Today in history: Happy birthday, Jackie Robinson!

January 31st, 2013

On January 31, 1919, the American baseball player Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers. The following year, his family moved to Pasadena, California, and it was here that Robinson grew up. In high school, he was a star on his school’s baseball, football, basketball, and track teams; after two years at Pasadena Junior College, he became the first athlete to earn varsity letters in these four sports at UCLA. After college and a short time as a running back in the Pacific Coast Football League, he was drafted into the US Army and, in 1943, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion—the first all-black tank battalion to see combat in World War II. However, due to a court-martial in which he was accused of insubordination for refusing to move to the back of an officially unsegregated Army bus, Robinson was never deployed outside of the United States. After the court-martial acquitted him of wrongdoing, he left the Army in November of 1944.

After World War II, Robinson entered the Negro Baseball Leagues as a shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs. In August of 1945, Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, met with Robinson about a possible assignment to Brooklyn’s minor league team, the Montreal Royals. This would make Robinson the first black player to play for the International League since 1880. Robinson made his debut on March 17, 1946, in an exhibition game between the Royals and its major league parent, the Dodgers. 

After a successful season with the Royals, Robinson was called up to the major leagues for the 1947 season, and on April 15, 1947, he became the first black player to break the color line in the major leagues. Despite a year filled with racial epithets and rough physical play by opponents, he had a successful season as a player and won the Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award for his performance. He would go on to have a successful career as a ball player, retiring in 1957 and being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962—his first year of eligibility. He died in 1972.

As we celebrate Robinson’s life and achievements today, read Branch Rickey’s address in 1956 about problems that Robinson faced as the first black player in the major leagues—and why he, Rickey, thought it so important that Robinson face them.

“Dr. May, gentlemen, — ladies and gentlemen. My plane doesn’t leave until tomorrow at 10:35 A.M. and I haven’t a thing to do between now and then but to talk if I get the chance, — and I feel like talking. […]

“Within the first month in Brooklyn, I approached what I considered the number one problem in the hiring of a negro in professional baseball in this country. Now that is a story and that could be a fairly long speech. Namely, ownership. Ownership must be in line with you, and I was at that time an employee, not at that time a part owner of the club. And when ownership was passed, then five other things presented themselves. This is not my speech. I am just giving you this as a preliminary. But I want to get out of the road of this thing, and have you say that, — well, I wish he had talked about that thing.

“The second thing was to find the right man as a player. I spent $25,000 in all the Caribbean countries, — in Puerto Rico, Cuba, — employed two scouts, one for an entire year in Mexico, to find that the greatest negro players were in our own country.

“Then I had to get the right man off the field. I couldn’t come with a man to break down a tradition that had in it centered and concentrated all the prejudices of a great many people north and south unless he was good. He must justify himself upon the positive principle of merit. He must be a great player. I must not risk an excuse of trying to do something in the sociological field, or in the race field, just because of sort of a “holier than thou.” I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time, and even now, is the wrong man off the field. It didn’t matter to me so much in choosing a man off the field that he was temperamental, — righteously subject to resentments. I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load. That was the greatest danger point of all. Really greater than the number five in the whole six. […]

“And sixth was the acceptance by his colleagues, — but his fellow players. And that one I could not handle in advance. The other five over a period of two and one-half years, I worked very hard on it. I felt that the time was ripe, that there wouldn’t be any reaction on the part of a great public if a man had superior skill, if he had intelligence and character and had patience and forbearance, and “could take it” as it was said here. I didn’t make a mistake there. I have made mistakes, lots of mistakes.

“A man of exceptional courage, and exceptional intelligence, a man of basically fine character, and he can thank his forbearers for a lot of it. He comes from the right sort of home, and I knew all this, and when somebody, somewhere, thinks in terms of a local athletic club not playing some other club because of the presence on the squad of a man of color. I am thinking that if an exhibition game were to be played in these parts against a team on whose squad was Jackie Robinson, — even leaving out all of the principle of fair play, all the elements of equality and citizenship, all the economic necessities connected with it, all the violations of the whole form and conceptions of our Government from its beginning up to now, — leave it all out of the picture, he would be depriving some of the citizens of his own community, some wonderful boys, from seeing an exhibition of skill and technique, and the great, beautiful, graciousness of a slide, the like of which they could not see from any other man in this country. And that’s not fair to a local constituency. […]

“Education is a slow process. It may solve it. It is inevitable that this thing comes to fruition. Too many forces are working fast. This so called little Robinson, – we call it the “Robinson Experiment,” – tremendous as it will be for Jackie to have so placed himself in relation not only to his own people in this country, but to his whole generation and to all America that he will leave the mark of fine sportsmanship and fine character. That is something that he must guard carefully. He has a responsibility there.

“Frank Tannenbaum, in his book on Slave and Citizen, – he is a professor of Latin American history in Columbia University, points out, – I think it is the bible on the subject – it really is. I’m not sure, I’m not sure that legislators ought to drive against a prominent and very antagonistic minority. I’m not sure that they should drive F.E.C. too fast too far. I’m not sure that the 18th Amendment might repeat itself. That you would have an organization of glued antagonisms that would be able to delay the solution of a problem that is now in my judgment fast being solved, and when you once gain an eminence you do not have to recede from it. The educational process is something.

“Four things, says Tannenbaum, is solving this question, with an unrealized rapidity. First, – proximity. Clay Hopper, Jackie’s first manager. I’ve never told it in public. I’ve never allowed it to be printed if I could help it, took me by the lapels of my coat as he sat there sweating in his underclothes watching a game over on the inside park at Daytona Beach. And this boy had made a great play in the fourth inning and I had remarked about it and the two of us sitting there together, and this boy coming from – I shouldn’t have given his name, – forget the name and I will tell you the story. I’ll deny that he ever said it. He took me by the front of my coat when in the seventh inning Jackie made one of those tremendous remarkable plays that very few people can make, – went toward first base, made a slide, stabbed the ball, came with it in his left hand glove and as he turned with the body control that’s almost inconceivable and cut off the runner at second base on a force play. I took Clay and I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “Did you ever see a play to beat it?”

“Now this fellow comes from Greenwood, Mississippi. And he would forgive me, I am sure, because of the magnificent way that he came through on it. He took me and shook me and his face that far from me and he said, “do you really think that a ‘nigger’ is a human being, Mr. Rickey?” That’s what he said. That’s what that fellow said. I have never answered him until this minute.

“And six months later he came into my office after the year at Montreal when he was this boy’s manager. He didn’t want him to be sent to him. And he said to me, “I want to take back what I said to you last spring.” He said, “I’m ashamed of it.” “Now,” he said, “you may have plans for him to be on your club,” – and he was, “but,” he said, “if you don’t have plans to have him on the Brooklyn club,” he said, “I would like to have him back in Montreal.” And then he told me that he was not only a great ball player good enough for Brooklyn, but he said that he was a fine gentleman. Proximity. Proximity, says Tannenbaum, will solve this thing if you can have enough of it. But that is a limited thing, you see.

Read Rickey’s entire address

Related: Check out our Martin Luther King Jr. e-book for more stories about the Civil Rights Movement and its heroes. 


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