By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Jan. 31, 2019) — Jackie Robinson’s birthday 100 years ago today ought to be a time of reflection and celebration.
The world has changed in many ways since he was born — geopolitical norms and technological advances, life spans and new (and eradicated) diseases are but a few of the big changes.
And 72 years ago this April, Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s modern color barrier, appearing in his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
The significance of that day (April 15) cannot be overstated. It was a necessary declaration in a public forum that regardless of the color of a man’s skin he had the right to seek and gain employment in any field without being rejected because of his ethnicity.
And if Robinson hadn’t succeeded, who knows how much slower progress would have been.
American society has had numerous ups and downs since that day, but Jackie Robinson’s bravery in the face of brutal racism, hatred and death threats moved the United States in the right direction and helped paved the way for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others to emerge as powerful voices during the Civil Rights Movement.
Exhibit A: Eighty-nine years after Robinson’s birth, Barack Obama became the United States’ first African-American president. That historic 2008 day was another destination on the road to progress that Jackie Robinson was an integral part of.
In his autobiography (“I Never Had It Made”), which was published posthumously, Robinson discussed the heavy burden that he carried in his earliest days in the majors.
“I had to fight hard against loneliness, abuse and the knowledge that any mistake I made would be magnified because I was the only black man out there,” Robinson wrote.
“Many people resented my impatience and honesty, but I never cared about acceptance as much as I cared about respect.”
From the 1960s until his passing in 2016, boxer Muhammad Ali was never out of the spotlight. In a different way, Jackie Robinson also occupied a top place in the nexus of sports and society.
Or as Anderson succinctly put it in 1972: “For sociological impact, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was perhaps America’s most significant athlete.”
Six years before he died in 2017, legendary journalist Jimmy Breslin penned a thoughtful, terse book, “Branch Rickey” about the Dodgers executive who signed Robinson in the fall of 1945.
Breslin began his prologue this way: “Beautiful. When they ask me to write a book about a Great American, right away I say yes. When I say yes I always mean no. They ask me to choose a subject, and I say Branch Rickey. He placed the first black baseball player into the major leagues. His name was Jackie Robinson. He helped clear the sidewalks for Barack Obama to come into the White House. As it only happened once in the whole history of the country, I would say that is pretty good. The some editors told me they never hear of Rickey. Which I took as an insult, a disdain for what I know, as if it’s not important enough for them to bother with.
“So now I had to write the book.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning sports reporter Dave Anderson wrote Robinson’s obituary in October 1972 for The New York Times. The Baseball Hall of Famer, a six-time All-Star and six-time World Series participant, died at age 53 of a heart attack.
In the article, Robinson’s impact on baseball was clearly spelled out.
Elston Howard, who became the first black ballplayer for the New York Yankees in 1955, provided an important perspective.
“He meant everything to a black ballplayer,” Howard was quoted as saying. “I don’t think the young players would go through what he did. He did it for all of us, for Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Maury Wills, myself.
“Jack said he hoped someday to see a black manager in baseball. Now I hope some of the owners will see how important that would be as the next step.”
Anderson also quoted the late New York Giants outfielder Monte Irvin, another Hall of Famer.
“Jackie Robinson opened the door of baseball to all men,” said Irwin. “He was the first to get the opportunity, but if he had not done such a great job, the path would have been so much more difficult.”
Anderson’s comprehensive reporting also included the viewpoints of all-time great NBA center Bill Russell, who understood that Robinson was the driving force behind African-Americans’ support for the Dodgers.
“They picked up 20 million fans instantly,” Russell was quoted as saying. “But to most black people, Jackie was a man, not a ballplayer. He did more for baseball than baseball did for him. He was someone that young black athletes could look up to.”
Recognition in 1997
In 1997, MLB made the unprecedented decision to retire Robinson’s No. 42 throughout the league. Nowadays, no current players wear that number on their jersey. It’s a permanent honor that pays proper respect to Robinson.
On April 15, 1997, President Bill Clinton attended the Mets game that day, marking the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s first game at Shea Stadium in New York. Rachel Robinson was also present at the ballpark, and after the fifth inning Clinton said that Robinson “changed the face of baseball and the face of America forever,” Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune reported.
