Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31st, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia. Arguably the most iconic name in American sports history, Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first black player in the modern era of major league baseball. Racial segregation was still very much intact in the United States during this time. African Americans faced Jim Crow Laws and were frequently met with opposition when trying to become more than an average man. Jackie Robinson was an example of this. Not only was he the first black player, but he became one of the most accomplished athletes to ever play the game. Robinson led the way for cultural and racial integration in a time where blacks and whites coexisting peacefully and equally seemed near impossible.
Robinson dealt with racism at an extremely early age because his parents were sharecroppers in Georgia. This meant that his parents worked on land that wasn’t theirs in return for food and shelter. They also received a very little, if any, percentage of the profit made from the crops they produced (Garret 579). The institution of sharecropping in the post-civil war South was very similar to slavery. Slavery had defined, and continued to shape, the culture of the region. (Rampersad 11) Even after the abolishment of slavery, Georgia remained the most dangerous place to live for African Americans. In the 28 years leading up to Robinson’s birth, there were a total of 325 lynching’s in Georgia; the most of any state over that time period. (Rampersad 13) After growing up in the racist south, Robinson faced more hardship when his father left. As a result, Robinson’s family set out westward, eventually settling down in Pasadena, California.
Living at 121 Pepper Street, Robinson matured, but segregation still played a major role in his life. Near his house was North Fair Oaks Street. This was the dividing line in town. Whites lived on one side, blacks on the other, and it was forbidden to cross that line (Allen 17). When Jackie reached high school, his sports career finally began. With the encouragement from his brother Mack, a silver medalist in the Olympics, Robinson became a stand out athlete in several sports and then went on to play at Pasadena Junior College. Eventually, he went on to play football, track, baseball, and basketball at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was still faced with opposition in athletics as the football team had 4 black players, the most integrated in the country at that time. Robinson left UCLA just shy of graduation to pursue his football career in an integrated football league in Honolulu, only to return to play for the Los Angeles Bulldogs after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
When the United States entered World War II, Robinson was drafted into the war. Robinson was eager to climb the ranks and become an outstanding soldier because of his competitive mentality. It was always a take no prisoners attitude, even in friendly games of tennis (Kahn 89). Robinson’s need to be the best at everything he did allowed him and a few other black soldiers to apply for the Officer Candidate School (OCS). He was denied with no reasonable explanation other than his skin color because me met all of the requirements and he was an expert marksman. The U.S. secretary of war stated that leadership is not imbedded in the human race yet. (Rampersad 91) A year later, the OCS became integrated and Robinson was admitted into the program, but racism still became a major problem with all of the blacks and whites training and living together. One day, Robinson was at officer training and heard a white officer address a black soldier as a stupid nigger son of a bitch, to which Robinson replied You shouldn’t address your soldiers like that, but Robinson was known for his short temper and when the white officer had a racist reply, Robinson brutally attacked him (Rampersad 94). Events such as this became routine for Robinson, who was frequently involved with the military police. He was soon court marshaled for public drunkenness even though he did not drink, and transferred from base to base until he eventually received an honorary discharge.
Robinson’s baseball career started after his military discharge as he became a member of the Kansas City Monarchs in the all Negro League. There, Robinson was a stand out that drew major league attention. He had a tryout with the Boston Red Sox, but eventually came into contact with Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In a meeting between the two, Rickey asked what Robinson would do if a white player slid into him and cursed at him. Robinson replied Mr. Rickey, do you want someone who doesn’t have the courage to fight back? and Rickey said No, I want someone who has the courage not to fight back. Robinson agreed and Rickey presented him with a contract (Kahn 91).
Robinson spent a season as a standout in the minor league with the Montreal Royals. The next season in 1947, despite Dodgers players saying they would quit before playing with him, Robinson was called up to the major leagues. He had officially broken the color barrier and integrated professional baseball (Curry 309). That year he won Rookie of the Year honors for the entire MLB, even though he faced opposition everywhere he went such as teams going on strike, name-calling, and aggressive play. In 1948, Robinson paved the way for other black players such as Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. Many black players followed in the footsteps of Robinson, who ended up winning the Most Valuable Player award for the entire MLB in 1949. His contributions even paved the way for religious minorities such as Jews. Jews identified with Robinson because he wasn’t loved by a majority of people. Because he is hated, he is a Jew, you see? (Alpert 45) After his legendary baseball career, Robinson broke other color barriers, becoming the first black sports analyst, and first black vice president at a major corporation, Chock full o’Nuts. Robinson then finished his work career involved with politics, where his skin color was again a problem. Robinson later died in 1972 of a heart attack in his home.
Robinson’s cultural impact is impossible to measure. He paved the way for African American rights and gave all types of minorities around the country hope for a different life, where they can succeed. Robinson was, in every sense of the word, a hero. His number, 42, is retired throughout the entire MLB today; the only athlete in any professional sport in the United States to ever receive this honor.
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