Today is the national celebration for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what would have been his 92nd. Much will be written giving tributes to his life and the impact his legacy continues to have not only on this country, but also the world. However, in celebrating Dr. King each year on his birthday, I write about his relationship with his favorite baseball player; Jackie Robinson.
When Jackie Robinson crossed the “invisible color line” in 1947 to be the first African American to play Major League baseball in the 20th Century, he became the idol of an 18 years old teenager in Atlanta, Georgia; Martin King Jr. Like many other African Americans at that time, whether baseball fans or not, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the young King’s favorite baseball team because of Jackie Robinson. Many of those African American Dodger fans, including King, remained loyal to the team after Robinson retired and it relocated to Los Angeles in 1958. In addressing the 1966 Milwaukee Braves’ move to his hometown of Atlanta, Dr. King indicated it would complicate his personal allegiance that had existed since 1947. “And so I have been a Dodger fan”, he said, “but I’m gonna get with the Braves now”.*
But Dr. King had been more than a fan of the Dodgers; he understood the significance for African Americans of what Jackie Robinson had done in 1947. After becoming a leader in the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King knew where his idol as a teenager’s accomplishments fit overall in reference to race relations in this country.
When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on that Montgomery, Alabama city bus in December of 1955 triggering the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, Jackie Robinson neared the end of his baseball career. He announced his retirement on January 5, 1957; fifteen days after the successful end of the Montgomery bus boycott led by the 26 year old pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the 1960s, Robinson became actively involved in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. King. He spoke at Dr. King’s rallies in the South, marched in demonstrations with him, and held fund raisers for Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Dr. King and Robinson became co-laborers in the African American struggle for equality. He considered Jackie Robinson a friend.
At a testimonial dinner for Jackie Robinson on July 20, 1962 celebrating his upcoming National Baseball Hall of Fame induction in three days, Dr. King paid tribute to him. He defended Robinson’s right to speak out about segregation and civil rights. “He has the right”, King insisted stoutly, “because back in the days when integration was not fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes from being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways towards the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides. And that is why we honor him tonight.”**
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. may have liked other sports. However; because of Jackie Robinson, baseball appeared to be his favorite. Since idolizing Robinson while being a teenager in 1947, Dr. King never forgot the significance of the baseball player’s accomplishments in the struggle of African Americans for equality.
*”At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965 – 1968”, Taylor Branch, p.394
**”Jackie Robinson: A Biography”, Arnold Rampersad, p.7