On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American to play major league baseball since the 1800s. Though his first game was a quiet one on the field (he went 0-3, scoring one run in a Dodgers win), Robinson’s debut was a landmark moment in sports and civil rights.
Usually this site covers more obscure corners of New York political history, but Jackie Robinson’s story is pretty well-known, the subject of countless books and even the hit 2013 movie, 42.
Most people know that during his painful rookie season he was subjected to racist taunts from fans, stuck in Jim Crow accommodations when the team traveled south, and forced to “turn the other cheek” while taking dangerous cheap shots from opposing players.
I first learned about Jackie Robinson as a baseball player, not a civil rights hero. As a young kid I was obsessed with baseball, particularly baseball statistics and the Brooklyn Dodgers. While I understood that Robinson had “broken the color barrier,” the enormity of that achievement had not yet dawned on me.
Now I’ve come full circle, in some respects, because I’d prefer to talk about Robinson’s accomplishments on the field. Robinson has been so memorialized as a person (Major League Baseball even retired the number “42” for all future players) that we may have forgotten just how good he was, and how that was relevant his success on the field was to advancing minorities in professional sports.
Without further ado, here is a rundown of Jackie Robinson, the athlete.
1) At UCLA, Robinson became the first athlete in school history to earn four Varsity letters, in baseball, basketball, football, and track & field. In 1940, as a junior, Robinson leaped nearly 25 feet en route to winning the NCAA championship in the Long Jump.
A star on the gridiron, Robinson made all-conference his senior year, and had just started playing professional football before Pearl Harbor, which re-routed him into the military.
On the basketball court, Robinson led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring twice, and was still playing pro-basketball in the off-season before his debut with the Dodgers.
Baseball might not have even been his fourth best sport as young man: while he struggled during his only full season on the UCLA baseball team, he won the Junior Boys Singles Championship at the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament.
2) After World War II, during which he had been the subject of a Rosa Parks-like military hearing, Robinson found his way to the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro American League. For all of his talents in other sports, and all the dysfunction in the Negro leagues, that was still likely his best option to earn a living. He made the all-star team in his only season, 1946, hitting .387, leading the league in steals, and wowing scouts, black and white, with his defensive play at short-stop, a position he was destined never to play in the major leagues. (Brooklyn Dodgers team captain and soon to be close friend, Pee Wee Reese, was already starting at shortstop.)
3) A sometimes forgotten chapter of Robinson’s saga is his year on the Montreal Royals. When Branch Rickey/Harrison Ford signed Robinson in 1946, the thought was to have him start at the high-level minor league affiliate, for both baseball and political reasons. From a baseball perspective, it proved unnecessary. Robinson hit .349, leading the league, and stole 40 bases, as the Royals won the International League World Series. Equally important, Robinson’s widow Rachel recalls that Montreal fans were extremely supportive, even tracking which opposing stadiums and cities treated Robinson badly so they could exact revenge when those teams came to Montreal.
4) 1947 was not only Robinson’s first year, it was the first season for the “Rookie of the Year Award,” now called the “Jackie Robinson Award.” Robinson’s first season got off to a so-so start. While he was clearly a speed demon on the base-paths, he struggled at the plate. At one point he went five straight games without a hit. He was also playing first base, a new position for him, because established players occupied his preferred positions. By mid-June, however, he had turned the corner. He finished the year just shy of .300, with a league-leading 29 stolen bases, and a whopping 125 runs, second in the league. Winning Rookie of the Year as the first African-American in the majors was a seismic accomplishment, putting to rest the baseball question of whether black players could ball, and leaving detractors with only the racist argument against integration. It is worth noting, however, that he only narrowly won the award, as Giants’ pitcher Larry Jansen won 21 games and finished second in the voting.
5) Robinson’s statistical excellence is borne out by both contemporary numbers and today’s “advanced metrics.” During his prime, from 1948-1953, Robinson average 16 home runs, 90 RBIs, 24 steals and battled .323. His OPS crossed .900 four years in a row, a figure that would put him among the elite hitters during either the 1950s or today’s game. His “wins above replacement” figures, both offensively and defensively, were routinely among the highest in the league. His 1949 season, for which he won the MVP, is truly staggering: he scored 122 runs and drove in 124, while leading the league in batting average (.342) and stolen bases (37).
6) My favorite Jackie Robinson stat is that he stole home 19 times. 19! I’m not even sure how someone does it once. Robinson is the all-time leader in that category among players who began their careers after 1920. Check out this clip of him stealing home during the World Series against the Yankees.
7) During his ten-year career in the majors, Robinson was an all-star six times and the Brooklyn Dodgers won the pennant six times. The only time they could beat the Yankees in the World Series, however, was 1955. By then, his skills had started to diminish. Shockingly, the Dodgers tried to trade Robinson to the hated New York Giants before the 1957 season, but Robinson retired instead, taking a job as the VP of Chock Full ‘O Nuts.
Yes, Jackie Robinson’s famous “turn the other cheek” temperament was probably necessary for the “Grand Experiment” to work, but the quality of his play is what made him able drown out the vitriol against him. Who knows what kind of rationalization anti-integrationists would have been able to make if Robinson and other early African-American stars like Larry Doby and Roy Campanella had not rebutted the racist presumption against “negro players.”
Today, as we celebrate Jackie Robinson, let’s celebrate both the man, and the star athlete.