There is no argument that Jackie Robinson is the most beloved athlete in history. In a time when African Americans were barred from playing on white teams, Robinson broke the color line and helped end racial segregation in professional baseball. He ushered in a new era in the sports world.
As a farmer’s son from the South, Robinson didn’t have an easy time getting to the big leagues. He fought through segregation and discrimination on his way to the top. And when one man gave Robinson a chance, it changed history forever. This is how the legendary athlete came to be.
When Was Jackie Robinson Born?
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, to a farming family in Cairo, Georgia. As the youngest of Mallie and Jerry Robinson’s five children, he was named after the former president, who died 25 days before Robinson was born. He didn’t have an easy childhood.
A year after he was born, Robinson’s father abandoned the family. His mother then moved with her five children to Pasadena, California, where Mallie worked a series of odd jobs to support them. Pasadena was a fairly affluent suburb, but the Robinsons didn’t have much money.
He Was Excluded
Robinson and his friends in the small Black community were excluded from recreational activities. It almost caused him to stay away from sports, but that changed when Robinson enrolled at John Muir High School in 1935. His older brother Mack inspired him to pursue his interest in athletics.
Mack earned a silver medal in track and field at the 1936 Olympics, which pushed Robinson to work harder. He ultimately earned varsity letters in baseball, basketball, football, and track. He had a natural athletic prowess that amazed everyone, which helped him succeed in various sports. And he had a bright future.
He Broke Records
After graduating high school, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College for two years, where he continued to play all four sports. He didn’t know what his next move would be when tragedy struck his family. His older brother Frank suddenly died in a motorcycle accident, and Robinson wanted to honor his memory.
Robinson decided to enroll at UCLA in 1939 because he knew that’s what Frank would have wanted. At UCLA, he became the first Bruin to earn varsity letters in four sports. Robinson won the NCAA long jump championship during his second year. His time at school was special for other reasons.
He Dropped Out
During his senior year, Robinson met his future wife, Rachel Isum. She was a freshman who heard about Robinson’s athletic career. The two became close, but Robinson decided to leave school shortly before graduation, despite his mother and Isum’s reservations. Instead of finishing school, he got a job as an assistant athletic director.
Robinson worked for the government’s National Youth Administration, which wasn’t far from his family. The job ended not long after he started as the government ceased NYA operations. Therefore, Robinson moved to Honolulu in 1941 to play semi-professional football for a racially integrated team called the Bears.
The War Ended His Football Career
After a short season, Robinson returned to California at the end of 1941 to play as a running back for the Los Angeles Bulldogs. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US was drawn into World War II, and Robinson’s football dreams were over.
There was a nationwide draft, and Robinson was drafted into a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. He had the right qualifications, so Robinson and other Black soldiers applied for Officer Candidate School. The race-neutral program admitted only a few Black applicants.
He Got in Trouble
After being accepted into the OCS, Robinson was transferred from Kansas to Texas. During this time, he stayed close with Isum, and the two got engaged in 1943. It was an exciting time in his life, but he got in trouble for standing up for himself.
Robinson was court-martialed in 1944 after boarding a bus at Fort Hood in Texas. He refused to follow the driver’s orders to move to the back, as segregationist practices were still followed in the US. His commander refused to authorize the legal action, so the army transferred him.
They Added New Charges
When the army transferred him to a different battalion, Robinson’s new commander charged Robinson with multiple offenses, including public drunkenness, even though he didn’t drink. By the time of the court-martial, the charges were reduced to two counts of insubordination.
Luckily, he was acquitted by an all-white panel of nine officers. Robinson was then transferred to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky, where he served as a coach for army athletics until he received an honorable discharge in November 1944. His friend from the army then told him to pursue baseball.
Getting His Start in Baseball
His friend was a former player for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Black baseball league. He encouraged Robinson to write and ask for a tryout, so Robinson took his advice and wrote co-owner Thomas Baird. In the meantime, he took a basketball coaching job in Texas.
