Jackie Robinson: The Man Who Changed Major League Baseball

Early Years

On January 31, 1919, Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia. He was raised by his mother, had four older siblings, and loved sports. He attended high school and Pasadena Junior College, where he played baseball, football, basketball, and ran track. In 1939, he won the MVP Award for his high school baseball team. His older brother, Matthew, was also a great athlete who won silver in the 1936 Olympics for the 200-meter dash. Matthew encouraged Jackie to pursue baseball professionally when he saw how well his younger brother played. 

With this encouragement, Robinson went to UCLA and became the first student to letter in four sports. Although he did well in college, he did not graduate due to financial difficulties. 

He went on to play semi-pro football with the Honolulu Bears for a brief time before being recruited into the Army during World War II. Robinson was a second lieutenant in the Army but did not end up fighting in any battles. While in the army, he was arrested and court marshaled in 1944 when he refused to give up his bus seat to a white person. However, he was acquitted of any charges and given an honorable discharge from the Army later that year. 

Family Life

Jackie Robinson married Rachel Robinson née Isum (who turned 100 in 2022) in 1946. The couple had three children, and Robinson was a devoted husband and father. 

Their oldest son, Jackie Robinson, Jr., was born in 1945 and was a newborn when his father was drafted into the MLB. After struggling in school, he followed his father’s example and joined the Army, where he was wounded in Vietnam. He struggled for years with drug addiction before seeking help and using his story to help raise awareness of the dangers of drug usage. He tragically died in a crash accident in 1971 after losing control of his car. 

Their middle child and only daughter, Sharon Robinson, was born in 1950 and currently works as an education consultant for major league baseball. Their youngest child, David Robinson, was born in 1952. He moved to Tanzania in 1983, where he has been helping with their international economic development.

Major League Baseball

Robinson began playing professional baseball after his discharge from the Army. He started in the Negro Leagues since baseball was still segregated. However, things changed in 1946. Branch Rickey, president of the Dodgers, wanted to integrate the MLB and hired Robinson as the first black man to play in a white league. He started in the minors with the Montreal Royals and was instrumental in helping them win. Despite Robinson’s skills, Rickey knew that many people would be angry about him playing in a white league and encouraged Robinson not to fight back or respond to their hateful comments. On April 15, 1947, Robinson moved up to play in the major league with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He discovered that most of the fans and even many of his teammates were racist. Various opposing teams objected to his position on the team and refused to play against the Dodgers. Robinson’s family was also threatened, but Robinson did not react; he just played baseball. 

Despite the many haters, there were a few people who stood up for Robinson. He was supported by Leo Durocher, the manager of the Dodgers. Durocher got many complaints from players threatening to quit if Robinson continued playing on the team. In response, he informed the racist players on the Dodgers that he would trade them before trading Robinson. The catcher for the Dodgers at the time was Pee Wee Reese, and he also defended Robinson’s right to play in the MLB. There was a famous incident during a game where the fans were aggressively harassing Robinson. Reese walked over to his teammate and put his arm around Robinson. This gesture spoke volumes without Reese saying a word. There were others, such as Happy Chandler, the Baseball Commissioner, who helped fight for Robinson to be treated equally and fairly in the MLB. 

Robinson had twelve home runs and a .297 batting average in his first year with the Dodgers. He led the National League in stolen bases and was Rookie of the Year. In 1949, his average went up to .342, and he again led the National League in stolen bases. That year, he was voted Most Valuable Player. During his time with the Dodgers from 1947-1956, Robinson stole 197 bases, including stealing home 19 times, which is one of the most impressive states in baseball history. In 1955, he helped his team win the World Series. After 10 years with the Dodgers, he was traded to the Giants in 1956 but never played with the team before retiring in 1957. 

After Baseball

In 1962, Robinson became the first black man inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He was a champion of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and was on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – NAACP. He publically called out the Yankees for being racist when they still only had white people on their team five years after Robinson had first started playing with the Dodgers. Sadly at age 53, Robinson died from heart complications on October 24, 1972. 

Jackie Robinson’s Legacy

After her husband’s death, Mrs. Robinson started The Jackie Robinson Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps minority students who have a passion for education but do not have finances required to attend college. 

In 1972, the Dodgers, now located in Los Angeles, retired his jersey number, 42, in honor of his stellar career. In 1997, Jackie Robinson’s number was retired from Major League Baseball. Players who already wore the number could continue, but no one else could wear it after they retired. The last player who wore the number was New York Yankees’ closing pitcher, Mariano Rivera, who retired in 2013. Hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, was the only other player in all of sports history to have his number retired across the entire major league, not just his team. 

In 2004, April 15 became known as “Jackie Robinson Day.” It is the day to remember when a courageous man broke the color line and integrated Major League Baseball. In honor of Jackie Robinson, on that day, all players wear the number 42 while playing. The coaches, umpires, managers, and everyone else also wears number 42 that day to remember his courage in the face of racism and hatred. 

Jackie Robinson was a hero to many but not just because of his baseball skills. Although he played well, there are many who were better than him. What truly made him remarkable was his attitude. He listened to Brackey Rickey and never once responded or retaliated to anyone who called him names or threatened him or his family. He just did what he did best – played baseball. In the end, his talent won most people over. The fans and other players stopped hating him because of the color of his skin and began to appreciate him because of what he could do on the field. 

People need to do this with everything, not just skin color. When Jesus died on the cross for us, he looked past everything (skin color, economic standing, etc.). He choose to die out of love. True love is unconditional. Robinson showed this on and off the field. We all should display this kind of love toward everyone – no matter who they are or what they do.