It’s been 75 years, but the details have been told and re-told so often since that they are fresh. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball and played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, enduring racist abuse and fighting through bias to forever change the game and the country. Hitting second, his game that day was actually fairly unremarkable: in his 3 ABs, he grounded out to third first, then hit a fly ball into left, and grounded into a double play (though in his fourth plate appearance, he reached on an error through a sacrifice bunt and later scored the go-ahead run). Nevertheless, Robinson on that day forever changed the game, and even if the newspapers later downplayed his debut, he was supported in the stands by a crowd where half of the fans were Black, and where some even wore “I’m Rooting for Jackie Robinson” buttons.
Jackie Robinson, the Civil Rights Activist
Robinson went on to have a magnificent career, and spoke out clearly against the racist abuse he and the African American community in the United States received. Robinson, particularly in his first few years, was known for his restraint and grace in the face of bias, a fact immortalized in the movie 42. However, a common misconception now is that he was only ever restrained and graceful, turning the other cheek. In fact, it was quite the opposite: he was more naturally defiant, as described in his autobiography, and taking the racist abuse without retort turned his hair gray early and often made him sick.
In 1949, after Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey told him that he no longer needed to restrain himself, Robinson became quicker to speak up about injustice. Unsurprisingly, fans and writers turned on him, with The Sporting News—a publication that still exists today—calling him a “chronic griper,” and Sport Magazine calling him “combative” and a “troublemaker” in 1953. Robinson, however, did not stop speaking out against injustice and for civil rights, and went on to serve on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); raised money for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); founded the Freedom National Bank to serve African Americans in Harlem who struggled to receive loans; and consistently spoke out about baseball’s failure to live up to its promises of racial equity. In fact, he provided a blueprint for Black athletes today who endure racist abuse for their decisions regarding the flag and the anthem: in his 1972 autobiography, he wrote: “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Racial Equity in Major League Baseball Stalled
Today, in 2022, as MLB is set to honor Robinson through the wearing of his number by all players and through various events in different cities, its track record on racial equity is startlingly jagged. Black players in baseball make up approximately eight percent of major league players, down from approximately twenty percent in the 1970s (I highly recommend reading the profiles in The Nine project from the Washington Post, highlighting nine Black baseball players, for a fuller picture of why). Robinson in particular was critical of the lack of Black managers and coaches. Ahead of Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, he told the crowd: “I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud if I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”
Today, there are only two Black managers in baseball: Dave Roberts of the Dodgers, and Dusty Baker of the Astros. Baker, who served as the Nationals’ manager in 2016 and 2017, has in recent years spoken out about the lack of Black managers. In 2019, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that he “saw this coming, with the decline in African American players. I’ve lived long enough to see tends, and this is a very dangerous trend. Everybody talks about it, but who’s doing anything about it?” He also said that, “It’s almost like if you’re African American, unless you win it all, then you’re considered a failure.” Baker was fired by the Nationals in 2017 after a 95-win season and a 97-win season.
Podcast, Movie, Museum, and Book Recommendations to Learn More
If you want to learn more about Jackie Robinson, his career, and his activism, or if you find yourself slightly cynical of MLB’s commemoration and want to turn to other sources, I have compiled a few recommendations below (that aren’t the incredible movie 42—it’s excellent, but I assume we’ve all watched that one already) to learn more about him.
“Why Jackie?” Parts 1 and 2. Black Diamonds Podcast: This podcast, jointly produced by SiriusXM and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (and hosted by museum president Bob Kendrick), dives into Robinson’s history with the Negro Leagues and how he was eventually selected for the Dodgers. I’m working my way through the second episode now and I really enjoy it—I’m looking forward to diving into the rest of the pod too (unrelatedly, Kendrick speaks with Josh Bell about the Homestead Grays in another episode).
The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). This biographical film stars Jackie Robinson as himself and depicts the struggles he went through in becoming the first Black player in major league baseball. While much of the material and events covered was later dramatized in the film 42, there is something incredibly special about watching Robinson himself act out what happened—particularly because, at the time of the movie’s release in 1950, Jim Crow laws were still in effect across the nation, and segregation was the norm. The movie, which runs approximately one hour and fifteen minutes, is in the public domain and available on Youtube.
Visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture to see Robinson artifacts. If you’re in DC or the DMV, take the chance this month to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, located on the mall and opened in 2016. Beyond being, in my opinion, the most incredible, sobering, and important Smithsonian museum, it is worth the trip this month in particular because the museum will display Robinson’s jersey in the third-floor “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field” exhibit. The jersey is game-worn (one of only five remaining) and from the 1951 season. The permanent museum includes a section on Robinson (including a life-size statute of him) and Black baseball players as well, so even if you can’t make it in April, it is worth a trip if you would like to learn more about Robinson.
I Never Had It Made By Jackie Robinson and Alfred Duckett (1972). Published in the year Robinson died, this autobiography chronicles Robinson’s path to baseball, including his time in college, his time in the Army, and his time with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. He also describes his time with the Dodgers and his political activism after leaving baseball. Copies are available through the DC Public Library as well as through major online retailers (though I would recommend shopping local and giving places like Capitol Hill Books and Second Story Books a try first!).