His letter worked because, in early 1945, the Monarchs wrote him an offer to play for the team. He accepted a contract for $400 a month. Although he played well, Robinson was frustrated with the experience. The league was disorganized, and Robinson was used to a structured environment.
Too Much Chaos
Robinson was unhappy with the chaos of the league. The hectic travel schedule placed a burden on his relationship with Isum, and he could only contact her by letter. However, Robinson played 47 games as a shortstop. He also played in the 1945 East-West All-Star Game, going hitless.
After one season, he was already growing tired of the conditions, so Robinson pursued potential major league interests. Unfortunately, no Black man had ever played in the major leagues. Still, the Boston Red Sox held a tryout for all races. But it didn’t go as planned.
The Tryout Wasn’t Serious
Robinson was excited at the opportunity to try out for a major league team. However, when he got to Fenway Park, he quickly realized that the tryout was designed to appease Boston City Councilman Isadore H. Y. Muchnick. He wanted to desegregate the team.
Although the stands were limited to management, Robinson was subjected to racial taunts and slurs. He felt humiliated after the tryout and turned off by the major league. More than 14 years later, the Red Sox were the last team in the MLB to desegregate their roster.
He Got Married
After the season with the Monarchs ended, Robinson and Isum tied the knot in 1946. They survived being apart when he was in the army and during his busy baseball season, so they wanted to get married while they had a chance.
A few months after their wedding, Robinson and Isum had their first son, Jackie Robinson Jr. The couple later had two more children: Sharon and David. Robinson tried to be the best dad despite his busy life because he didn’t want to be like his own father.
Some Teams Were More Progressive
While the Red Sox were stuck in their old ways, other teams were more serious about signing Black players. In the mid-1940s, Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, began to scout Black players from the other league.
Rickey saw Robinson as a promising player and interviewed him to offer him a spot on Brooklyn’s International League farm club, the Montreal Royals. Rickey wanted him to play for the farm club to prepare Robinson for the major league and the racial abuse that would come his way.
He Was Cautious
After his experience in the army and the Red Sox tryout, Robinson was nervous about meeting with Rickey. However, he agreed to sit down with him. In a famous three-hour exchange on August 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could take the racial abuse without reacting.
There were concerns about Robinson because of his prior arguments in the military and with law enforcement. Robinson asked Rickey if he was looking for someone afraid to fight back. Rickey said he needed someone who had “the guts” not to fight back.
He Signed a Contract
After Robinson agreed to “turn the other cheek” to the racial antagonism, Rickey signed him for $600 a month. He did not offer compensation to the Monarchs because he felt Black players were free agents as their contracts from the Black league didn’t have a reserve clause.
Robinson had to keep the arrangement a secret because he didn’t formally sign the contract. In October, the team publicly announced that Robinson would play for the Royals for the 1946 season. He officially signed with reps from the Royals and Dodgers present on the same day.
“The Noble Experiment”
Robinson was the first Black baseball player in the International League since the 1880s. They called it “The Noble Experiment” because he was the first one to move up and break the color barrier. He arrived in Daytona Beach, Florida, for spring training with the Royals.
Clay Hopper, manager of the Royals, asked Rickey to assign Robinson to any other Dodger affiliate because he didn’t want Robinson on the team. But Rickey refused because he didn’t want to put up with that attitude anymore. It was time for a change.
Spring Training Was a Challenge
Robinson’s spring training experience was filled with obstacles. His presence in racially segregated Florida caused controversy, and he was not allowed to stay with his white teammates in the hotel. Instead, he had to stay at the home of an African American couple.
The Dodgers didn’t own a spring training facility, so they had to use other local facilities. But several places refused to let them train because Robinson was on the team. The police chief in Sanford, Florida, even threatened to cancel games if Robinson didn’t stop training there.
As spring training continued, there were more obstacles. A stadium in Jacksonville padlocked the facility without warning because Robinson was going to play. After much lobbying, Rickey finally got the local authorities to allow the Royals to host a game involving Robinson.