On the same day, Hersh visited Jackie Robinson Middle School 320 in Brooklyn, which had an enrollment of 1,400 at the time. Hersh observed that the public school faced the same challenges that plague countless urban education centers throughout the country.
“The ballplayers who have benefited from Jackie Robinson’s courage make up to $11 million a year for playing a socially insignificant game,” Hersh wrote. “The school that bears his name needs a CD player and books and paint and a chance to pass on some of the hope we all want to believe Robinson generated when he broke a color barrier.”
To honor Robinson and his commitment to giving back to society, his family established the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973, and Debora Young, the first JRF scholar, graduated from Boston College in May 1978. Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, attended the ceremony and handed Young her diploma.
The JRF Alumni Association was set up in the spring of 1987, with peer mentors and regional committees becoming a vital part of its growth and outreach. The Jackie Robinson Invitational Golf Classic began in 1994 in Pacific Palisades, California.
Leonard S. Coleman Jr., president of the National League, succeeded Rachel Robinson as the foundation chairman in 1996.
In March 2003, two big achievements were reached that underscored the foundation’s commitment to providing educational opportunities. At that time, the 100th JRF scholar was chosen, and the organization surpassed $10 million in scholarship aid.
The foundation’s remarkable commitment to education benefits society as a whole, empowering people from all walks of life. The 40 members of the Class of 2018 were chosen from a pool of more than 2,900 applicants from the minority scholarship program, according to the foundation.
This spring, the Jackie Robinson Museum is scheduled to open in New York City.
“Jackie contributed to our society in profound ways and we want to highlight the many aspects of those contributions particularly this year, the centennial of his birth,” JRF president Della Britton Baeza said in a news release. “We look forward to expanding our mission of education and sharing his story with visitors of all ages at the Jackie Robinson Museum…”
Said Sharon Robinson, discussing the vision of her mother, Rachel, and her family to honor her father: “It has been our family’s dream to have a physical space where my father’s legacy and the values by which he lived could inspire others, and we’re very excited.”
Flashback: Don Newcombe reminisces
In a two-part exclusive that appeared in the New York Post in January 2009, columnist Peter Vecsey recounted former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe’s experiences after the pitcher joined the NL team in 1949.
The solidarity among the team’s black players was an important aspect of Vecsey’s reporting. The compelling anecdotes and quotes also painted a vivid picture of the difficulties and injustices that Newcombe and Robinson and others faced.
Wrote Vecsey in part I: “When Newcombe received an honorable discharge and rejoined the Dodgers in 1954, his first trip to St. Louis enraged him; things were completely unchanged.”
Then he quoted Newcombe: “Here I’d served my country in the U.S. Army while my team had twice reached the World Series – costing me a lot of money – and I’m not allowed to stay at the same hotel as my white teammates!”
Vecsey’s column continued: “Newcombe told his cabbie to keep the meter running in front of the Adams and went in and found Robinson.
“I’m sick of this (bleep),” he recalled saying. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to take this (bleep) anymore. I’m going over to the Chase.
“‘I’m with you,’ ” Jackie said.
“Again, the cab driver was told to keep his meter going as the pair went inside and asked to speak to the manager. He took them to the dining area and asked, “What can I do for you, gentlemen?”
“You know who we are, right? So why can’t we stay in your hotel?”
“We don’t want you swimming in the pool.”
“Robinson claimed he couldn’t swim. Newcombe asserted he didn’t swim during the season ’cause he was afraid of hurting his arm.
“Then you can stay at the hotel,” the manager decreed, according to Newcombe.
What’s reported next serves as a reminder that voices of conscience make a difference.
“At first they were restricted to eating meals in their room,” Vecsey wrote. “One night after a game, Robinson and Newcombe took the elevator to the dining room on the top floor, where Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were doing their comedy act. Service was refused.”
Newcombe then dished out these important nuggets of information: “I think it was Jerry who notified the manager, ‘Either you wait on them or we’re not going to entertain.’ That settled that.’
“The next morning, the four of them had breakfast in the downstairs coffee shop,” Vecsey reported.
For this piece, the goal was to give a voice to others who have closely observed the societal impact that Robinson made beyond the baseball diamond.
