Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
Article abstract: Robinson was the first black to play in the major leagues and as such is known for breaking the “color line” in baseball. A hero for his brilliant career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jack Roosevelt, or Jackie (as he was known throughout his adult life), Robinson was the fifth child born to Mallie and Jerry Robinson, share-croppers of Cairo, Georgia. Robinson’s grandparents had been slaves. When he was six months old, his father abandoned the family, and a year later his mother took the family to Pasadena, California, where Robinson grew up. Although poor, Robinson’s mother saved money and ultimately purchased a house in a previously all-white neighborhood. This was Robinson’s first experience as a pioneer in integration. As a child, Robinson excelled in all sports. In high school, junior college, and at the University of California at Los Angeles, Robinson starred in baseball, basketball, football, and track. In 1938, at Pasadena Junior College, he broke the national junior college record for the broad jump, previously set by his older brother, Mack Robinson, who himself had won a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics. In 1939, he entered UCLA, where he became the school’s first letterman in four sports. Robinson’s best sport was football; in 1941, he was named an All-American. That year, he dropped out of college to earn money for his family.
In 1941, Robinson played professional football with the Honolulu Bears. Drafted in 1942, Robinson applied for Officer’s Candidate School at Fort Riley, Kansas. Although admitted to the program, Robinson and the other black candidates received no training until pressure from Washington forced the local commander to admit blacks to the base’s training school. Robinson’s reputation as a sports hero helped to generate that pressure. As a second lieutenant, Robinson successfully challenged some of the Jim Crow policies at the base post exchange. He quit the base football team in protest when the army agreed to keep him out of a game with the nearby University of Missouri, because that school refused to play against black opponents. Transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson protested segregation on an army bus. His protests led to a court-martial, at which he was acquitted. In November, 1944, he was honorably discharged. The army had little desire to keep this black man who kept fighting against racism, and for his part, Robinson was, as he later wrote in his autobiography, “pretty much fed up with the service.”
Out of the army, Robinson secured a tryout with the Kansas City Monarchs, a leading team in the segregated “Negro leagues.” He was quickly offered four hundred dollars a month. In August, 1945, while playing for the Monarchs, Robinson was approached by a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dodger president Branch Rickey was publicly calling for a new black baseball league, with a team to be called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers. Rickey wanted Robinson for the team and asked him to come to Brooklyn for a meeting.
Robinson traveled to Brooklyn to meet Rickey. The twenty-six-year-old Robinson was just under six feet tall and weighed 195 pounds. He was handsome, agile, and a natural athlete of almost limitless potential. He was also intelligent and articulate and one of the best-educated black baseball players in the United States. He had grown up in an integrated world and played on integrated teams in high school and college. He was the perfect candidate for Rickey’s great experiment: the integration of the major leagues.
The meeting between Robinson and Rickey is a classic in American sports. Robinson expected to talk about a new black baseball team. Instead, Rickey asked him if he had a girlfriend, and on hearing about his college sweetheart, Rachel Isum, Rickey told him to marry her. Robinson was puzzled. Rickey continued the conversation, asking Robinson if he knew why he was there. Robinson mentioned the Brown Dodgers. No, Rickey told him, Robinson was brought there to play for the real Dodgers, to integrate baseball. Rickey then began to detail Robinson’s life for him. Robinson had not been scouted simply for his baseball skills; he had been scouted for his character. Rickey wanted to know if he had the courage to be the first black athlete to play in the major leagues—if he could stand the insults, the racial slurs, the beanballs, without fighting back. Rickey swore at Robinson, called him the worst possible names, and tried in other ways to anger him. The meeting was “tough” according to Robinson, but necessary, because for Robinson, baseball would not simply be a matter of box scores. That day, he signed a contract for six hundred dollars a month with a thirty-five-hundred-dollar bonus. Rickey, who was a businessman as well as a man with a strong sense of social justice, knew that Robinson had only an oral contract with the Monarchs, which was renewed monthly. Thus, Rickey never offered to pay the Monarchs for the rights to Robinson’s contract.
On October 23, 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers shocked America by announcing that Jackie Robinson would be playing for their number-one farm team, the Montreal Royals. Southerners asserted that they would never play on the same team as Robinson; white sports reporters declared that he had few baseball skills and would never make it to the major leagues; owners of other baseball teams complained about Rickey’s breaking the unwritten rule against hiring blacks. The manager of the Royals, a Mississippian, privately begged Rickey not to send Robinson to his team. In spring training in Florida, Robinson faced segregation as he had never seen it before. Buses, restaurants, hotels, and all other public facilities were rigidly segregated. On the way to Florida, Robinson and his new wife were twice asked to leave their airplane seats to make room for white passengers. Later, they were forced to move to the back of a bus. These were common experiences for Southern blacks but had been unknown to the California couple. During training, Robinson could not stay with the team at a local hotel but had to live with a local black family. Tensions were high throughout the spring.
Despite a poor spring training, Robinson started at second base for the Montreal Royals in the opening game. His performance was masterful. He had four hits, including a three-run home run, scored four times, and stole two bases. His baserunning so unnerved opposition pitchers that twice they balked with Robinson on third base, which allowed him to score. This was the beginning of a promising career.
That first year, Robinson faced hateful racist crowds and opponents in a...
(The entire section is 2765 words.)
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