This year, on April 15, every player on every Major League Baseball team will wear the number 42 to mark 75 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and entered professional sports.
Commentators will comment on his patience with white fans so filled with hate that they sent him death threats almost daily. People will talk about how he gave his fellow baseball players – who were wary of his presence – time to adjust to his presence on the field. They might even mention his years of service in the U.S. military and his arrest by military police after refusing a white bus driver’s order to sit in the back of an unsegregated bus line laid down. in place by the army.
People will say all of these things on Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball – and they’re all true. But what gets lost in all this talk of Robinson as a great civil rights figure is that he was also a great athlete.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, while in college, Robinson was UCLA’s first four-sport varsity athlete—not the first black. The first — period. The man ran track and field, played football, basketball and, of course, baseball. Apparently, Robinson excelled in every sport he played. After leaving the military, he focused on baseball and became a star.
In 1945, he was offered $400 a month to play for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League team, and batted a .387 while recording 13 stolen bases. He was so good that year that he played in the East-West All-Star Game; he was placed on a list of Negro League players who would likely excel in the major leagues.
Then, in 1946, Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, chose to defend Robinson and gave him a chance to work his way up to a major league team – and that point needs to be made. Robinson didn’t get the chance because he was black; it was not affirmative action: baseball edition. Rickey was not a benevolent white man who pushed Robinson for the good of all mankind. He knew there were good players in the black leagues. He just had to find the right person who had talent and could handle the pressure of being ‘first’. Once the former arrives, it would open the door to untapped talent waiting to take over the league.
So Robinson started this journey with the Montreal Royals, a AAA team. Once he joined the team, it took him a while to find the right position, but he dominated once he moved from shortstop to second base. He led this league with a .349 batting average and .985 faceoff percentage and was named Most Valuable Player.
Like I said: man could ball. He was such an all-around athlete that after finishing with Montreal – just before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers – he killed time playing professional basketball with a team called the Los Angeles Red Devils.
Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947, when he took the field as the Brooklyn Dodger. In his rookie year, he dominated. He played in 151 games that year for the Dodgers with a .297 batting average and .383 on-base percentage. He had 175 hits and scored 125 runs. He also led the league in stolen bases, which was predominant in the Negro League but not so much in the majors, with 29. His ability to steal bases drove pitchers crazy and ultimately was a game-changer. People saw how a great base runner could transform the dynamics of a game and started to implement Robinson’s style of play.
Robinson had such an overwhelming all-around performance that first year that he won Major League Baseball’s Rookie of the Year award. And all of this was done while he continued to receive death threats from baseball fans and was treated harshly by other teams (notably the St. Louis Cardinals – one reason I can’t stand this team to date).
He only played in the major leagues for 10 years and had six All-Star appearances. He was named National League MVP in 1949, National League batting champion in 1949 and World Series champion in 1955.
Yeah, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier – and he has to be remembered for that. However, what must not be allowed to happen, what we can not to let it go is to forget that he was also an incredible athlete.
Remember he received nothing. He earned everything he received. The man was an exceptional athlete. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.