Extraordinary lives often reveal ordinary truths. Jackie Robinson was born in 1919 and died in 1972. He crammed into these brief fifty-three years a legacy of accomplishment, acclaim, controversy, and influence matched by few Americans. He was, even before his historic baseball breakthrough, an athlete of legendary proportions. He won fame and adulation as the first African-American to play in the major leagues in the twentieth century, launching an athletic revolution that transformed American sports. He garnered baseball's highest honors: Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. More significantly, Robinson became a symbol of racial integration and a prominent leader in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet Jackie Robinson's half century among us illuminates not just the contours of an exceptional life, but much about the broader African-American experience of those years.
Jackie Robinson was born in Georgia in the heart of the segregated South, the grandson of a slave and the son of sharecrop farmers. While Jackie was still an infant, his father, Jerry Robinson, abandoned the family. His mother, Mallie, seeking a better life for Jackie and his four older siblings, joined the post-World War "great migration" of African Americans out of the South. Most blacks traveled to the eastern metropolises: New York, Philadelphia, Washington, or to Midwestern manufacturing centers like Chicago and Detroit. Mallie Robinson, on the advice of a brother, headed west to California.
African Americans were relatively rare in California in the 1920s. Although Mexican-born blacks had figured prominently in the early settlement of the region, by the early twentieth century blacks accounted for only 1 percent of the state's population. Those who lived there confronted a pattern of discrimination common to the American West. Although few laws addressed the issue of black-white relations, widely established and accepted practices defined the limits of tolerance. Few hotels, restaurants, or recreational facilities accepted African Americans. Restrictive covenants and other less formal practices barred blacks from living in most neighborhoods. Job discrimination impeded economic advancement. African Americans met hostility at almost every turn from strangers, neighbors, and police.
Thus Jackie Robinson grew up in an environment quite similar to that of other children of the great migration. Raised in a family without a father and sustained by their mother's income from domestic work-the most commonly available job for an African-American woman-the Robinsons lived in poverty, held together by their mother's indomitable spirit and strong sense of Methodist moralism. As a teenager in Pasadena, Robinson ran with local street gangs and experienced inevitable confrontations with the easily provoked local police, resulting in at least one arrest.
However, if southern California offered a harsh existence, it also proffered opportunities unavailable in most other locales. The absence of tenements and the predominance of single-family houses allowed Mallie Robinson to buy a home for her family. The lack of restrictions on black athletic participation opened an avenue of success to her sons. First, Jackie's older brother Mack, who starred at the University of Oregon and at the 1936 Olympic Games, and then Jackie, who won renown in four sports at Pasadena City College and UCLA, took advantage of this option.
Robinson's years at UCLA introduced him to high-level interracial competition. Unlike his later career, Robinson was not "the first" African-American athlete at UCLA. All-American Kenny Washington, like Robinson an extraordinary all-around athlete, who starred in football, baseball, and basketball, and future movie actor Woody Strode both preceded Robinson at UCLA. Robinson's childhood friend, Ray Bartlett, was the fourth black starter on the 1939 football team. While most black athletes of the era played for Negro colleges or in Negro Leagues and on down teams like the Harlem Globetrotters, Robinson achieved his initial stardom on integrated playing fields.
Even more significantly, in his senior year at UCLA, Robinson met his future wife, Rachel Isum. Rachel, a freshman, was five years younger than Jackie, and came from a more secure black middle-class background. She was a third-generation Californian, a rare status among African Americans, had earned an academic scholarship to UCLA, and maintained a straight A average. Rachel's calm, warm, thoughtful manner complemented Jackie's fiery impetuousness. They formed an enduring bond of mutual love and support that would gird them through the challenging years ahead.
