Bob Bates —
In his epic tour de force, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams has his all-knowing, all-wise Grand Computer named Deep Thought delve into the answer to the great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. As Deep Thought assesses and ponders (in deep thought), tensions rise and suspense builds until, voila! Deep Thought authoritatively “with infinite majesty and calm” announces: “42”.
Cosmic non sequitur aside, Deep Thought had to have been a prodigious baseball fan. To check this out, imagine you can simultaneously view all fifteen Major League Baseball parks on the day of MLB’s annual April 15 celebration. To your growing amazement and wonder, your eyes will behold Deep Thought’s insight. On each of the fifteen lush green Elysian playing fields of the National Pastime—every person in service to Major League Baseball: players, managers, coaches, and umpires—is wearing on his uniform the same number, 42!
Is this number somehow magical? Sacred and divinely delivered? Indicative of awesomeness? Deserving universal veneration? Why are we witnessing one thousand and fifty 42′s?
From Opening Day, April 15, 1947 through October 10, 1956, Jack Roosevelt Robinson wore Brooklyn Dodger blue number 42 courageously, passionately, and with excellence through each of the 1426 games he suited up. His 42, in a word, translated to character. If ever anyone exhibited skill under pressure unrelentingly, inning after inning, with the essence of grace on a ballfield, it was Jackie Robinson.
If you are even just superficially knowledgeable about baseball, you know the name Jackie Robinson represents greatness. Resonating with Deep Thought one more time, consider the wider, more far-reaching context in which Jackie Robinson achieved such an esteemed prominence that places him arguably unsurpassed in baseball annals as well as in generating positive impacts on broader social dynamics.
Particularly, consider what Martin Luther King, Jr., a decade after Jackie’s baseball debut, said, “I am not the founder of the civil rights movement. The founder of the civil rights movement is Jackie Robinson.” Exaggeration? Hardly. King added, Jackie was “a legend and a symbol in his own time” who “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration” for his race and the promise of a better nation. And noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, through whose veins and heart coursed Dodger blue blood from her Brooklyn childhood on, places Jackie’s accomplishments and legacy as a “monumental step in the civil rights revolution in America.” If you have ears to hear, you will take in volumes of such accolades, all well-earned by Mr. Robinson, whose very real neighborhood extended throughout the bounds of America.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born January 31, 1919, the youngest of five children, to Jim Crow era sharecropper parents in the Deep South near Cairo, Georgia. In 1920, father Jerry took off for parts unknown, deserting family and fleeing the bitter oppression and poverty of sharecropping. Indomitable mother Mallie lost no time decisively acting. Five children in hand, she packed their meager belongings and they boarded the “Freedom Train” to seek a fresh start in Pasadena , California, initially under the roof of relatives. Always a resourceful woman, soon Mallie somehow managed to scrape together a sum sufficient to move into their own four-room cottage. Creating this sanctuary which fostered possibilities for positive self-esteem and a proud, independent identity for her children would prove to be her paramount legacy.
Jackie, from toddler through childhood years and on into young adulthood, seized upon opportunities to achieve successes and excel in the multi-racial environment of Pasadena. Mallie’s intelligence, pride, diligent effort, and self-discipline resided in him. His multiple talents and popularity made for an expanding sphere of developing his personal gifts and qualities. Always outstanding athletically, his high school exploits became regionally prominent in sports headlines and reports. At age 18 he began working his way through two years of Pasadena Junior College, 1937-39, and performed spectacularly in football, basketball, baseball, and track. In 1939-40, in the competitive Pacific Coast Conference at UCLA, Jackie lettered again in all four sports. In football, as a versatile and elusive tailback running and passing, he also led the nation in both ’39 and ’40 in yards per punt return. On the roundball hardcourt, he led the PCC in scoring twice. In track, he won the 1940 NCAA long jump championship. In just one season of baseball, as a junior, he hit only .097 but dazzled in the field at shortstop. Just a few credits short of graduation in 1941, he dropped out to take a job with the National Youth Administration program as an assistant athletic director. Later, in ’41, he was signed by the football semi-pro, racially integrated Honolulu Bears.
Though the America of Southern California of the 1920s-40s for Jackie presented freedom of expression and opportunities to achieve, in the larger picture things weren’t that rosy. With Pearl Harbor and the onset of WWII, at age 23 Jackie was about to enter that world.
