By Lenny Moon
The history books tell us that back in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers led by team executive Branch Rickey, rolled the dice and comprised the experiment that led to Jack Roosevelt Robinson to become the first Black to integrate Major League Baseball. Nearly 76 years removed from that historic event, this may not seem like such a big deal to one who chooses to only glance at this occurrence. But for those who owned citizenship in America or chose to look a bit deeper into why this was a “big deal”, it becomes clearer that this was so much more than just a sports story. Leading up to and including 1947, America was an extremely unstable reality for citizens of color. The bundle of the basic symbols of citizenship ( Civil Rights Act-1964, Voting Rights Act-1965 and Fair Housing Act-1968) were nearly two decades away. During this era it typically was the entertainment or sports arena that was accepted by the so-called mainstream if one derived from the minority community. Even at that, the sports arena was still reluctant to comply in that athletes were revered as heroes that even kids looked up to which placed a different spin on the topic.
There was a tremendous amount of pressure on Robinson to not only succeed on the diamond, but to not retaliate to the hostility that he agreed to endure as a condition for him to be selected for the experiment. He literally carried the weight of his entire race on his shoulders (along with future MLB prospects) to prove to the establishment that created the barriers that given an opportunity Blacks could positively impact “America’s Pastime”. Like so many others from my era, the discussion of Robinson’s case was commonplace. With so few national African American role models that effectively penetrated the fortified wall of exclusion, Jackie represented what can happen when opportunities afford themselves to people of color in this country. He created hope that parents passed down to their kids that this accomplishment was something tangible to build upon. This was a sign that second class citizenship had an opportunity to become a thing of the past moving forward. When one is perceived to be less than a total person in the nation which their labor significantly help to construct then hope is latched onto tightly wherever it surfaces. This was the environment in the USA during the 40s in which Jackie had to find a method to navigate.
It’s important to reference that the period of time that’s we’re speaking of is the forties in the United States of America. That has to be established to begin to process how difficult of a task Mr Robinson was facing to become the barrier-breaker that he was determined to attain. Jackie’s, (born in 1919) grandparents were actually slaves. His mother fled Georgia, carrying Jackie and his four siblings to Pasadena, Ca when he was barely a year old. It was his stint at local college UCLA where Robinson would explode on the athletic scene where he lettered in four sports (football, basketball, track and baseball) after spending his first two collegiate years at Pasadena Jr College. It was there where he initially crossed paths with his future wife Rachel, also a student at the Westwood area university. This union would prove critical down the road in the history that she so aptly assisted him in creating. The dichotomy associated with Jackie is that he was polar opposite of the role he accepted to become the game’s first ever Black player in the league. Rachel was quoted as saying that Jackie would often wear white starched shirts to illuminate his dark Black skin symbolic of the pride in which he wore his Blackness. He was honorably discharged from the Army as a second lieutenant for aggressively dealing with a race-related conflict during the World War II era. He and Rachel were married just before his minor league tour of duty commenced, where she provided a support system during his pre-Dodgers games and especially while decompressing at home. After a socially turbulent yet successful minor league prelude, it was time for the majors on April 15 1947.
Once Jackie arrived in Brooklyn as a bonafide member of Dodgers, now the real litmus test would transpire. To his credit, Rachel was able to attend all home games as a stabilizing component at New York’s Ebbets Field but his own teammates were not as welcoming. There was a serious boycott by his mates that if management went forward with elevating a Black to their level, they would not suit up. Several asked to be traded rather than to be a teammate with a Black man. This opposition was led by their star outfielder “Dixie” Walker, a gentleman from Leeds, Alabama (Charles Barkley hometown) who eventually relaxed his position. Another teammate named Kirby Higbee stated that he developed his pitching arm by throwing rocks at Negroes while he was a kid. There was a threat by a number of the National League clubs that they would not take the field if the Dodgers had a Black on the field with them. During this era, it was estimated that approximately 33% of all major leaguers were from the South. Needless to say that was not a healthy ratio for incorporating desegregation. Above and beyond that, even the Brooklyn fans threatened to withdraw their support, not so much pertaining to Jackie but reluctant to share their stadium with the vastly anticipated Black patrons. Before he could play his first home game, Robinson was instructed to “talk to his people” as he addressed local civic clubs, churches and the like to not disrupt the environment for others. Even Brooklyn’s famed announcer Red Barber, a native of the deep South had to be brought in to be counseled about not allowing his native culture inadvertently articulated over the air. And this was the friendly fire. When Philadelphia made their first trip to Brooklyn to face the newly integrated Dodgers, their manager Ben Chapman reportedly shouted out to Jackie “shouldn’t you be picking cotton” and ‘hey boy, come and shine my shoes”. Needless to say, this transition by MLB did not come about without it’s share of drama. Those are just small samples of the adversity Jackie was willing to sacrifice for America, by turning the other cheek for a cause that was much larger than any single person. Even Dr Martin L. King indicated his inspiration exhibited by the Robinsons that predated his legendary treks that would began in the 50s with the Rosa Parks-Montgomery Bus Boycott issue a few years later.
After withstanding extreme hatred which included being spiked by sliding opponents and having frequent pitches thrown at his head, unfortunately was equivalent to a day at the office for the Pasadena, Ca native. Hearing a constant flow of racist epithets by opposing players and fans, and even having a black cat thrown on the field in his direction at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field were some of the tactics resistors attempted to throw his game off. At the end of the day, Robinson would go on to earn National League Rookie of the Year and leading his team to the World Series in 1947 vs crosstown rival Yankees. Under intense pressure, he led the Dodgers in runs, total bases, doubles, home runs, lead the N.L in steals while hitting just under .300. He was classified as the most famous Black person in America. It didn’t stop there, as he was ranked as the second most famous American across the board trailing only singer Bing Crosby and finishing ahead of Frank Sinatra, former first lady Elanor Roosevelt and General Dwight Eisenhower. Without question, this “experiment” was significantly more than a sports story.