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75 years ago, Jackie Robinson broke the MLB color barrier

It would not be the first time, nor the last, that Robinson made history.

On 15 April 1947, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, 28, became the first Black man to play Major League Baseball (MLB). The Brooklyn Dodgers were playing at Ebbets Field against the Boston Braves. Robinson played first base; the Dodgers won, 5-3.

Robinson would be named the 1947 Major League Rookie of the Year. In his first year as a MLB player, Robinson became the first Black player in a World Series game when the Dodgers were named National League champs.

Robinson was born in southwest Georgia (Cairo, pronounced like the syrup) on 31 January 1919. He was the first UCLA athlete to letter in four varsity sports: baseball, basketball, football and track.

Robinson was drafted into the US Army 0n 03 April 1942. The Army denied the college-educated corporal application for Officers’ Candidate School at the segregated cavalry unit stationed at Fort Riley, KS. Private Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, would help Robinson appeal that decision by reaching out to “Truman K. Gibson, Jr., one of the few black lawyers in America at the time.”

Due to the Brown Bomber’s intervention and Gibson’s influence, Robinson was enrolled in OCS at Fort Riley, along with several other black Soldiers. Upon Robinson’s completion of OCS, he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army on 28 January 1943.

Robinson was an activist Army officer. He was courtmartialed (found not guilty) for refusing to move to the back of the not-segregated Army bus in Fort Hood, TX in 1944. He was unable to secure a lawyer from the NAACP, and his court-appointed lawyer withdrew because he had not “developed arguments against segregation” that would provide Robinson with a proper defense. Texas lawyer Lt. William Cline took, and won, the case.

Jackie Robinson Day

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig would retire No. 42, 50 years after its debut as Robinson’s number, 15 April 1997. His was the first number to be retired by all teams.

Ken Griffey, Jr. who was playing for the Seattle Mariners, got the OK to “flip-flop” his number from No. 24 to No. 42 for that 50th anniversary.

MLB initiated Jackie Robinson Day on 15 April 2004.

On the 60th anniversary in 2007, Griffey asked if he could wear No. 42 on April 15th; he got the green light, as did any other player who wished to honor Robinson. In 2009, Selig announced that anyone who wore a uniform on April 15th, whether player, coach or manager, would wear No. 42.

On the 75th anniversary (today) of Robinson’s first game, all players in the League wore No. 42.

“To have everybody [wear 42], I didn’t think it was going to go that far,” Griffey said. “I wasn’t thinking that big, but it’s been an unbelievable thing since day one.”

The color line

By the 1860s, baseball “was being described as America’s ‘national pastime‘.” The National League was formed in 1876. By the 1940s, the sport had been racially segregated for six decades.

In 1945, Robinson was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League. In October, he entered into a contract with Brooklyn Dodger’s general manager Branch Rickey that “would bring Robinson into the major leagues in 1947.”

There were economic as well as social reasons for the color line.

In addition to racial intolerance, economic and other complex factors contributed to segregation in baseball. For example, many owners of major league teams rented their stadiums to Negro League teams when their own teams were on the road. Team owners knew that if baseball were integrated, the Negro Leagues would probably not survive losing their best players to the majors, major league owners would lose significant rental revenue, and many Negro League players would lose their livelihoods. Some owners also thought that a white audience would be reluctant to attend games with black players… Rickey described the problems he faced and the events that influenced his decision in a speech to the One Hundred Percent Wrong Club in 1956…

Rickey publicized Robinson’s signing nationally through Look magazine, and in the black press through his connections to Wendell Smith at the Pittsburgh Courier.

Learn more

#society  (085/365)
📷 Smithsonian via Flickr 
Daily posts, 2022-2023

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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