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“National Hero, Jackie Robinson”

April 2, 2007

On April 15, 2007, Major League Baseball invited players to wear the number 42 for that day. It was a way to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut. Ken Griffey, Jr. initiated the idea requesting permission from Commissioner Bud Selig to wear Jackie’s number. Selig decided to extend the invitation to all Major League teams. More than 200 players wore the number, including the entire roster of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In 1919, Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia. After his father abandoned them, his family moved to Pasadena, California. Jackie grew up in relative poverty and even joined a local neighborhood gang in his youth. His love of athletics rescued him from life on the streets.

In high school, Jackie lettered in four sports. He was a shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, a quarterback on the football team, a guard on the basketball team, and a member of the tennis team and the track and field squad.

Jackie Robinson served in the United States Army from 1942-1944 as a second lieutenant. He faced a court martial for insubordination when he refused to obey an order to move to the back of a segregated military bus. Jackie proved to be a man of principle and courage, years before he entered the public eye. His refusal to submit to Jim Crow laws while in the military predate, by more than a decade, a similar, but much more widely-known stance by Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a public bus in 1955. At his court martial, Jackie was found innocent. He was honorably discharged from military duty.

In the late 1940s, Branch Rickey was president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers began to scout Robinson, and Rickey eventually selected Jackie to become the first player to break the color barrier in baseball.

In 1946, Jackie led the International League in batting average with a .349 average, and fielding percentage with a .985 percentage. Dodgers called him up to play for the major league club in 1947. Robinson made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947, becoming the first African-American player in Major League Baseball.

Robinson experienced harassment from both opposing players and fans. Some Dodger players insinuated that they would sit out rather than play with Robinson. The mutiny ended when Dodger management informed those players that they were welcome to find employment elsewhere.

Dodger’s shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who would be a teammate of Robinson’s for the better part of a decade, was one of the few players who publicly stood up for Jackie during his rookie season. During the team’s first road trip, in Cincinnati, Ohio, fans were heckling Robinson when Reese, the Dodgers team captain, walked over and put his arm around Robinson in a gesture of support that quieted the fans. Reese was once quoted saying about Robinson “You can hate a man for many reasons, but color is not one of them.” In addition, Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, who had faced considerable anti-Semitism earlier in his career, welcomed Robinson to the major leagues.

In his first year, Jackie played in 151 games, hit .297, led the National League in stolen bases, and won the Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, Jackie won the Most Valuable Player award for the National League. He won his only championship ring when the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series.

Jackie had a .311 career batting average and was an outstanding base stealer. He played in six World Series and in six All-Star games.

Robinson retired on January 5, 1957. He had wanted to manage or coach in the major leagues, but received no offers. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility, becoming the first African-American so honored. On June 4, 1972 the Dodgers retired his uniform number 42. Major League Baseball retired the number 42 ten years ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of his historic entry into the league.

Jackie made his final public appearance on October 14, 1972, before the second game of the World Series. He expressed his wish for a black manager to be hired by a Major League Baseball team. Just ten days later, Jackie Robinson died from heart problems and diabetes complications. His wish was granted two years later when the Cleveland Indians named Frank Robinson as their manager. A Hall of Fame slugger, Frank Robinson is no relation to Jackie Robinson. At the press conference announcing his hiring, Frank expressed his wish that Jackie had lived to see the moment.

In 1948, a young African-American boy in Mobile, Alabama, skipped school to watch an exhibition baseball game with his dad. Jackie Robinson played second base and had a good day with the bat. The young boy had dreamed of playing baseball professionally. After that day, he knew his dream could become a reality. Hank Aaron fulfilled his dream and still holds the record for career home runs.

In his stunning documentary series on America’s game, Ken Burns identified Jackie’s entry into Major League Baseball as the most significant event in Baseball history. It was also a monumental step forward in the civil rights movement in this country. Jackie Robinson is a national hero, not only as a baseball player, but also as a man of courage and integrity.

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, April 2007

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