Sportsmanship in Black: Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson is an icon. You’ll notice I haven’t used that term to describe anyone else in this Sportsmanship in Black series. Many sports figures are referred to as icons. People assign the term far too often. He’s (insert athlete here) an icon because he can shoot the three. She’s (insert athlete here) an icon because she plays stellar defense. An icon symbolizes something beyond their chosen profession or social standing.

Jackie Robinson symbolizes progress, barriers being broken and a loud, clear message from the black athlete: “I know I am good enough. You know I am good enough. Do you honestly hate me more than you love winning?!”

Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson was born January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Ga. Robinson’s father left the family in 1920; resulting in his mother moving the family to Pasadena, Ca. Young Jackie found his calling in athletics. He lettered in four sports while at John Muir High School – football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. Robinson graduated from Pasadena Junior College in 1939 and transferred to UCLA.

He was also one of four African-Americans on the 1939 UCLA football team. In 1940, Robinson won the NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track & Field Championship in the long jump. Baseball happened to be Robinson’s worst sport. He hit .097 in his first season at UCLA.

The sports for which he would become most associated was the furthest thing from his mind. Robinson left school early to pursue a football career in Hawaii. World War II put a quick end to any football pursuits. Robinson was drafted into the military in 1942. He served until 1944 and worked as a coach and administrator at several colleges upon discharge. On the advice of a close friend, Robinson wrote a letter to the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League requesting a tryout.

In 1945, the Monarchs contacted Robinson and offered him a contract. He actively pursued a career in Major League Baseball while with the Monarchs; even participating in a tryout with the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox tryout turned out to be a farce, but the Brooklyn Dodgers were serious about signing black players.

Dodgers’ general manager, Branch Rickey compiled a list of promising black players. Rickey wanted a player with talent and the ability to withstand the racism that was sure to come from fans and opposing players. Robinson would join the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals minor league club in 1946. He earned MVP honors in the International League that season with a .349 batting average and a .985 fielding percentage.

The Royals also saw a tremendous spike in attendance. More than 1,000,000 people came to games involving Robinson; whether their intention was to cheer or jeer him. This combination of skill and interest motivated the Dodgers to call Robinson up for the 1947 season.

He made his major league debut on April 15, 1947 in front of 26,000 fans at Ebbets Field. Robinson became the first black player to play in the major leagues in more than 60 years. He went on to hit .297 with 12 home runs, score 125 runs, and steal 29 bases – becoming Major League Baseball’s first Rookie of the Year. Robinson’s best season as a pro came in 1949. He hit .342 with 122 RBI and 124 runs scored and was named National League MVP.

Robinson maintained an uncanny level of performance for 10 seasons. In addition to winning the Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, Robinson was a six-time All-Star selection. He is a member of the Major League Baseball All-Century Team and was voted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Jackie Robinson’s impact extends far beyond the baseball field.  He is a national hero who excelled under tremendous pressure. If he had failed, would players such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, or Bob Gibson had a chance in the major leagues?  Robinson was known for his speed and quickness, but he may be the strongest athlete ever. Jackie Robinson carried the hopes and dreams of an entire race on his shoulders – and lifted us higher.

Selected Jackie Robinson “Firsts”

  • First Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year (1947).
  • First black player to win National League MVP (1949).
  • First black player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame (1962).
  • Only player to have his number retired by every major league team (1997).
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