To commemorate the sixty-fifth anniversary of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play major league baseball in the modern era, players in all of last Monday’s games donned Jackie’s famous number 42.
This fitting tribute was in recognition of a watershed moment not just for baseball but for American society as a whole. Robinson’s breaking of the colour barrier not only helped usher the game towards the modern, diversified form we know now, it much more importantly served as an inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement that was to come and paved the way for black athletes to succeed at the highest degree.
Let’s journey back to 1947 – the year that this all transpired – for a second.
Harry Truman was president and the Marshall Plan was underway. India was enduring a brutal partition after its newfound independence. Heck, even precious little New Zealand was shrugging off colonial influence via the signing of the Statue of Westminster. Simply put, it was a year of sweeping change across the board.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were not spared by this wave of change. Going against the grain, Brooklyn manager Branch Rickey called Jackie Robinson up to the majors at the outset of the 1947 season. Five days later, on April 15th, the second baseman made his historic debut for the ballclub at Ebbets Field. Although he went hitless in his first start, Robinson was quick to secure his spot on the roster and he played out a successful season, posting a batting average of .297 and earning the Rookie of the Year Award.
However, as the story goes, this success and recognition only made it harder on Jackie. Hostility surrounded him wherever he went, even within his own clubhouse as several Dodgers made known their disapproval and threatened to sit-out games. The commissioner of the majors at the time, Happy Chandler (I simply could not omit a name like that), was relatively supportive of Robinson’s career and deemed it necessary to impose a severe suspension on any player planning to sit-out. Moreover, there are infamous stories of opposing players deliberately injuring Jackie, as well as the countless jeers he had to endure in most, if not all, of America’s ballparks.
While Robinson was able to silence the hecklers to an extent with his undeniable eye for the ball and his superb base-running, discrimination was something he simply had to deal with until he walked away from the game in 1956. Yes, he did have two more African-Americans join him in the majors in 1947 (Larry Doby, Harry Thompson) but, being the first, Robinson remained the centre of attention and the target for dissent. This makes his triumph in the 1955 World Series and his Hall of Fame induction appear all the more remarkable; he persisted, weathered the storm and succeeded in the game he loved with the odds stacked heavily against him.
Yes, a great achievement you say, but why does Robinson’s appearance warrant being categorized with the aforementioned events happening around the globe that same year?
Because April 15th, 1947 signified a crucial stepping stone towards equality and a departure from the Jim Crow era. Robinson immediately became a symbol for racial progress and would be a role-model to future generations. We know now of how a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. was captivated by Robinson’s accomplishment and at the height of the Civil Rights Movment, King cited him as being one of his main inspirations, calling him a “freedom rider before freedom rides”.
Also indebted to Robinson are the athletes that followed the road he paved. Looking at the MLB, the NBA and the NFL, recent estimates show that the non-white players account for 38%, 89% and 59%, respectively. It is staggering to think of just how much talent non-white athletes contribute to these leagues and Jackie Robinson was their trailblazer.
Many argue that it was just a matter of time before somebody would break the colour barrier anyway and, yes, while this is true, few would have been capable of handling such prejudice with the dignity and grace that Jackie did.
To quote the man himself: ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives’.
By those terms, Jackie Robinson led a very important life indeed. May we always remember.