Today in Black History: The birthday of Jackie Robinson, first black Major League Baseball player since the 1880s (1919)
Robinson was the first black Major League Baseball player of the modern era, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 (when he won the MLB Rookie of the Year Award) to 1956. He took the Dodgers to six World Series, and helped win the 1955 World Championship. He was chosen to play in every All-Star games from 1949-1954, and won the 1949 National League Most Valuable Player Award (the first Black player to do so).
Jackie Robinson grew up playing all kinds of sports: baseball, tennis, track, football, and basketball, but baseball was always on the backburner. After college, he played for the integrated Honolulu Bears football team and the Los Angeles Bulldogs football team, but World War II halted his football career. After an honorable discharge from the Army, he played professional baseball in the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs and the Minor League’s Montreal Royals before beginning his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers (for the absorbitant paycheck of $600 a month, or $7,750 in 2013 numbers). However, it was no easy feat to be the first Black player in Major League Baseball: several of his own teammates resented him and threatened to not play alongside him, many players threatened to strike, members of the Philadelphia Phillies called him a “n*gger” and told him to “go back to the cotton fields” from the dugout. Throughout his career he bonded with several supportive players, and let his talent speak for itself. His number, 42, has been universally retired to reflect his tremendous career.
Robinson’s cultural impact was huge, and extended past the world of athletics: he played himself in the 1950 major motion picture “The Jackie Robinson Story,” (pictured, Robinson and Ruby Dee, on set) and after his retirement he served on the board of the NAACP, co-founded Harlem’s “Freedom National Bank” (a Black-owned and operated commercial bank), and started the Jackie Robinson Construction Company (which built housing for low-income families). Robinson used his celebrity to pursue racial justice, embodying a “lifting as we climb” ethos. He would have been 94 years old today.
Photo Credit: NYPL Digital Collection