Robinson made his minor league debut as the first Black player on March 17, 1946. His performance as shortstop was subpar, so he was shifted to second base. He quickly rebounded after the position switch because he could make shorter throws to first base.
An Impressive Season
During his season with the Royals, Robinson led the team to many wins. He ended up with four hits in his five trips to bat during the season opener. The catcher for the Jersey City Giants wanted the pitcher to hit Robinson with the ball, but the pitcher refused.
He faced some hostility while on the road, with the team canceling a southern exhibition tour. However, the Montreal fanbase enthusiastically embraced Robinson. He had a great season with the Royals and was named the league’s MVP, attracting a large audience at every game.
What Team Did Jackie Robinson Play For?
Robinson’s impressive performance both on and off the field earned him a call-up to the major leagues. The Brooklyn Dodgers offered him a spot just six days before the start of the season. On April 11, 1947, Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers, wearing number 42.
His presence on the field was greeted with plenty of attention, but it wasn’t all positive. As the first Black player in the major leagues, the color of his skin was an issue for opposing teams and fans. However, Robinson proved he belonged on the team.
He Brought in a New Demographic
Robinson faced racist taunts from fans and players at games. Even some of his teammates preferred to sit out rather than play with Robinson. The brewing mutiny ended when the team’s manager yelled at them and said they would be traded if they refused to play.
Robinson brought more to the Dodgers than just his talents. Over 26,000 fans were in attendance at their opening game, more than 14,000 of them were Black. African American fans flocked to see Robinson play and abandoned the all-Black league to see the Dodgers when they came to town.
Teams Threatened to Strike
It wasn’t just his teammates who threatened not to play. The St. Louis Cardinals planned to go on strike if Robinson played and wanted other teams to join the strike. The team doctor leaked the plan, and the news spread to national headlines.
The National League president Ford Frick and Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler announced that any striking players would be suspended. They were furious and stood up for Robinson, stating, “This is the United States of America, and one citizen has as much right to play as another.”
Rookie of the Year
The critics were silenced when they saw Robinson play. He earned the “Rookie of the Year” award in his first year with the Dodgers. He endured many hardships during the 1947 season but didn’t let it affect his games. Opponents were rough on him, especially the Cardinals.
The Philadelphia Phillies players and manager called Robinson the N-word and told him to “go back to the cotton fields.” Rickey said this united the Dodgers because they finally rallied around Robinson and came together as a team. They showed a united front at the games.
Robinson had a close friendship with Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians, the first Black player in the American League. The two broke the color barrier the same year and would call each other frequently to share their experiences with racism.
His teammate, Pee Wee Reese, was another person Robinson leaned on. Reese came to Robinson’s defense during the 1947 season when people made racist comments. He famously put his arm around Robinson, a gesture of friendship that wasn’t common for Robinson. The moment was immortalized in art, statues, and movies.
He Had an Incredible Record
Robinson played 151 games during his rookie season with a decent batting average and 125 runs. In one game against the Cardinals, Robinson did something known in the baseball world as a “hit for the cycle.” This meant he hit a home run, triple, double, and single in one game.
It was a major triumph for the baseball player because the Cardinals’ players were the hardest on him. They were the most racist, and Robinson showed them he deserved to be in the major leagues despite what they thought.
The Racial Pressure Eased
In 1948, racial pressure on Robinson finally eased when more Black players entered the major leagues. The Dodgers added three more Black players to the team. He signed a $12,500 contract (equal to $134,643 today) with the Dodgers but made more in the off-season.
Robinson went on a vaudeville tour in between seasons, where he answered pre-set baseball questions. He also did a speaking tour in the South. Robinson used his free time to have surgery on his right ankle after an injury from the season.
He Needed Help
Due to his surgery, Robinson reported to training camp 30 pounds overweight. He lost the weight, but dieting left him weak at the plate. In 1949, Robinson turned to George Sisler for batting help. He wanted to improve his batting average, so he spent hours at the batting tee.
Sisler taught Robinson to anticipate a fastball and how to hit to right field. The training with Sisler helped Robinson improve his batting average from .296 to .342 in 1949. He also stole 37 bases and scored 122 runs.
