Despite the current lukewarm attitude about baseball of African-Americans, April 15 is still an important date in not only baseball history, but also African-American history.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American since before the turn of the century to play Major League baseball. Wearing Number 42 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson played first base and batted second in the team’s home opener at Ebbet’s Field against the Boston Braves. In three at bats, he reached base on an error and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5 – 3 win.
To celebrate the day of Robinson’s debut, April 15 is designated by Major League Baseball; “Jackie Robinson Day”. All Major League players will wear number “42”, Jackie’s number, on their uniforms during games today and other activities will also be held at Major League ballparks to honor him.
Growing up in a home where my father and two older brothers were baseball fans, I was made aware at an early age of Jackie Robinson. However; his mark in history, both African-American and Twentieth Century American, continues to grow in significance sixty-nine years after that Brooklyn spring day in 1947. A mark that he made through his excellence on the baseball diamond whose impact goes well beyond the sport itself.
Robinson hit .297 in 1947 and led the National League in stolen bases. Although many sportswriters doubted he would be successful, the National Sportswriters Association named him 1947 National League Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he led the National League in hitting (.342), stolen bases, and drove in 124 runs. For his efforts Robinson won the National League Most Valuable Player Award. He hit over .300 six in his 10 Major League seasons, and over .290 two others. A six-time National League All-Star, Robinson helped the Dodgers win six National League pennants (finishing second four times) and one World Series championship (1955).
But I missed his playing career! When I made my entrance into the world in August 1951, Robinson and the Dodgers were in the process of blowing a 14 1/2 lead against the second place New York Giants to lose the National League pennant. There was no ESPN, CNN Sports, Fox Sports Net, or MLB Network in the 1950s. I am sure Jackie would have made the ESPN Top Ten Plays of the Day highlights numerous times. He retired after the 1956 season as I was in the kindergarten class of Miss Williams at Kealing Elementary. That is why I love seeing the black and white films showing him in action like in the documentary showed last week on PBS; “Jackie Robinson: A Film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMaHon”. The daring way he ran the bases, especially stealing home, is still exciting today.
Truthfully Jackie Robinson was not the best player in Negro League baseball when Dodger Vice-President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed him in 1945. But he was named the 1946 International League’s Most Valuable Player while with the Dodgers top minor league team in Montreal. Bob Feller, the star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians said Robinson would never be good enough as a hitter to make it in the Major Leagues. How ironic was it that they were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame together in 1962. Jackie Robinson accepted the hopes and expectations for success of his race as he faced the expectations and predictions of his failure from those opposed to him. Despite this pressure from all sides, he proved his skeptics wrong and opened the door for other African-American and dark-skinned Latino ball players to play Major League baseball. Jackie Robinson was an extra-ordinary man God equipped for a super extra-ordinary task!
To read more about the Negro League baseball era Last Train To Cooperstown
Today is the national celebration for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what would have been his 88th. 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, I want to mention what appears to have been Dr. King’s favorite sport, baseball.
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-year-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 that movement.
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 was nearing 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 Civil Rights rallies in the South for Dr. King, 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 the former Dodger’s 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