Like others of their generation, Jackie and Rachel found their courtship interrupted by World War II. Robinson's army career typified the African-American military experience. Drafted in April 1942 and assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas, Robinson ran an endless gauntlet of racial discrimination. He was barred from Officers' Candidate School, blocked from playing on the camp baseball team, and restricted to segregated facilities. Robinson, however, applied both his aggressiveness and celebrity to demand better treatment. He rose to the rank of lieutenant and waged a campaign to improve conditions for black soldiers at Fort Riley. After his transfer to Fort Hood in Texas, Robinson refused to move to the back of a military bus and defied the officers who attempted to discipline him, resulting in a court-martial that might have led to dishonorable discharge. A military tribunal acquitted Robinson of all charges, but the episode nonetheless left its mark and intensified Robinson's commitment to racial justice.
Upon his release from the army, Robinson faced a familiar dilemma for African Americans. Although at the peak of his athletic talents and good enough to star in any of the major American team sports, Robinson, like his brother Mack, and Kenny Washington before him, had few professional options. Neither organized baseball, the National Football League, nor most major basketball teams accepted black players. Robinson's best alternative was to cast his lot with baseball's Negro Leagues, and in the spring of 1945 he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs.
There can be little doubt that, at their best, the Negro Leagues played a high level of baseball, featuring some of the game's greatest stars. Robinson's own 1945 Monarch team included standout pitchers Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith. Opposing players included future Baseball Hall of Famers Buck Leonard, Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella, and Martin Dihigo. For Robinson, however, the Negro Leagues proved a distasteful experience. Accustomed to the highly structured training and scheduling of major college sports and hostile to all forms of segregation, Robinson considered the Negro Leagues a step down rather than a leg up. The long, hot bus rides through the South, the degrading treatment at gas stations and other white-owned facilities, and the players' own informal approach to most nonleague contests frustrated Robinson. An intensely private individual who neither smoked, drank, nor enjoyed what Paige called the "social ramble," Robinson never really fit in among the Monarchs. Although Robinson performed well with Kansas City, batting .387 and starting as shortstop in the East-West All-Star Game, and despite the fact that he gained invaluable training and exposure to top-flight baseball competition, Robinson, unlike most of his teammates and rivals, always disparaged his brief stint in the Negro Leagues.
Unbeknownst to Robinson, his performances with the Monarchs attracted intense scrutiny. Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey had secretly decided to bring blacks into the major leagues and, under the guise of forming a new Brown Dodger squad, assigned his top scouts to evaluate Negro League talent. From the start, Robinson was high on Rickey's list of prospects. In April Pittsburgh Courier sportswriter Wendell Smith arranged a tryout with the Boston Red Sox for Robinson and two other Negro League stars. The Red Sox, who agreed to the audition in the face of local political pressure, never considered signing Robinson. Shortly thereafter, Rickey met with Smith and quizzed him about potential players for the Brown Dodgers. Smith, who might have suspected Rickey's true intentions, recommended Robinson.
Branch Rickey often offered conflicting reasons for his historic decision to desegregate baseball. At times he spoke of the need to eradicate the memory of a black college player whom he had coached in 1904 who had wept when barred from staying with his teammates at a Midwestern hotel. At others he expressed moral and religious concerns. Almost as frequently, he denied any noble intentions and invoked his desire to field the best possible team. "The Negroes will make us winners for years to come," he accurately predicted. In addition, he surely recognized that in attracting fans from New York City's growing African-American population and by fielding winning teams, he would boost Dodger attendance. A combination of these factors, and a desire to make a mark in history beyond the boundaries of baseball, motivated Rickey.
What is often forgotten in light of the unequivocal success of the Rickey-Robinson alliance are the extraordinary risks that Rickey assumed in signing Robinson. Although Rickey correctly perceived that integration would bring profits, most major league magnates believed that luring more blacks to the ballpark would, in the words of New York Yankee owner Larry MacPhail, "result in lessening the value of several major league franchises." While Rickey felt that fears of player opposition and fan violence were exaggerated, he could exert minimal control over these possibilities.
