The Inspiring Life Of The First African American In Major League Baseball

The Inspiring Life Of The First African American In Major League Baseball

By: Oliver G. Alvar -

Jackie Robinson's career marked the end of baseball's racial segregation. Here's the life of the first African American in the major leagues.

On an otherwise normal day, on January 31, 1919, a baby was born who would become a legend in the annals of baseball, and a leading figure against racial discrimination in the United States. His name was Jack Roosevelt Robinson, most commonly known as Jackie Robinson.

From his notable position and elevated platform, Robinson managed to deeply influence many around the country, thus changing the very face of American culture. As such, he was a prominent figure for the Civil Rights Movement that eventually improved the lives of millions of African Americans across the nation.

jackie robinson african american major league baseball

When the Dodgers signed Robinson to play in the major leagues, racial segregation in professional baseball was officially ended. Prior to that, and ever since the 1880s, black players had been relegated to the "Negro leagues" alone, unfairly unable to play among whites. 

Robinson proved to society that the racial prejudices at the base of segregation were utterly wrong. He challenged the whole system by simply showing a black person could be morally impeccable, irrefutably talented, and peaceable, as he predicated the use of nonviolence in resisting social injustice. In other words, he had more class and decency than most of his self-proclaimed "superiors" from the time. Here's the inspiring life of the first African American in major league baseball.

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jackie robinson african american major league baseball

A rising star

Since he and his minority friends were systematically excluded from many recreational activities in his neighborhood—and, indeed, around the country—Robinson was led, or at least highly motivated, to join a gang. Fortunately, a friend of his convinced him to leave it, thus setting Robinson in a path away from violence and towards success. Robinson was lucky to have such a friend nearby. Many aren't as fortunate. 

In 1935, Robinson entered John Muir High School, aka Muir Tech. There he discovered his passion and talent for sports, and set foot on the path towards becoming a professional athlete. His brother, an extraordinary and accomplished athlete himself, saw in Robinson the aptitude for sports, and encouraged him to pursue this road. 

jackie robinson african american major league baseball

Soon enough, Robinson was destroying opponents in the fields of football, basketball, baseball, track, and even tennis. Just a year later, he won the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament, while managing to earn a coveted spot on the all-star team for the Pomona annual baseball tournament. It was clear to everyone that Robinson was a rising star—a legend in the making. 

Soon after he enrolled at UCLA, he became the first athlete of that university to win varsity letters in four different sports (track, football, basketball, and, of course, baseball). Robinson basically broke records wherever he went. 

In 1941, Robinson traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii, to play football. But his career was cut short after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, throwing the U.S. into the chaos of World War II

jackie robinson african american major league baseball

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Military career

Robinson was drafted to fight in the war. He was assigned to an Army cavalry unit specifically made up of African American soldiers—in other words, a segregated unit. He had an injured ankle from his athletic career at this point, and one day something happened that changed the course of his life. 

On July 6, 1944, Robinson got into an army bus. Though in theory this vehicle was meant to be unsegregated, the driver ordered Robinson to move all the way to the back. The athlete refused. So after the bus arrived at its destination, the driver called the military police to take Robinson into custody. Apparently, the officers involved in the investigation of the incident were themselves racially biased, and engaged in racist interrogations against Robinson. After the latter complained about the proceedings, the officers recommended a court-martial. 

jackie robinson african american major league baseball

As Robinson's commanding officer refused to authorize that approach, the athlete was sent to another battalion, were he was readily charged with several offenses, including public drunkenness—even if he didn't in fact drink at all. A gross display of racism in America

Robinson was eventually acquitted and honorably discharged from the army in 1944. He would never forget this experience, however.

Breaking through to the minor leagues

After his time in the military, Robinson returned to his athletic dreams. In the early months of 1945, the Kansas City Monarchs offered him a position to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues, to which he readily accepted. But he was not happy. These segregated leagues received little official support, and were consequently highly disorganized and lacked the discipline which Robinson sought. So he started looking for ways to enter the Major leagues instead.

jackie robinson african american major league baseball

Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was looking for someone just like Robinson. Rickey famously interviewed Robinson on August 28, 1945. Knowing he had what it took athletic-wise, Rickey was mostly interested in whether Robinson had the psychological resilience to endure the racist backlash his signing would garner across the country. 

Rickey asked him if he could face discrimination without reacting with anger or violence. "Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?," asked Robinson, to which Rickey replied, "I'm looking for a player with guts enough not to fight back." Thus, on October 23, 1945, Robinson was officially signed to the Montreal Royals, becoming the first black baseball player in the International League since the 1880s. During his time with the Royals, he was named the league's Most Valuable Player.

His outstanding performance in the minor leagues allowed the Dodgers to call Robinson up to the major leagues in 1947, thereby officially breaking the seemingly unbreakable color barrier in professional baseball.

jackie robinson african american major league baseball

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The major leagues

But the breakthrough wasn't easy. As expected, Robinson encountered trying resistance by several players in the league who opposed playing with or against a colored athlete. When they threatened to strike against the league if they allowed Robinson to play among whites, National League President Ford Frick stood by Robinson. Frick reportedly said the following to any would-be-strikers:

"I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. All will be suspended and I don't care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right to play as another."

The whole affair led to Robinson receiving much more support from the sports media, and bigoted dissidents soon had no leg to stand on. Not officially, at least. Robinson still had to suffer abuse in the field, with many players acting aggressively towards him in an attempt to discourage Robinson from playing further.

jackie robinson african american major league baseball

But Robinson resisted. He endured. And he did so while proving everyone just what an amazing talent he was. He won the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award, and from that moment on, his legend was sealed. He went on to become the most highly paid Dodger player up to that point, star in a Hollywood movie, and broke numerous records. He obtained a position from which he could make a difference, and constantly voiced criticism against segregation in all its forms. 

His legacy

In addition to all his sports-related accomplishments, Robinson broke more stereotypes and challenged society at several other layers. He was the first black vice president of any major American corporation (Chock full o'Nuts). He also helped establish the Freedom National Bank, and was the first black television analyst in MLB. 

jackie robinson african american major league baseball

In honor of his achievements, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom after he died. Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. Oh, and there have been movies about him, of course. 

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