“He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right and he reminded them of what was wrong. I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation.” – American League President Gene Budig
“He knew he had to do well. He knew that the future of blacks in baseball depended on it. The pressure was enormous, overwhelming, and unbearable at times. I don’t know how he held up. I know I never could have.” – Duke Snider
“Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.” Jackie Robinson
“There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.” Jackie Robinson
Today is a day that we rightfully remembered the life, message, martyrdom and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. However as much as Dr. King matters, there were a long line of African American heroes who in their own way helped bring about racial equality in this country. While many toiled in obscurity one, a baseball player named Jackie Robinson would forever alter the playing field of racial relations and how African Americans were perceived and received in the United States. April 15th 2010 will be the 63rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the Major Leagues with the Brooklyn. Robinson is not remembered with a National holiday but then again that takes noting away from this giant of American history. When Robinson stepped onto Ebbett’s Field in April 15th 1947 it was a watershed moment and while racial discrimination and prejudice remained they would be fighting a losing battle from that time on. Dr King in life and in death would be the one who drove the stake into the heart of the evil of racism and discrimination it was Jackie Robinson who helped place that stake above the heart of this evil.
We celebrate Dr King’s legacy today. However, without Jackie Robinson and the other African American baseball players who broke into the big leagues in the late 1940s and early 1950s it is conceivable that Dr, King would never have had the opportunity not only to be heard by African Americans, but to have his message heard and taken to heart by white America.
By the time Dr. King arrived on the scene much had already been done, and much due to Robinson and the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey. Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers came a full year before President Truman integrated the military and a full seven years before the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional. It was not until 1964 that the Voters Rights act passed in Congress. Jackie Robinson paved the way for a change in American society that has continued for 62 years since his debut at Ebbett’s Field on April 15th 1947.
Even before he stepped onto the field Jackie Robinson was a pioneer in equal rights where at UCLA he was the first student to letter in four varsity sports and in the Second World War where in an action that was a precursor to later civil rights battles the young Lieutenant Jackie Robinson was arrested and tried for not moving to the back of a bus at Fort Hood Texas. He would be acquitted and given an honorable discharge before beginning his professional baseball career with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League prior to Rickey signing him to a minor league contract with the Montreal Royals of the International League. Although he was met with scorn my many white baseball fans and some players and had to endure the ignominy of hostility from white fans and media, having to live in separate hotels and eat at separate restaurants Robinson developed a loyal fan base in Montreal and over a million people saw him play in his year in the International League.
When Branch Rickey talked with Robinson before the season he said: “Jackie (Robinson), we’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid that many fans will be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman.”
John Jorgensen, Pee Wee Reese, Ed Stanky and Jackie Robinson on opening day 1947
Jackie’s feat was a watershed moment in the history of our country. Blacks had struggled for years against Jim Crow laws, discrimination in voting rights, and even simple human decencies such as where they could use a rest room, what hotels they could stay in or what part of the bus that they could sit. In baseball many white fans were upset that blacks would be coming to see Robinson in stadiums that they would not have been allowed in before. Players from other teams heckled Robinson, he received hate mail, people sent made death threats, and he was spiked and spit on. But Jackie Robinson kept his pledge to Dodgers owner Branch Rickey not to lash out at his tormentors, as Rickey told him that he needed a man “with enough guts not to strike back.” In doing so his on field performance and poise under pressure won him the National League Rookie of the Year honor in 1947.
Jackie Robinson played the game with passion and even anger. He took the advice of Hank Greenberg who as a Jew suffered continual racial epithets throughout his career “the best ways to combat slurs from the opposing dugout is to beat them on the field.” He would be honored as Rookie of the Year, was MVP, played in six World Series and six All Star Games. He had a career .311 batting average, .409 on base percentage and a .474 Slugging percentage. He was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962. His teammate Pee Wee Reese would say: “Thinking about the things that happened, I don’t know any other ball player who could have done what he did. To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour. To do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
Today Jackie Robinson’s feat is history, but it should not be forgotten. He was a pioneer who made it possible for others to move forward. He would be followed by players like Roy Campinella, Satchel Paige, Don Larson, Larry Dobie and Willie Mays. His breakthrough had an effect not just on baseball but on society and helped make possible the later civil rights movement. Dr. King would say of Jackie that he was “a legend and a symbol in his own time”, and that he “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.” Historian Doris Kearns Godwin noted that Jackie’s “efforts were a monumental step in the civil-rights revolution in America” and that his “accomplishments allowed black and white Americans to be more respectful and open to one another and more appreciative of everyone’s abilities.” Time Magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century.
We honor Dr King today and rightly so, but one can never forget those who paved the way so that we could all have the blessing of seeing Dr King’s dream come one step closer to fruition the dream that:
“one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” and that “one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
Dr King would die by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis on the night of April 4th 1968 the day after finishing his final speech with these immortal remarks:
“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Let us never forget Dr King nor those like Jackie Robinson who helped pave the way for Dr King.