April 15 is a hallowed in the world of Major League Baseball. Known as Jackie Robinson Day, it is in honor of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier becoming the first African American player in the major leagues. First established in 2004 in honor of the trailblazing second baseman; every player in the league sports his number 42 on their jersey, which was retired across the league in 1997.
No African American player had played in professional baseball since the 1880’s. They founded their very own professional baseball league known as the Negro Leagues. Robinson spent just a year out of college in the Negro Leagues before Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, offered him a minor league contract in 1946. The deal hinged on Robinson’s ability to turn the other cheek to racial epithets. When asked about this provision Robinson responded, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson made his debut in the big show just a year later on Opening Day, April 15, 1947 and went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
During his first season, he received countless racial slurs from fans and players including teammates. Dodgers manager, Leo Durocher, finally made the ultimatum to his team “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.” Once more on top of the racial epithets, he played a game that presented a great many dangers to his person throughout the season. At one point in his rookie year, he received a 7-inch gash to the leg during play. Robinson was not the only player who struggled for acceptance in the big leagues; Hank Greenberg was a Jewish major leaguer who also experienced racial epithets throughout his career. Greenberg gave Robinson words of encouragement during their encounters and even fellow Dodger teammate Pee Wee Reese backed up his new teammate saying, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them” while standing with him to boos of fans at a game in Cincinnati.
In the end, Robinson’s career spanned 10 years with the Brooklyn Dodgers in which he posted a career .317 average and compiled 1,518 hits. It saw him win Rookie of the Year in 1947,National League MVP in 1949, World Series Champ in 1955 and a six-time All Star from 1949-1954. He is a member of Major League Baseball’s All Century Team, which features the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig and Cy Young. Finally, he was elected to the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
His breakthrough of the color barrier in 1947 predated the first landmark Civil Rights case of Brown vs. Board in 1954 placing him as a trailblazer for African American rights. Even Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of Robinson as “a legend and a symbol in his own time”, and that he “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration”.