American icons often come from unassuming backgrounds, and Jackie Robinson was no different. Born in 1919 to a family of Georgia sharecroppers, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was the youngest of a five children. After his father left the family in 1920, the Robinson family moved to Pasadena, California to live with relatives. The Robinsons were the only black family in the neighborhood. Robinson would grow close to his brothers as he grew up, and they all excelled in athletics. Mack Robinson was a silver medalist at the 1936 Olympics, and an accomplished baseball player, along with his brother Frank. Both saw talent in the younger Jackie and encouraged him to take up baseball. At the predominately white John Muir High School, Jackie lettered in football, baseball, track and basketball, and was a junior tennis champion. Robinson went on to attend Pasadena City College, but before graduation, his brother, Frank, was killed in a motorcycle accident. Jackie was especially close to Frank, and he would care for Frank’s family for the rest of his life.
After Pasadena, Jackie enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles. For the UCLA Bruins, Jackie continued his athletic streak, becoming among the school’s first black football players. He needed money though, and Robinson had leave before graduating, taking a job with the government’s National Youth Administration, and then playing for Honolulu’s semi-professional racially integrated football team. After the season was over, Jackie was on his way back to California when he was drafted into the US Army. Pearl Harbour had been attacked, and America was now involved in World War II. Robinson was accepted into officer training, but he and many other black soldiers had their applications ‘delayed’. Jackie eventually graduated from Officer Candidate School as a Junior Lieutenant, but was court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of an Army bus. At the time, Army bus lines were racially integrated, and Robinson’s commander refused to have Jackie charged. The charges were eventually dropped.
The court-martial meant that Robinson was detained when his unit was deployed to Europe, and he never saw action. However, while serving in Kentucky after his acquittal, an ex-player from baseball’s Negro Leagues said that Jackie ought to consider trying out for a professional baseball team. After his discharge, Jackie accepted a job as athletics director at Sam Huston College in Texas, and wrote to the owner of the Negro American League’s Kansas City Monarchs about trying out for the team. Monarchs owner Thomas Baird replied by sending the 26-year old Robinson an offer to be the Monarchs’s new shortstop. Jackie only played for the Monarchs for one year, but was an All-Star and League MVP for that year. By this time, many major league baseball teams were already scouting the Negro Leagues for talent.
Boston Red Sox officials were pressured by local politicians to hold tryouts for black players, and in 1945, Robinson and some other black players were asked to come to Boston for a tryout. The tryout was a sham, and Red Sox management poured verbal abuse on the black players. Jackie left Fenway Park furious. Boston’s loss would be Brooklyn’s gain however, as the Dodgers had missed the playoffs for five consecutive seasons, and were serious about signing a top black player. Dodger owner Branch Rickey interviewed several of the Negro League’s top players, and spoke with Jackie for over three hours. Branch wanted to know what Jackie would do if he was confronted with racism. Jackie asked Branch, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” “I’m looking for a Negro with guts enough not to fight back.”
Rickey signed Robinson to a secret developmental contract, and sent him to the Dodger’s developmental team, the Montreal Royals of the International League. During the offseason, Robinson married his sweetheart from UCLA, and prepared for spring training with the Royals in Florida. In Florida, hotels refused to lodge him, and previously-friendly stadiums were closed to the Royals. Despite these troubles, when they returned to Montreal, Robinson led the league in batting and fielding, and was voted MVP of the International League. With Robinson, the Montreal Royals broke league records for attendance, and the fans in Montreal embraced their new star player. After winning the International League Championship, Robinson was mobbed by a crowd of cheering Montrealers. The next year, the Brooklyn Dodgers called Jackie Robinson up to the major league.
On April 15th, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers started with Jackie Robinson in the lineup. Over twenty-five-thousand fans flocked to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to watch Robinson play that day. Dodger players were skeptical at first, but Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher took the locker room head on “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded”. The entire team quickly fell into line, and supported Jackie in the face of the racism of opposing teams and fans.
Despite the hate he encountered, Robinson had an exceptional season, and was declared the League’s Rookie of the Year. He was considered the most exciting player the Dodgers had, and most popular athlete in the country. His footspeed was incredible, and he possessed a quick mind and sharp eye that allowed him to lead the league with 29 stolen bases. He embarked on a speaking career during the offseason while rival teams rushed to sign their own black players, trying to copy the Dodgers’ success. After an erratic 1948 season, the Dodgers asked retired Hall of Famer George Sisler to improve Jackie’s batting. Sisler’s work with Robinson greatly improved his hitting, and in 1949, Jackie was the first black MVP, and the first black player voted into Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.
In ten seasons in Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson was a six-time All-Star, and with him at bat, the Dodgers were a consistent contender for the World Series, playing in six of them. In 1955, the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees and Robinson won his only World Series. However, Robinson was starting to get weak at the plate, and his game was slowing down. Dodger management was also beginning to have disagreements with their top player. Branch Rickey, who Robinson looked up to, had been let go and the new ownership was arranging a blockbuster trade to the New York Giants for the 1957 season. Before the trade could go through, Robinson announced his retirement from baseball.
In 1962, Robinson was eligible for admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Jackie asked voters to consider only his talent, and not his role in breaking the color barrier. He was voted in by over 75% of the ballot. Baseball writers have acclaimed him as one of the best fielders of all time, leading the league in fielding in 1950 and 1951. Jackie was a dangerous base runner throughout his career, and many critics regard Jackie as the founder of modern base-stealing. Throughout his career, Robinson was also a consistent scoring threat, averaging over 100 runs per season. The Dodgers (now based in Los Angeles) retired his number in 1972, and Jackie threw the ceremonial first pitch of Game 2 of that year’s World Series. Twelve days later, on October 24th, 1972, Jackie Robinson suffered a fatal heart attack. Robinson was buried in Brooklyn, and in 1997, Jackie’s number 42 was retired across the league. Robinson’s role in breaking down color barriers throughout America and for lasting contributions to the game of baseball, make Jackie Robinson a true American icon.