April 15, 1947, marks the day that Jackie Robinson, the first African American to officially play major league baseball, took the field as a Brooklyn Dodger. Breaking the color barrier in baseball with impressive athletic abilities is no small feat, but in addition to his successful baseball career he was able to serve as a voice for the Civil Rights movement. To be an inspiration to African Americans across the United States, Robinson overcame many obstacles that arose because of his race as a child and even into his adult life.
Before entering the baseball sphere, Robinson faced many challenges that directly stemmed from the fact that he was an African American. Robinson’s family was poor and moved into a predominantly white neighborhood in Pasadena in 1920. Their initial reception was unpleasant with their white neighbors petitioning their moving in, offering to buy them out, and harassing them after they refused to move. Throughout their time in Pasadena, the family faced racial challenges and discrimination. Pasadena still had Jim Crow laws during this time, one of which dictated that blacks could only use the public pool one day a week. A judge ordered for this law to be overturned and granted black citizens full access to the pool, which caused many white employers in the city to fire all black employees in retaliation. Jackie’s older brother Mack was fired as a result, and Jackie was able to see firsthand how the issues regarding race were affecting him and his family. Robinson was athletically gifted and grew up playing many sports including baseball, football, basketball, and track. In 1940 and 1941, Robinson gained national fame playing sports at UCLA by becoming the first-four letter athlete, but was forced to drop out of school due to financial hardship. To earn money, Robinson began playing football professionally up until the point the he was drafted for the army in 1942. During his enlistment in the army, Robinson continued to face racial challenges and discrimination. For example, he was originally denied entry into Officer Candidate School, even with his college background, most likely because he was black. Another soldier intervened, leading to an investigation that resulted in the decision being reversed and other black soldiers were granted entry into OCS who had been denied on the basis of race. While on the army base, various sports teams were formed for sports like football and baseball to keep the soldiers entertained. Interestingly enough, Robinson was not allowed to join the segregated baseball team; however, he was encouraged to join the football team since he was athletically gifted. Recognizing the unfairness of not being allowed to play on the segregated baseball team, Robinson ended up refusing to play on any of the army sponsored sports teams. Robinson’s final issue with race in the army was when he defied a white bus driver’s order to move to the back of the bus. During this time, African Americans were expected to sit in the back of the bus because they were viewed as inferior, but Robinson was defiant when it came to racial expectations. Robinson’s refusal to move to the back of the bus when asked led to his arrest and court-martial. After this instance, the army decided they were done with Robinson’s rebellious behavior. In November of 1944 the army decided to honorably discharge Robinson after he coached black athletics teams in Kentucky on an army base. Robinson’s background and experience with racial challenges had a huge impact on his later involvement with wanting to break the color barrier and the Civil Rights movement.
Branch Rickey was the general manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1943-1950 and was looking for an African American to change things up in major league baseball. A large factor that influenced Rickey’s decision to choose Robinson for this task was because Robinson had been so outspoken about racial inequality in the past and he was undeniably talented. Robinson began playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro baseball team, at the beginning of 1945. While on the road, the Monarchs faced many challenges because of Jim Crow laws and Robinson found the experience to be extremely frustrating. Prior to Rickey taking an interest in Robinson, the Boston Red Sox held a tryout for Robinson and other black players at Fenway Park to give them their shot at going pro. This tryout was later discovered to be for show and was designed to make it seem as though the MLB was willing to desegregate, when in reality none of the players trying out had any chance of making the team. Rickey selected Robinson to break the color barrier and in a famous exchange the two came to an agreement that Robinson needed to be a player with guts enough not to fight back in the face of all the verbal and even physical abuse he would receive. On October 23, 1945, Robinson signed to play for the Montreal Royals, which was a minor league team that was a part of the Dodgers organization. Post World War II, the integration movement was gaining momentum with African American soldiers having served and died beside their white comrades, but MLB executives were still resistant to having blacks in their league such as Jackie Robinson. When Rickey announced Robinson’s signing black newspapers praised him and in national publications the response was relatively positive; however, organized baseball showed extreme disapproval of Rickey’s attempt to integrate baseball. Many media outlets slandered Robinson and downplayed his talents to make it appear as though Robinson had no place playing in the historically white sport. At the season opener for the Royals, Robinson performed fantastically and showed all of his opposers that he was there to stay. Major league baseball’s reasoning for keeping the league segregated consisted of two main factors. The first was that they claimed that there were no blacks talented enough to compete at such a high level. The second was that they believed there would be financial concerns with white spectators refusing to watch blacks play, and they might not want to sit with black spectators. Jackie Robinson made both of these reasons invalid with his impressive performance and he became a sensation which got even more fans to come out and watch games. A few days before the start of the 1947 season, Robinson was called up to the major leagues to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson taking the field as the first African American to officially play in major league baseball was a historic event and brought hope to many African Americans across the country. His MLB career was very successful despite the racial challenges he faced including having his Southern teammates petition for him to be kicked off the team, receiving death threats in Cincinnati, and pitchers pitching at his head. One of the most famous and cruel events Robinson had to endure was when playing the Philadelphia Phillies. The manager of Phillies, Ben Chapman, was verbally abusive to Robinson in an attempt to bait him into lashing out which actually led to more people supporting Robinson who had not previously. Ultimately, Robinson played a key role in the integration of major league baseball and had a lasting impact on the sport. Today, the number 42 which was Robinson’s number has been retired because of the respect he gained and his being a representative for racial equality.
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