Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jackie Robinson

Brooklyn, NY. Visited April 2011

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born Jan. 13, 1919 in Cairo, GA. His early life was in many ways quintessentially reflective of racial inequality and segregation in the early 20th century. He was born into a family of sharecroppers in the rural south, but his family moved to the city for a better life, settling in an impoverished part of Pasadena, California.

Jackie excelled in multiple scholastic sports, encouraged by his brother Mack, who won a silver medal in track and field in the 1936 Olympic Games. His own prodigious talents came fully into view as a collegiate athlete at UCLA, where he became the first athlete at the school to letter in four sports. His greatest achievement as a collegiate athlete was winning the 1940 NCAA championship in the long jump. At this time Robinson also met his future wife Rachel who was a nursing student at UCLA.

Jackie Robinson - running back for the
UCLA Bruins

While succeeding on the athletic field as a black man in a white world, Robinson had a strong internal sense of justice which would not let him take racial prejudice lightly. During his college years Jackie interceded for a black friend who was being arrested by white police officers. He too was arrested and received a two year suspended sentence for his involvement in the altercation.

After college Robinson played semi-pro football until being drafted into the army in 1942. Assigned to a segregated tank battalion he passed officer training school but never saw combat due to another racial confrontation. Riding a non-segregated military bus, Robinson refused the bus driver’s demand that he move to the back, and was subsequently arrested and underwent court martial for the action. By the time Jackie was acquitted of all charges related to the incident the war was effectively over and he was honorably discharged.

Stealing home.  Love this picture!
Following his discharge, Robinson signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Jackie didn’t realize that at the same time Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey was on a personal crusade to integrate Major League Baseball. Rickey, a devout Christian, had come to the conviction that to deny black ballplayers the opportunity to compete at a major league level was unjust. His logic: "Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game." Rickey was looking for a player whom he believed had both the talent and the character to withstand the extraordinary scrutiny and inevitable racial abuse he would take as a black man in a ‘white man’s world’. In Jackie Robinson he found that man.

Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers prior to the 1946 season. He spent his first year in the minor leagues, where he was well received in his home park in Montreal but regularly experienced racial derision on the road. Jackie was able to both withstand the withering discrimination of the minor leagues and succeed in the field, winning the league MVP award. He entered the Major Leagues in 1947 as the first black player in league history at the age of 28. Jackie Robinson was Rookie of the Year for 1947, hitting .297 and leading the league in stolen bases.

Statue of Jackie and his friend Pee Wee
Reese erected at Coney Island

As the man who broke the baseball color barrier, Jackie Robinson lived every game as the center of attention. To black America he was a symbol of hope in a society where race was a definer and limiter of opportunity. To many white players in the league (and some on his team), despite his proven skills, he had no place in the game. To a country still struggling to live out the ideals of its Constitution Jackie Robinson was a universal symbol of change – a cultural revolution that would never turn back. And Robinson willingly embraced the daunting role he was called to play. He played the game with singular excellence over a ten year career – was named an all star six times and league MVP in 1949. He led the Brooklyn Dodgers to a World Series championship in 1954 and finished his ten year career in 1956 with a .311 lifetime batting average. It is a testimony to Robinson’s national impact in crossing racial lines that in 1947 he was voted second most popular American, behind only Bing Crosby. In 1950, at the height of his career Jackie Robinson played himself in a full length Hollywood bio-picture.  You can check out the original trailer for The Jackie Robinson Story.

Jackie Robinson’s impact as a ballplayer proved to the baseball establishment that bringing black players into the league made competitive sense. This resulted in the most dramatic change in the history of the game. But it was his dignity, intelligent resolve and character in the almost impossible task of representing an entire race that elevated Jackie Robinson to symbol of racial change in this country.

Jackie Robinson at his induction to the Hall of Fame
with Branch Rickey and his wife Rachel

Robinson retired at the end of the 1956 season, having already made a deal to become vice president of Chock Full o Nuts coffee - the first black executive in a major American company. Within a year he was diagnosed with diabetes, an illness that would have a deteriorating impact on his post baseball life. Nevertheless these were extremely productive years for Robinson. Jackie became more than just a symbol of racial change, he used his stature as a sports legend to continue to break barriers. He became the first black ballplayer elected to the baseball Hall of Fame on his first year of eligibility in 1962 and the first black sports commentator on a major network in 1965. Robinson was active in the civil rights movement in the Sixties, participating in the March on Washington with Martin Luther King in 1963 and serving on the board of the NAACP for most of the decade. Independent regarding party affiliation, committed to racial equality but conservative in many of his ideals, Robinson was one of the few national figures in that era whose voice mattered across racial lines.

The diabetes and heart disease that increasingly sapped his vitality finally took his life and Jackie Robinson died October 24, 1972. He was only 53 years old. Robinson was buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn. This sprawling cemetery is an appropriate final resting place for Jackie Robinson not only because it is just a few miles east of the site of old Ebbets Field, but it holds many prominent New York civil rights figures from the past two centuries.

Jackie and Martin Luther King.  Click here for a short
excerpt from a documentary on Jackie Robinson the player and the man

Jackie is buried at a high point in the cemetery. I visited there when I was in Brooklyn with my friend David Sacks.  His grave is surrounded by hedges. As the accompanying picture below shows, his tombstone is covered by stones. I think I have found out why. In his eulogy of Robinson, the Reverend Jesse Jackson said the following,

"When Jackie took the field, something within us reminded us of our birthright to be free. And somebody without reminded us that it could be attained. There was strength and pride and power when the big rock hit the water, and concentric circles came forth and ripples of new possibility spread throughout the nation."

If you ever go there, bring a rock with you. We are a better country because of the ripples
of new possibility that came through the life impact of Jackie Robinson.

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