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Jackie Robinson: A Lasting Legacy

Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers

75 years ago this spring, Jackie Robinson was the right man for a key moment in our nation’s history

Jackie Robinson’s grave sits under a tree, nestled among hedges, at the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. The tree branches hang over it, and on a windy Sunday morning last December, sun streamed through them onto the many tokens that sat on or near the final resting spot of perhaps the most important man in baseball history.

There were a handful of bats, including one with “Thank you” scrawled as part of a written message. There were dozens of baseballs, some so old they no longer had covers, but plenty that were newer. One, which had rolled underneath a hedge, had “Brooklyn” written on it. American flags had been placed near the grave; so had a rose. Rocks and pennies had been put on the headstone, which is inscribed with one of the most famous lines Robinson ever uttered:

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Robinson has been dead since 1972, but he still resonates in hearts and minds. Perhaps the scene at his gravesite in a cemetery that, by one route, is reachable via the Jackie Robinson Parkway, serves as a reminder of that.

The year 2022 will provide plenty more. It is the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, on April 15, 1947, a historic day in which he broke Major League Baseball’s shameful color barrier. He’s been recognized before, of course, many times. His No. 42 jersey was retired throughout the sport in 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his debut, and April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day each season in baseball.

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This year, Major League Baseball is planning commemorations alongside Robinson’s family and the Jackie Robinson Foundation. The Baseball Hall of Fame will have special programming, both in Cooperstown at the museum and virtually, on Robinson and integration. And the anniversary will be celebrated outside the game as well, fitting for a man who was a star in the civil rights movement — his debut came 17 years before the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act — as well as in baseball.

In July, the Jackie Robinson Museum will open in New York City. That same month, Robinson’s widow, Rachel, his partner in all that he faced as a pioneer, turns 100.

All of it comes against the backdrop of America’s ongoing reckoning with social justice and inequality. We’ll hear plenty about Robinson’s bravery, the racism he endured, his incredible talent, daring and drive on the ball field and his impact on his sport and his world. The celebrations might even serve to remind present-day society of how much work still remains to be done.

“We like to think a major segment of the world will recognize this as not just the anniversary of the integration of baseball, but of a social movement in this country,” says Della Britton, the president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. “Baseball was the American pastime in 1947. It isn’t lost on historians and people who follow social justice movements. It’s a lasting legacy. It stands the test of time.

“I think we’re at a point in our history of the United States where these issues are coming to a head — racial inequality, social justice.”

After his playing career, Britton notes, Robinson co-founded the Freedom National Bank of Harlem at a time when “banks weren’t loaning to the black community.

“He was at the vanguard of economic empowerment,” she says. “He was a pioneering executive, the first officer-level executive at Chock full o’Nuts. He started a housing development company because there was inequality. And through all of this, he kept a basic sense of humanity. He said, ‘The most important issue of our time is the right of every American to first-class citizenship.’ That was said in 1957.

“And it’s a mission you might say we haven’t fulfilled.”

In his debut, Robinson started at first base for the Dodgers in a 5–3 victory over the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. Batting second, he went 0-for-3 with a run scored and a sacrifice, the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. Two days later, he got his first hit, a bunt single off Glenn Elliott of the Braves. A day after that, he hit his first career home run, a drive to left at the Polo Grounds off Dave Koslo of the New York Giants. On June 11, he had raised his batting average to .301, and he flirted with that mark — still a key stat in those days — all year, finishing at .297.

Robinson clearly belonged, which was vital to baseball’s integration. Had he been an early failure, it would have been an enormous blow to whatever progress baseball had made, which was already slow. Not every team immediately signed black players after Robinson, despite big-name stars thriving in the Negro Leagues. Cleveland’s Larry Doby broke the American League color barrier a few months after Robinson’s debut, but the Boston Red Sox, the last team to integrate, didn’t have a black player until Pumpsie Green in 1959, 12 years after Robinson.

Robinson, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of former slaves, was born in Cairo, Ga., in 1919 but grew up in Pasadena, Calif., and gained acclaim as a four-sport star at UCLA and a potential track and field Olympian in the long jump. Of all the sports — he played football and basketball as well — baseball was his worst.

