In modern day Major League Baseball (MLB), there are hundreds of African Americans plying their trade in the biggest division in the world. They are heroes to fans of all creeds and thankfully, their presence is largely taken for granted.
Their talent is the only gateway to the MLB but for players of the past, that wasn’t always the case. In the current landscape, African Americans have one man to thank for the inroads made several decades ago and his name was Jackie Robinson.
A Notable ‘First’
Jackie Robinson was the first player of African American descent to ever appear in the MLB as he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson was promoted through the ranks and took his place at first base on April 15 of that year and from that point, the game changed for the better.
Prior to that point, African American players could only perform in their own leagues and their talents were lost on a wider audience. Jackie Robinson would go on to enjoy a brief, ten year career in the sport but it was one that yielded great success, both on a personal level, and for his team.
Jackie Robinson had exhibited a talent for many sports in his early life and he was to enjoy these to the full at John Muir High School. He excelled at basketball, American Football and on the track but he showed a particular strength in baseball.
Eventually, Robinson moved to UCLA where he continued to show outstanding ability in a number of sports. It’s felt that he might have had a choice of disciplines when it came to pursuing a professional career and, in fact, he was one of four black players to appear in the 1939 Bruins’ football team.
Sadly for Robinson and for many US athletes of the time, America’s involvement in the Second World War from 1941 to 1945 put a temporary halt on his sporting activities.
Post War Development
Robinson joined the military but, as hostilities came to an end, he quickly picked up his sporting career. Football was to take a back seat as the Kansas City Monarchs wrote to Robinson, officially offering him a place on their team which competed in the Negro Leagues. He duly signed on for a fee of $400 a month and made his debut in the same year.
The player impressed during his time with the Monarchs but the league was a chaotic and disorganised one. Robinson tried out, unsuccessfully, for the Boston Red Sox, and was eventually picked up by the Dodgers in 1946.
His pick wasn’t greeted with joy in all quarters and he would be forced to face the inevitable prejudice that would come his way. After a spell with the Montreal Royals in the international league in 1946, the time had come to make history.
After a successful spell while on secondment with those other clubs, Jackie Robinson was officially called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ roster ahead of the 1947 campaign. He took up a position as first baseman and the crowd of 26,000 was swelled by some 14,000 black supporters who had abandoned their usual team to cheer Robinson on.
There was some unrest within the team but manager Leo Durocher quelled any issues by promising to trade any player that wasn’t happy to have Robinson on board. He went on to finish that 1947 season having played an impressive 151 games, recording an average of .297 with 175 hits.
Jackie Robinson stayed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for the whole of what was to be a brief 10-year MLB career. He played his first game at the age of 28 so, it would be hard for him to continue and achieve the same levels in his late 30s to early 40s.
However, in that short time he achieved much and proved that the Dodgers were right to give him that chance. He would appear in six All Star teams in a consecutive run between 1949 and 1954 after finishing that first, 1947 season as the Rookie of the Year.
Further honours came his way via the NL MVP award in 1949 and, of course, he was a World Series Champion with the Dodgers in 1955. He was held in such high esteem that his team retired the number 42 shirt when he stopped playing and, on the back of that decision, the entire MLB followed suit.
Sadly, Jackie Robinson fell into ill health during his later years. Struggling with diabetes, heart disease and deteriorating eyesight, he died of a heart attack in October 1972 at the age of just 53. It was a sad end to a remarkable life but, as for Jackie Robinson’s legacy, that is guaranteed to be immortal.