 1946. Shortly after, Robinson began making the transition to the Dodgers.

Breaking the MLB Color Barrier

On April 9, 1947, five days before the start of baseball season, Branch Rickey made the announcement that 28-year-old Jackie Robinson would play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The announcement came on the heels of a difficult spring training. Several of Robinson's new teammates had banded together to sign a petition insisting that they would rather be traded off the team than play with a Black man. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher chastised these men, demanding that they get rid of the petition and pointing out that a player as good as Robinson could very well lead the team to the World Series.

Robinson started out as first baseman and later moved to second base, a position he held for the rest of his career. Fellow players were slow to accept Robinson as a member of their team. Some were openly hostile while others refused to speak to him or even sit near him. It didn't help that Robinson began his season in a slump, unable to make a hit in the first five games. But Robinson, following the advice of the team's president, stoically took the mistreatment without fighting back.

Robinson's teammates finally rallied to his defense after witnessing several incidents in which he was physically and verbally assaulted by opponents. One player from the St. Louis Cardinals intentionally spiked his thigh so badly that he was left with a large gash, prompting outrage from Robinson's team. In another instance, players on the Philadelphia Phillies, knowing that Robinson had received death threats, held their bats up as if they were guns and pointed them at him. These unsettling events served to unify the Dodgers—not only as a team but also against inequality. Robinson overcame his slump and the Dodgers went on to win the National League pennant. They lost the World Series to the Yankees, but Robinson performed well enough to be named Rookie of the Year in 1947. In 1949, he was named Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the International League. He was the first Black man granted this esteemed title.

Jackie Robinson swinging bat and running

Robert Riger / Getty Images

MLB Career With the Brooklyn Dodgers

By the start of the 1949 season, Robinson got the go-ahead from Rickey to be himself. He no longer had to stay silenthe was free to express himself, just as the other players were. Robinson now responded to the taunts of opponents, which initially shocked a public who had seen him for three years as quiet and docile. He was called an agitator, short-tempered, and "hot," but he was merely rightfully angry with everything he had endured over the years. But he was still admired by fans across the country. Rachel and Jackie Robinson moved to a house in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where several neighbors in this mostly-White neighborhood were thrilled to be living near a baseball star. The Robinsons welcomed daughter Sharon into the family in January 1950 and son David was born in 1952. The family later bought a house in Stamford, Connecticut.

As Robinson's popularity grew, so did his annual salary. At $35,000 a year, he was making more than any of his teammates. He used his celebrity status to promote racial equality. When the Dodgers went on the road, hotels in many cities refused to allow Black players to stay in the same hotel as their White teammates. Robinson threatened that none of the players would stay at the hotel if all of them were not welcome, and this tactic often worked.

In 1955, the Dodgers once again faced the Yankees in the World Series. They had lost to them many times, but this year would be different. Thanks in part to Robinson's brazen base-stealing, the Dodgers won the World Series. During the 1956 season, Robinson, now 37 years old, spent more time on the bench than on the field. When the announcement came that the Dodgers would be moving to Los Angeles in 1957, it came as no surprise that Jackie Robinson had decided it was time to retire in spite of an offer to play for the New York Giants. In the nine years since he had played his first game for the Dodgers, several more teams had signed on Black players. By 1959, all Major League Baseball teams were integrated.

Jackie Robinson with Dodgers teammates on a bench
Jackie Robinson on the bench with Spider Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Starkey, and Jackie Robinson.

Sports Studio Photos / Getty Images

Life After Baseball

Robinson kept working after his retirement from baseball, accepting the position of vice president for personnel for Chock Full O' Nuts, a restaurant chain. He also fundraiser for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a role that he took very seriously. He even required that his Chock Full O' Nuts contract allow him as much time as he needed for his civil rights work. Robinson also helped to raise money to found the Freedom National Bank, a bank that primarily served minority populations, extending loans to people who might not have otherwise been granted them.

In July 1962, Robinson became the first Black American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He thanked those who had helped him earn that achievement—among them, his mother, his wife, and Branch Rickey.

Robinson's son, Jackie Jr., was deeply traumatized after fighting in Vietnam and became a drug addict upon his return to the United States. He successfully fought his addiction but was tragically killed in a car accident in 1971. The loss took a toll on Robinson, who was already battling the effects of diabetes and appeared much older than a man in his fifties.

Legacy

Robinson will always be known by many as the first player to break the MLA color barrier, but his contributions to society were much greater than this alone. He was a champion for civil rights throughout his life, even outside of his baseball career. His activism could be seen in his unwillingness to go to the back of the bus while he was in the Army, his refusal to purchase gas from a station that discriminated against Black people, and his courage in the face of adversity on the baseball field with the Dodgers, which made it possible for the public to accept Black players more readily even though doing so went against his very nature and impacted his mental and physical wellbeing. Robinson's example also proved to the world that integration could be successful and prosperous, even without legislation forcing it.

Robinson's nonviolence was also a form of activism in and of itself. Though Robinson played ball aggressively and was seen by many as short-tempered—a perception that likely had more to do with racial prejudice than his true temperament—, he was not an aggressive person. And when he was finally allowed to fight back against his oppressors, Robinson took the opportunity to speak out against years of hate toward Black Americans and set an example for the world of the power of peaceful protest. He is still seen as a champion of nonviolent activism today.

Once he retired from baseball, Robinson was able to devote much of his attention to the Civil Rights Movement. His involvement with the NAACP, specifically with the NAACP Freedom Fund, was of particular significance. Robinson helped raise more than $1 million for this organization by hosting concerts and campaigning. This money was used to bail out civil rights activists that had been wrongfully jailed. Robinson himself took part in many protests including the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr., the site of the historic "I Have a Dream" speech. In 1956, the NAACP awarded him the 41st Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievement as a Black man. It was this work that Robinson felt he was meant for. It was never his intention to keep quiet about the struggle for Black equality—he did so when he played baseball for just long enough to build a platform from which he could speak. Toward the end of his life, Robinson wrote the following:

"If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations, and a child of mine came into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom, and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure at the whole business of living."
Jackie Robinson stands with a group of smiling people in front of a plane
Jackie Robinson flies in and is greeted by supporters before speaking at an NAACP regional conference in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 16, 1957.

Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

Death

On October 24, 1972, Jackie Robinson died of a heart attack at the age of 53. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1986 by President Reagan. Robinson's jersey number, 42, was retired by both the National League and the American League in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson's historic major league debut.

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. Murray, Paul T. "Blacks and the Draft: A History of Institutional Racism." Journal of Black Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, Sep. 1971, pp. 57–76.