Robinson was an All-Star six times in his career, beginning in 1949. It was the first All-Star game to include Black players. In that same year, Robinson earned the MVP title for the National League. Buddy Johnson also released the song, “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?”
The Dodgers won the National League pennant during the season but lost to the Yankees in the 1949 World Series. It was a huge year for Robinson, but the summer of 1949 brought a major distraction for the player.
He Had to Testify
In July 1949, Robinson was called to testify before the United States House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Robinson was subpoenaed to denounce prominent African American actor and athlete Paul Robeson because he was a supporter of controversial world leaders during the “Red Scare.”
Initially, Robinson was hesitant to testify against another African American figure but gave in because he feared not doing so would hurt his career. Robinson’s testimony was restrained, saying Robeson was entitled to his views even if he sounded “silly” expressing them in public.
“A Double Play for the Ages”
Reporters sensed that Robinson and Robeson were allies because they refused to attack each other in statements. They called it a “double play for the ages” because no one could tell if they supported each other or not. Robinson also questioned HUAC for not calling other people to testify.
Robinson was uncomfortable about the whole thing. Even though he had different views from Robeson, he didn’t want to put down another Black man at a time when they needed each other. Robinson ultimately regretted the testimony.
Making the Big Bucks
In 1950, Robinson was the highest-paid player on the Dodgers, making the most anyone had ever been paid. It was another strong season for him; he finished the year with 99 runs, a .328 batting average, and 12 stolen bases. He also starred in a movie.
The year also saw the release of the film biography about Robinson’s life, The Jackie Robinson Story. Robinson played himself, and Ruby Dee played his wife Rachel. The project had delays because two studios were upset about scenes showing Robinson being coached by a white man.
His Supporter Left the Team
Dodgers’ co-owner, Walter O’Malley, was not happy about Robinson’s Hollywood exploits. The tensions were raised when Rickey’s contract as the Dodgers’ president expired. Rickey didn’t try to renew his contract because of disagreements with O’Malley and left the team behind.
Rickey was the first person to give Robinson a real chance and his biggest advocate. Rickey was like a father figure to him and he was disappointed by the turn of events. When Robinson found out about Rickey’s departure, he wrote him a sympathetic letter thanking him for what he did.
It Didn’t Affect His Game
After Rickey left, O’Malley reportedly offered Robinson a manager job at the Montreal Royals when he decided to retire. However, reports differ about whether the job was ever formally offered. Over the next few seasons, Robinson kept pushing to be better even though Rickey was gone.
In 1951, he led the National League in double plays made by a second baseman for the second year. In the following season, Robinson had a particularly average year. Meanwhile, Robinson was outspoken about racial issues, challenging the Yankees’ manager about the team’s racial record.
It Never Got Easier
Even as the years went on and times were changing, Robinson always had issues with racism. Sportswriter Dick Young, whom Robinson called a “bigot,” said everything bad that happened to Robinson was because of his skin color. It was horrible to read these statements.
Robinson tried to ignore that comments and advocated for people like him. While he was dealing with the hate, the 1952 season became his last season as a regular starting second baseman. He then started playing various positions in the infield and outfield.
His Interests Shifted
Although he was still playing, Robinson looked toward the future and wanted to become a major league manager. He hoped to gain experience by managing in the Puerto Rico Winter League, but the MLB commissioner denied his request. So, he found other passions off the field.
While he led the Dodgers to the World Series (losing to the Yankees), Robinson’s continued success caused him to get more death threats. But this didn’t turn him away from addressing racial issues in public. He became the editor for Our Sports magazine, focusing on Black sports issues.
He Started to Decline
During the 1954 season, Robinson’s career started to decline. He had lower records, but that didn’t stop him from helping the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series. It was his only championship during his major league career. Robinson also missed many games.
The 1955 season was the worst in his career, and he missed 49 games. Another player took over his second base position. Robinson continued to decline during his final season as the effects of his diabetes started to kick in. He also lost interest in becoming a team manager.