But his baseball résumé is dazzling, and he did it all while playing against and in front of some folks who didn’t want him, or any other African American player, around. Some opponents threatened that they’d strike instead of playing against Robinson. There were teammates who felt the same way, too. Dixie Walker started a petition against Robinson, which was repudiated by teammates such as Gil Hodges and Pee Wee Reese, two great supporters of Robinson. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who signed Robinson, squashed the protest, and Walker was traded after the season.

All that swirled around him makes what Robinson accomplished on the field even more impressive.

“It was hard to make the big leagues,” says 95-year-old Carl Erskine, who was Robinson’s teammate on the Dodgers from 1948-56. “But it was harder to stay there. It was survival, and your top priority was to stay in the big leagues.

“But there was no question, watching a teammate go through what he did, you couldn’t help but admire his guts and his consistency. It won ballgames for us, so we all benefited from Jackie’s efforts.”

Robinson starred for the Dodgers from 1947-56, helped them to their only Brooklyn World Series title in 1955 and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

In his first year, he won the first-ever Rookie of the Year Award after stealing an NL-best 29 bases and also notching a .383 on-base percentage. In 1987, the 40th anniversary of his debut, the award was named after him.

In 1949, Robinson soared to even greater heights, winning the NL batting title (.342), leading MLB with 37 steals and also recording 124 RBIs, 122 runs and 203 hits, including 16 home runs. He was named NL MVP that year.

Robinson, a six-time All-Star, finished with a career slash line of .313/.410/.477. His on-base percentage is 38th all time. He stole 200 career bases and was a versatile defensive player who played at least 150 games at four different positions — second base, third base, first base and left field.

Who knows what else he would have accomplished had he played his first MLB game at a younger age? Robinson, who had been in the military and played one season in the Negro Leagues and the minors, was 28 when he debuted.

And Robinson excelled at something perhaps not measurable by any metric: thrills. He spread chaos on the bases and was a bold threat in an era when teams did not run with abandon. He could bait fielders with a wide turn around first and then bolt for second when they threw behind him.

All these years later, Erskine still sounds amazed by Robinson’s quickness, his ability to astonish. “I don’t think anything’s been exaggerated about Jackie,” Erskine says.

“There’s a difference between being fast and quick. Jackie’s asset was how quick he was. He was in full stride at a step-and-a-
half. … He was such a distraction to pitchers. He put a lot of pressure on them.

“Players don’t steal home anymore now, but he stole home 19 times. And when he was on third base, he’d fake a lot, fake like he’s going to go. And then he would go. It’s a daring play, a dangerous play. The hitter is in the box, the catcher’s there, you’re sliding in. There’s contact. But he could do it. He wasn’t afraid.”

Robinson’s most famous dash to the plate perhaps came in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, the Fall Classic that Dem Bums finally won. With two outs in the eighth inning and the Dodgers trailing the Yankees by two runs, Robinson stole home. It was a close play, but plate umpire Bill Summers ruled that Robinson had snuck under Yogi Berra’s tag.

Berra was apoplectic and immediately argued, but to no avail. He wasn’t even soothed by the Yankees’ eventual Game 1 win, disputing the call for years afterward. “Yogi always swore he was out,” Erskine says. “I’d see Yogi at a baseball function. He didn’t say, ‘Hi, Carl.’ He’d say, ‘Jackie was out!’”

Another electric play was Robinson in a rundown. “You’re not supposed to throw the ball that much in a rundown, but he was so quick he’d make them throw the ball a bunch,” Erskine says. “He’d make big leaguers look like Little Leaguers on that play.”

“There’s no question he was an intense player,” Erskine adds. “Duke Snider was my roommate, and his locker was close to Jackie’s. Mine was across the clubhouse. Duke said to me, ‘Come over to my locker. Look at Jackie’s game face. I want you to see a real game face.’ I went over and, sure enough, Jackie did. There was no kidding around. You admired that in a player, your teammate.”

Robinson was fierce, sure, and often described as a natural-born fighter. But it was another quality that helped him in his role as a pioneer — his ability not to react when baited. Racist catcalls from the stands or opposing dugouts, plus the workaday indignities that African Americans endured then, were a part of daily life. Robinson was strong enough not to respond, something Rickey believed was crucial. If Robinson could not weather the venom, the experiment would have failed.

“Branch implored him to, not turn the other cheek so much, but keep a calm demeanor in the midst of the vitriol shown toward him,” Britton says. “That’s a theme that seems to have worked in social justice movements. In celebrations of Jackie, light will be shown on that.”