From precolonial times, for 2 1/2 centuries, America had practiced slavery. Aborted Reconstruction in the decades following the Civil War had brought on the Jim Crow era, extending for another 3/4-century the oppression of American blacks. An outgrowth of these times, the military Robinson entered was rigidly segregated and riddled with circumstances humiliating to black soldiers. Never one to remain silent or passive in the face of injustices, Robinson spoke out, assumed a leadership role in becoming unit morale officer, and challenged unjust situations over a two-year span. One principled stand resulted in court-martial charges against him, but these were found in military court to be bogus. Nonetheless, within just three months, in late 1944, Robinson was issued an honorable discharge. Official on-paper reason? Bone chips in his ankle. Probable real in-the-flesh reason? The military had no room for “trouble makers” with a racial bone to pick.
Within nine months WWII was over. Now inevitably apparent, the freedoms the United States had defended over four long, bloody, costly years, applied to all Americans. The entire nation had come together and everyone had sacrificed. Now, if there was to be any domestic justice and equality of citizenship, the ills of segregation had to be addressed. This would prove to be a monumental task, needing input from ever so many institutions and societal influences.
Segue to baseball. Way back in the 1860s, Americans had embraced baseball as the National Pastime. Teams and leagues from hamlets to big city neighborhoods had formed hardball nines and competed enthusiastically, if not at times ruthlessly. Baseball was social recreation at one level, but serious business when it boiled down to bragging rights and, especially, money. By 1876 professionalism had overtaken the sport, and intensity of competition ruled the game.
Initially, on merit, anyone with skills could play. Minorities and Negroes were included. But, not welcomed. Team owners and league officials grudgingly tolerated a smattering of blacks into the late 1880s, then shut them out. This “color line” excluding black players would persist for the next six decades!
Enter one Branch Rickey. Sixty-three, outwardly pious, bespectacled, pasty and somewhat rumpled in baggy suit and tie, always with a fat cigar at hand, “Mr. Rickey,” as he was respectfully addressed, had proven himself to be a baseball genius (particularly for establishing the “farm system” to assure a pipeline of future major leaguers). He was also an astute observer of wider American society, including the business scene. He envisioned post-WWII as a ripe time to sign Negro talent for the Brooklyn Dodgers, for whom he was General Manager. He knew that cracking the ol’ boys system would entail considerable risks and much resistance, but he was also sure that money spoke louder than antiquated, vulnerable protocol. Also, talent, no matter what color it came in, meant winning, and winning translated into profits and glory.
Rickey was deadly realistic in his shrewdness. He knew that to introduce a Negro into the National Pastime would unleash ugliness of menacing proportions both within and beyond ballparks. He knew that his chosen diamond trailblazer must be of determined, strong character if he was to endure the inevitable personal and racial abuses and a living hell of unrelenting pressures day to day amidst these vicious taunts and acrimonious confrontations.
Rickey surreptitiously and carefully scouted potential candidates. Over a period of months, he narrowed his focus to one man: Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
In spring of 1945, following his three years in the army, Robinson signed on for $100/week with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, a two-decades long established team of accomplished black players. At the time Rickey was, from a distance, scouting Jackie, among others. By late summer he had made his decision. In August of ’45 GM Rickey sent trusted soft-spoken, low key, gentleman head scout Clyde Sukeforth to quietly make the initial contact with and proposal to Robinson.
In his 1948 book, My Own Story, Robinson relates that upon observing his conversation with Sukeforth from a distance, some Monarchs teammates asked, “Who’s the white fellow you were talking to, Jackie?” “I don’t know,” I replied. “He says he’s scouting me for the Brooklyn Dodgers.” Everyone shares laughs; then a Monarchs player jumps to attention and holds a salute, enthusiastically spouting, “I’m a scout, too—from Moose Face Troop #60, and if I pass my Eagle test next week, I’m gonna fly away!” Much more laughter! “The possibility of a Big League scout spending time looking at Negro players was nothing but a joke,” Robinson wrote.
But in this case it was no joke. Rickey summoned Robinson to meet him at his Brooklyn office for the final assessment. Both men recognized the enormity of the opportunity to break baseball’s color barrier and pave the way for a new era. On the heels of WWII, Americans were hungry for emotional outlets, especially baseball. Baseball was truly the national game, garnering attention during the long April through September season, the October World Series, and even through winter months in anticipation of the new annually renewed cycle, with spring training in March. Baseball remained a prime focus of attention with much of the American public. As yet, neither the NFL or the NBA had developed into major national interests, so what occurred in the baseball world day-to-day thoroughly captured Americans’ notice.
At their August 28,1945 meeting, over a lengthy and intense three-hour exchange, Rickey made his formal presentation for Robinson to fully absorb. Strategically, Rickey probed and pressured; maintaining his control, Robinson reacted and questioned. As the demands and high stakes of what lay ahead became clear, the inimitable Branch Rickey put forth the premiere performance of his baseball career, and the proud and determined Jack Roosevelt Robinson delivered a flawless response.
Robinson understood Rickey’s adamant challenge. In the face of inevitable abuses and ugly incidents, Rickey barked, “I’m looking for a Negro ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” whether in the locker room, on the ballfield, or in the press. Rickey was demanding that Robinson be firmly disciplined enough to continually “turn the other cheek.”
That memorable day, the pact was made—and the “Noble Experiment” began. Robinson agreed that, no matter how abusively or intolerably he would be treated over the next two years, he would exercise superhuman restraint and self-discipline, and thereby over time triumph through compelling performance and class. That day was prelude to what would become, by baseball and social criteria, the most effectively influential ten-year career, on and off the field, in the history of baseball. Jack Roosevelt Robinson would serve as Branch Rickey’s offering toward a breakthrough era in both baseball and America as a whole.
But first, a proving ground in a protective arena was needed. The season of dress rehearsal would be in Montreal, where the International League triple-A Royals were the Dodgers’ top minor league franchise. This proved to be a six-month celebratory bonding between fans and the league’s sole black player. Robinson was nothing short of a wildly popular hero north of the border in that 1946 season. Jackie was named league Most Valuable Player, led the IL in hitting (a .349 batting average), and led the Royals to post-season glory, as they captured the minors’ Little World Series championship. Such a stellar performance amid universal adulation was a great opening act, but the American big stage of 1947 would feature tough critics and a skeptical, resistant audience.
If Branch Rickey was the prodding angel on one shoulder, Jackie’s wife Rachel was a balm on the other. Engaged since March 1943, Jack and Rachel had married in February ’46. Jackie openly acknowledged that without Rachel’s unwavering love, support, and encouragement, he could not have endured that rookie season of 1947. Pressures were intense during March spring training in the South, which was still a hotbed of simmering racism and resentment toward interlopers from the North, especially a New York team with a Negro player. Continual incidents of verbal abuse and humiliating treatment were deliberately racial, acutely personal, and meant to distract this uppity Negro’s focus.
At one point in March, colorful and controversial Dodgers manager Leo “The Lip” Durocher had to call a middle-of-the-night team meeting to quell a brewing internal opposition to playing alongside Robinson. Durocher is on record as bellowing to the mutineers, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black or has stripes like a f****** zebra, I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays! What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded!” Most moderated their attitudes and conduct and over the course of the ’47 season became accepting teammates of Robinson. But some remained racist and were traded.
From opponents and their fans, however, the cauldron of race-baiting continued to seethe unrelentingly into the April and May regular season. Gradually, with Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field home-park enthusiasm and teammates’ growing acceptance and support, Robinson was able to relax a bit and perform with his usual excellence. It also helped that an assortment of hate mail, some including death threats, had stopped. Jackie had always felt that his best counter was to deliver on the field of play, and this would gradually silence abuse and win over fans who loved the game and appreciated skillful play. By mid-summer, both Rickey and Robinson could gradually start to savor the promise of what was unfolding.
Playing solid team baseball, the Dodgers compiled a 94-60 record in winning just their second National League pennant in 27 years. Individually, Robinson hit .297, was second in the league in runs scored, led the league in stolen bases, and was named Rookie of the Year. Then, in the first televised World Series, the Dodgers fell just short in seven games to the mighty New York Yankees. Television brought this exciting spectacle into millions of homes for the first time, fostering an intimacy that would help the game grow even more popular in the years ahead.
Off the field, the American public responded positively to Robinson’s pioneering courage, performance, and his being an exemplary role model. Jackie, himself, simply stated, “I am not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
In his column of January 23, 1948, sports editor John Johnson of the Kansas City Negro paper The Call, reflected on how Robinson had handled his rookie season, writing, “He must have counted ’10’ a thousand times in the early days of the season, to keep from letting ’em have it straight.” Former teammate Othel Renfroe, having played alongside Jackie in ’45 with the Monarchs, added, “Robinson often got hotter than a General Electric burner when he played [with us]. And he had a truly copious, ever-present supply of sizzling nouns, verbs, and adjectives that went awfully well with that temper!”
From this it is clear to what degree Jackie was influenced by Rickey, and how it took the two of them, complementing one another, to succeed with their Noble Experiment in 1947.
Last year, Jesse Washington, senior Writer for the online journal The Undefeated, wrote, “Robinson’s courage and achievement in the face of violent, unrepressed racism by both players and fans at a time when Jim Crow laws still deprived black citizens of basic human rights, marked an indelible turning point in black history.”
In 2004 baseball commissioner Bud Selig, speaking on the occasion of the first time all baseball personnel would wear Robinson’s number 42, stated: “Baseball’s proudest moment and its most powerful statement came on April 15, 1947 when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a Major League Baseball field. On that day, Jackie brought down the color barrier and ushered in an era in which baseball became the true national pastime. … In establishing Jackie Robinson Day, Major League Baseball is ensuring that the incredible contributions and sacrifices he made—for baseball and society—will not be forgotten.”
Physically, at 5′ 11″ and 195 pounds, Jackie Robinson was a formidable athletic presence. Our mind’s eye sees him in action as a flurry of churning legs and pumping arms, head angled slightly forward, face wearing an expression of intense focus. Characterologically, he personified indomitable determination to attain exemplary goals with extensive impacts. As a complete human being and American citizen, Jackie Robinson fully deserves every accolade and honor directed his way. He has left a living legacy for all who hope to strive for high standards and outcomes benefiting more than oneself.
You had to see him in action or on old film clips to truly appreciate the energy and skills he brought to the game. There is credible substance to what Chuck Dressen, Dodger manager from 1951’53 claimed: “Give me five ballplayers like Robinson and a pitcher, and I’ll beat any nine-man team in baseball.” If you are appreciative of statistics, you will marvel at the superlative numbers Jackie compiled over his ten-year playing career.
In 1947 and 1949 Robinson led the league in stolen bases; in ’49 was batting champion (.342) and was second in RBI (124), earning the National League Most Valuable Player award; in four other seasons he placed among the top seven in MVP voting; his on base percentage (OBP) in ’52 was best in the league (.440); from ’48-’52 playing second base, he ranked best in the NL in eight of ten fielding and throwing categories; for six consecutive years, ’49-’54, he averaged .426 in OBP and .932 in OPS (on base plus slugging, a measure of all-around hitting excellence). In 1382 career regular season games, he hit .311, with an OBP of .409 and OPS of .883. Always having a keen eye for the strike zone, over his career he averaged 74 walks and only 29 strikeouts per season.
Beyond what Robinson accomplished personally and for his team, his breaking of baseball’s color barrier, in the fashion he did it, proved to have profound impacts on the blacks who would follow. Demographically, by percentages of African Americans who now were allowed into the majors based on their talents, the stats are impressive: In 1946 there were no blacks; by ’51, ’57, and ’62, respectively, there were 3%, 7%, and 10% black major leaguers; by ’72 this rose to 16%, and between 1975 and ’87, the majors averaged 18% black players. Similarly with MVP winners, the percentage of African Americans recognized as the most valuable player in their league, following Robinson’s 1949 honor, over the next 68 years comprised 35%; 50% in the National League and 19% in the American League. And, representing baseball’s highest honor, election to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, consider that over the last 40 years 24 of the 62 players voted into the HOF have been black. Safe to observe that without Jackie Robinson’s example, the opportunities to achieve on one’s own merits cited above likely would have lagged as America struggled to grant equal opportunities to black citizens.
Through his baseball exploits plus efforts as a citizen, on a national scale Jackie Robinson induced millions of Americans away from bigoted worldviews and toward positive acceptances and respect, recognizing that talents and accomplishments have no color. Jackie’s playing career started late, at age 28, and closed at 37, with health factors affecting his final two seasons when he was only able to play about two-thirds of Dodgers games. Diabetes progressed quickly, at a time when medical treatment was largely ineffective. At just age 53, Robinson died of diabetic-related heart disease. Nonetheless, over those last fifteen years he continued to invest his waning energies in a variety of community causes and contributions to the civil rights movement. Through (now 94) Rachel’s efforts in sustaining and expanding Jackie’s work, some of these continue today. Overall, from humble beginnings to distinction, prominence, and greatness, Jack Roosevelt Robinson delivered to America a legacy worthy of annual honoring. Hopefully, you will make time to catch some of baseball’s celebrations leading up to, and on, the April 15th 70th anniversary of the initial appearance on the field of Jackie Robinson, number 42.