Furthermore, in selecting Jackie Robinson, Rickey took a great gamble. Although a seasoned athlete, Robinson had minimal baseball experience. Other than his five months with the Monarchs, Robinson had not played serious competitive baseball since leaving UCLA five years earlier. Few considered him the best player in the Negro Leagues. More ominously, Rickey-who had traveled to California and done extensive research on Robinson's background-was well aware of the athlete's tempestuous nature and capacity for controversy. "Jackie had a genius for getting into extracurricular scrapes," wrote one Los Angeles sportswriter. His problems in the army, also known to Rickey, reinforced this image. Rickey discounted many of these reports, noting that most of Robinson's difficulties stemmed from asserting his rights or in response to discrimination. If Robinson were white, Rickey reasoned, his aggressiveness, both on and off the field, would have been "praised to the skies." This behavior by an African American, however, was "offensive to some white people." Rickey believed that rather than offend whites, Robinson's racial pride and combativeness, if consciously curbed, would rally them to his cause.
Other elements of Robinson's history and personality appealed to Rickey. Robinson boasted a college education and had been an army officer. He was intelligent, articulate, and comfortable in the limelight. He had, unlike most Negro League players, extensive experience in high-level interracial competition. In addition, Robinson had the type of athletic skills that Rickey always admired in a ballplayer: speed (the only crucial skill that Rickey believed could not be taught), daring, and a fierce competitive drive.
Before signing Robinson, however, Rickey elicited a promise from the young African American. Regardless of the vile insults he might face from opposing players, fans, or off the field during his early years in baseball, Robinson would not respond. He would curb his naturally combative instincts and "turn the other cheek." Robinson, who fully understood and welcomed the magnitude of the challenge confronting him, readily agreed.
In February 1946 Jackie Robinson married Rachel Isum in a church wedding in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, they departed for spring training in Florida to launch "baseball's great experiment." The South that Jackie Robinson entered in 1946 was a land of rigid segregation, lynchings, and racial oppression, the dismantling of Jim Crow a seemingly distant dream. Two years later, President Harry S. Truman would order the desegregation of the armed forces. Eight years would pass before the U.S. Supreme Court would issue its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. Seventeen-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr., was attending classes at Morehouse College. Robinson thus became what one writer has called "a one man civil rights movement."
From the moment of their arrival in Florida, the Robinsons encountered the specter of Jim Crow. In Pensacola, airline officials removed them from their scheduled flight. At Sanford, threats of violence forced Jackie and Rachel out of town. In Jacksonville and Deland, public officials refused to allow him to play. On one occasion a local sheriff paraded onto the field and demanded Robinson's ouster in mid-game. Yet Robinson, assigned to the Montreal Royals of the International League, the Dodgers' top farm club, participated freely in games at the Dodger home base in Daytona Beach and fans, both black and white, greeted his appearances enthusiastically. Local business leaders in many Florida communities, cognizant of the profits and publicity generated by baseball training camps, courted the integrated Dodgers for future seasons. While Rickey would shy away from bringing Robinson and the Dodgers back to Florida in 1947, Robinson had established an important precedent. Within just three years, cities throughout Florida and the rest of the South would clamor to host the Jackie Robinson Dodgers.
Throughout the ensuing 1946 season, Robinson, in the words of New York Amsterdam News columnist Joe Bostic, "ascended the heights of excellence to prove the rightness of the experiment. And prove it in the only correct crucible for such an experiment-the crucible of white hot competition." In the Royals' opening game at Jersey City, Robinson unveiled his charismatic ability to convert challenges into transcendent moments. The Montreal second baseman garnered four hits, including a three-run home run, scored four times, stole two bases, and twice scored from third by inducing the opposing pitcher to balk.
This extraordinary debut proved a prologue for an equally remarkable
season. Despite a rash of brushback pitches, spiking attempts, threats of race
riots in Baltimore (the league's southern-most city), and vile harassment by
opposing players, Robinson led the International League in batting average
(.349) and in runs scored (113). He finished second in stolen bases and
registered the highest fielding percentage of any second baseman.
Excerpted from Extra Bases by Jules Tygiel Copyright © 2002 by University of Nebraska Press
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