Robinson ended his major league career when he struck out in Game 7 of the 1956 World Series. The Dodgers planned to trade Robinson to the New York Giants for another player, but it never went through because Robinson agreed to quit baseball and become an executive at Chock Full O’Nuts.
He hadn’t shared this news with the Dodgers and previously sold the rights to his retirement story to Look magazine two years earlier. In 1956, Robinson announced his retirement through the magazine instead of the Dodgers organization.
In 1957, Robinson became the first Black vice president of a major American corporation. From 1957 to 1964, Robinson served as the vice president of personnel for Chock Full O’Nuts coffee. However, he suffered from many health issues.
He complained about several physical ailments and was diagnosed with diabetes. Robinson started injecting insulin, but there was no way to prevent his physical deterioration at the time. It didn’t stop him from continuing his activism as a civil rights supporter.
Who Was Jackie Robinson?
After making incredible strides to end segregation in the sports world and becoming the first major league African American player, Robinson left an incredible legacy once he retired. In 1962, he became the first Black player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Robinson considered his time on the field and in the business world as advancing the cause of Black people. It was an issue he spoke about until the very end of his life. Even after his retirement, he protested against the major leagues’ ongoing lack of minority managers and central personnel.
He Lost His Son
Robinson’s eldest son, Jackie Robinson Jr., had emotional troubles during his childhood. His parents sent him to a special education school, and he later enrolled in the Army to have a structured environment. After Robinson Jr. was wounded in Vietnam, he struggled with drug addiction.
Robinson got his son help for his addictions, and Robinson Jr. later became a counselor at the rehab facility. Sadly, as he turned his life around, Robinson Jr. was killed on June 17, 1971, in a car accident. He was only 24. It broke his family’s heart, and Robinson didn’t outlive him much longer.
When Did Jackie Robinson Die?
On October 24, 1972, Robinson died at just 53-years-old. In his later years, he dealt with complications from heart disease and diabetes, which made him almost blind by middle age. The loss of the baseball legend attracted 2,500 mourners to his funeral.
Many of his former teammates served as pallbearers, and Rev. Jesse Jackson gave a eulogy. After the service, tens of thousands of people lined the procession route to Robinson’s final resting place at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. It was a sad day for everyone.
How Did Jackie Robinson Die?
Ultimately, Robinson passed away from a heart attack at his Connecticut home. He had many health issues in the later years after his retirement. Robinson was buried next to his son Robinson Jr. and his mother-in-law. Robinson’s memory has lived on in many ways.
In 1972, the Dodgers retired Robinson’s number (42), and the Interborough Parkway was renamed the Jackie Robinson Parkway in his memory. His wife also started the Jackie Robinson Foundation, where Isum remains an officer there to this day. No one will forget him.
His Legacy Lives On
Long after his death, Robinson remains the most beloved athlete in history. In 1999, Time included him in the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. There is also a memorial dedicated to Robinson at Citi Field, where a large “42” statue sits in the lobby.
In Pasadena, where Robinson grew up, there is a field named after him next to the Rose Bowl. The city also created the Jackie Robinson Center, a community outreach facility providing health services. The National and American League Rookie of the Year awards were renamed after him.
In 2013, director Brian Helgeland released the film 42 about Robinson’s life. Starring late actor Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the movie received positive critical reviews, with one calling it an inspirational story about a vital chapter in American history.
Robinson’s wife was involved in the production and praised the end result. She said, “It was important to me because I wanted it to be an authentic piece. I wanted to get it right.” She made sure her late husband was portrayed in the right way, and felt it was authentic.
Box Office Hit
If Robinson were alive to see it, he probably would have been impressed with 42 because it was a powerful story. While some small details of his life were changed for the film, it was an accurate depiction of the legendary baseball player.
The film grossed $97.5 million, which was a lot for a baseball-themed film. After Boseman’s death in August 2020, several theater chains re-released this film to honor the late actor. Although the film didn’t win any awards, 42 shows the impact Robinson left on the world.