April 15 is known for being tax day in the United States, in Major League Baseball it is Jackie Robinson day.
Robinson was 28 when he broke baseball’s color barrier 67 years ago when he took the field to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was the first black man to play in the big leagues since 1889.
Dodgers owner Branch Rickey had the courage to bring a black player to MLB. He signed Robinson to a contract in 1946 where he played for Brooklyn’s top farm team, the Montreal Royals of the International League.
In the 1920s Rickey was the baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan University. When the team was on the road in Indiana, they went to check into a hotel. Their catcher, Charles Thomas, who was black, was told he could not stay with the rest of the team. Rickey talked the clerk into letting his catcher stay in his room.
When Rickey got to the room, Thomas was crying saying “Mr. Rickey, it’s my skin. If I could just tear it off.”
Ken Burns’ documentary Baseball quoted Rickey as saying “For over twenty years I’ve had that image of him crying, and now I’m going to do something about it.”
Rickey made Robinson pledge for the first three years not to fight back against the abuse and backlash that he would endure. The name-calling was relentless- coming from fans, opponents, and sometimes his own teammates.
Robinson’s widow Rachel, 91, told Sports Illustrated in 2013 “There was an incredible amount of pressure, it might have driven two people apart. But it had the opposite effect on us, it pushed us together.”
Rachel Robinson started the Jackie Robinson fund over forty years ago which helps send students to college.
The number 42 was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997 to honor Robinson. It is the only number retired by all teams. Since 2009, every player wears 42 on April 15.
The inspiration Robinson gave is not lost on current players.
“I owe everything I have to Jackie Robinson,” Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said. “If he didn’t have the strength to go through what he did, and just walked away, who knows what would have happened? He was a great man, not only for what he did for baseball, but for society in breaking down so many barriers.”
“What he went through,” Braves outfielder B.J. Upton said, “I don’t think a lot of us today could deal with what he dealt with.”
Robinson won the Rookie Of The Year award in 1947 and National League MVP in 1949.
In his autobiography I Never Had It Made he wrote “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. