One of the all time greatest and most influential players in baseball history, Jackie Robinson, would be celebrating his 99th birthday on January 31st.
Up until April 15, 1947, there were no African Americans playing for a major league baseball team. Integration of the MLB had been an ongoing issue during this time period, long before diversity was embraced by society in general, and professional sports specifically.
Despite the challenges, 28-year-old Jackie Robinson became the first athlete of color to play in the Major Leagues. He instantly broke a barrier in a sport that had been segregating players for more than 50 years. He first stepped foot onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Many do not understand the struggle that Jackie Robinson had to go through to make it to where he did.
Mr. Robinson started his athletic career at a very young age. His family was not wealthy. Both his parents, Jerry and Mallie Robinson, were sharecroppers who worked many hours during the day. Jackie was the youngest of five children with four siblings (three brothers and a sister) before him: Edgar, Frank, Mack, and Willa Mae. His siblings helped Jackie to fulfill his love of sports.
After graduating from a junior college, Jackie took his athletic talents to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). There, he became the first person in college sports history to receive a varsity letter in four different sports (baseball, football, track, and basketball). Due to financial difficulties within his family, he was unable to finish his degree at UCLA, but he quickly was enrolled into the military at age 23. After two full years of service, he was honorably discharged.
Because of the color barrier in the MLB at the time, African-Americans were forced to play baseball in the Negro American League where Jackie Robinson was able to excel. Due to his incredible talent and toughness, the visionary Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, recruited him to become the first African-American to play in the major leagues.
It was not easy for Robinson during his time playing in the MLB. Pitchers were alleged to have hit him with fast balls on purpose. He was regularly booed by opposing fans. Petitions were signed to try and get him thrown off the Dodgers team and out of the league. People outside of baseball threatened his life.
Despite the hardships, Jackie Robinson went on to play for ten years with the Brooklyn Dodgers before retiring at age 37 in January of 1957. Five years later, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1972, the Dodgers retired his uniform number, 42, into their team hall of fame. Almost 40 years after his retirement, the MLB universally retired his number across all
major league teams. As a result, he became the first pro athlete in any sport to be honored with this achievement. In 2004, an annual tradition “Jackie Robinson Day” takes place on April 15 every year in which every player from every team wears the number 42.
Unfortunately, at age 53, Jackie Robinson suffered from a heart-attack and passed away on October 24, 1972.
There is no question that most people would find the Jackie Robinson’s situation infuriating. But he became known for his toughness and courage, as well as his ability to manage his frustrations and anger while accomplishing something that had never been done before. Jackie Robinson knew that he could make an impact on the world, and on professional sports. He did not sit back and accept the status quo. .
One of his most famous quotes is “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.”
He truly felt that he could change the world with his determination. And he did.
Because of what Jackie Robinson was able to do, all professional sports are rich with diversity.
So, on the 31st of January, be sure to think of the strides that have been made in the major leagues with gratitude and wish Jackie a happy 99th birthday.