Robinson had an “intellect and a calmness to know the moment,” says Fred Claire, the former Dodgers executive. Claire saw it firsthand in 1972 when the Dodgers retired Robinson’s No. 42 jersey the same day they retired the jerseys of Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax.

An autograph seeker, Claire recalled, threw a ball from the stands toward Robinson while shouting for him to sign it. Robinson, in poor health at the time, did not see it coming, Claire says. “It hit him in the shoulder and everyone went crazy — ‘Get that guy, throw him out of the park!’ Jackie said, ‘Calm down. Give me a pen.’ He signed it and said, ‘Give it back to the gentleman.’”

Robinson’s deft handling of the incident has always stuck with Claire. “That’s clearly what Mr. Rickey had seen,” Claire says.

Still, it could not have been easy for Robinson, on or off the field. Gil Hodges Jr., the son of the former Brooklyn first baseman who had a close relationship with Robinson, recalled his mother, Joan, going grocery shopping for the Robinsons when the Dodgers were training in Florida. In those Jim Crow days, they would be unwelcome at a market.

Once, Hodges Jr. said, his father and Robinson were both tracking a foul pop behind first base. While they scanned the sky for the ball, two bottles sailed out of the stands, both at Robinson.

“This man lived that every day,” Hodges Jr. says. “I could never have enough respect for someone going through that. Every day. Every city. Every ballpark. Every bus ride. Every hotel room. It wasn’t like he could say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go here this one day.’ It didn’t matter. The reaction was going to be the same.

“You and I can’t comprehend what that man and his family went through.”

Reggie Jackson, the Hall of Fame slugger who is now a special adviser to Astros owner Jim Crane, says he’s “old enough to remember being denied a restaurant, a hotel.” The 75-year-old, who was a star in the 1960s and ’70s, wonders if today’s player “really understands what Jackie went through, how tough it really was.

“When you’re me, you’re so grateful to have had Jackie and Hank (Aaron) and Satchel Paige. They paved and carved a path for me. I’m 10 years behind those guys.”

Jackson wants to see more minorities represented across the sport, something Robinson was passionate about. There aren’t enough minorities in baseball power positions, Jackson says, “nobody in the front office for them to look at, eye-to-eye.

“We’re nowhere,” he adds. “We’ve absolutely gone backwards.”

According to MLB, which has programs devoted to diversity and offers financial backing to similar-minded groups, including the Jackie Robinson Foundation, there were four minorities in front offices at the GM level or higher and six minority managers on Opening Day 2021.

On Opening Day rosters, minority players broke down like this: 28.1 percent were Hispanic/Latino, 7.6 percent were African American and 1.4 percent were Asian. According to a Society for American Baseball Research article, as recently as 1996, 16 percent of MLB players were African American.

John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, hopes that Robinson’s 75th anniversary can serve as an entry point into the broader story of African Americans in baseball. There’s plenty more, before and after 1947.

Before Robinson’s debut, Thorn notes, the last two black players had competed in the majors in 1884, a span of 63 years. African Americans, Thorn said, have been playing baseball “surely since the 1830s and 1840s, some years in organized baseball and some banned.

“The symbol of ’47 and the 75th anniversary, these are all good,” Thorn adds. “I’m not knocking it. But it’s bigger than one date. It’s bigger than 75. It’s a good date to start, but it’s not where one should end if you are seriously concerned with the issue. It’s a signpost, rather than the end of the road.”

In Robinson’s last public appearance, in Cincinnati before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, he made a speech saying, in part, how much he wanted to see “a black face managing in baseball.” It took three more years, until Frank Robinson managed the Indians in 1975.

Nine days after that speech at Riverfront Stadium, Robinson died at 53.

Today, Robinson and this 75th anniversary can perhaps provide a symbol to “address the chasms among minority groups,” Britton says.

April Brown, MLB’s VP of Social Responsibility who is leading the league’s commemoration efforts, hopes fans will absorb an important lesson: “I can stand up for things I’m passionate about,” Brown says.

“He set forth a legacy not just in baseball, but for many sports and players in the decades that came after him.”

— Written by Anthony McCarron (@AnthonyMcCarron) for the Athlon Sports 2022 Baseball Annual. At 224 pages, it's the largest on the newsstand and the most complete preview available today. Click here to get your copy or purchase the digital edition for instant access.