Here are a few of those voices, with comments compiled within the past few weeks:
Dan Evans, a former Los Angeles Dodgers executive
When Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s 100th birthday is celebrated on Jan. 31, we will be honoring one of the greatest Americans, a superior athlete in four sports whose on-field impact was Hall of Fame caliber, yet his affect on society considerably more significant. I marvel at Robinson’s courage, his amazing balance of a relentless passion to excel while shattering baseball’s color barrier. Jackie displayed extraordinary resilience, amazing character, and was willing to overcome unimaginable racism that existed at the time. When No. 42 took the field on April 15, 1947, against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field at age 28, somehow he was ready for an extraordinary challenge.
During my time as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ executive vice president and general manager, I spent a considerable amount of time learning more about Robinson, whom I had always admired greatly and considered a Great American. I wanted his accomplishments recognized as a priority for our franchise and the area, making the next generation aware of his greatness. I was lucky to hear first-hand stories about his unique journey from former Dodger teammates and staff members. Their recollections were fascinating, alarming, and disturbing. For more than a decade, I lived near Robinson’s boyhood home, spending considerable time learning more about his path en route to becoming one of America’s most impactful individuals.
The United States of America needed Jackie Robinson, and he certainly delivered. There have been 19,103 players in major league history, but none had as large a challenge or as much impact.
We are so much better as a game, and even more so as a nation. One hundred years since his birth, I’m so grateful for Jackie.
Dave Sims, TV play-by-play voice of the Seattle Mariners
I know I wouldn’t currently be the only MLB TV (play-by-play) announcer who is black without the lifetime achievements of Jackie Robinson. I’ve said that to Mrs. Robinson … and I thanked Mrs. Robinson as well.
Brian Handzel, reporter, 27 Outs Baseball website
Every baseball fan knows that Jackie Robinson paved the way for African-American players to play in the major leagues, but what impact did he have on American society as a whole?
Robinson played 10 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers, with his last game being played on Sept. 30, 1956. In 1962, Robinson was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and was featured on 77.5 percent of the votes (124 out of 160).
Jackie was not the most liked player in the majors when he made his debut. There were often times that the Dodgers had to change hotels that they were staying at, due to the discrimination that was emanating from the people in the area, but luckily Jackie was a strong enough human being to withstand that, and stand up for what he knew was correct. In 1947, American was just coming out of a victory in World War II, and they were not considered a leader because of the fact that they oppressed their own people, and Jackie Robinson was instrumental in the turnaround of America, as a world leader.
Without Jackie Robinson being as brave as he was, America as we know it could be completely different. Without Robinson’s bravery to stand up for what was right and take the abuse that he did, we, as Americans may not be known as a world leader. I am proud to be an American and I am even more proud that Jackie Robinson was able to withstand all of the social injustices to not only play a game that he loved professionally, but to change the path of American history.
Nick Diunte, baseball writer and historian
Reading stories as a kid about Jackie Robinson’s toughness both on and off the field inspired my aggressive approach as a baseball player throughout high school and college. I admired how he performed in the face of hate and segregation to break down barriers in the sport that I so deeply love. I was so moved by Robinson’s achievements that I used his famous “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” quote in my high school yearbook. His words served as a gentle reminder for my purpose as I pursued teaching, coaching, and writing – and that is to think about how I can give back to my students and my readers in a way that is impactful in their lives.
Peter Kerasotis, prolific sports journalist and author of Felipe Alou’s 2018 memoir, “Alou: My Baseball Life”
I had an aunt who passed away in her 90s a few years back who was at that first game Jackie Robinson played in for the Brooklyn Dodgers. My father and his siblings all grew up in Brooklyn. My aunt had a girlfriend who had tickets to Opening Day on April 15, 1947. It didn’t mean that much to her then, but years later she would always mention that she was there the first time Jackie Robinson played in a Major League game.
One of my great regrets as a columnist is that I never tapped into her for the full story. It was always just a part of family lore. Now she is gone.
Also, in Chapter 2 of Felipe Alou’s autobiography, he talks about how the first time he saw two teams wearing real baseball uniforms and playing a game was in 1948, when the Dodgers were playing spring training games in the Dominican Republic. Felipe was just a boy, but it impacted him. He became a Dodgers fan after that, and it gave him a sense that maybe a black man could play MLB baseball.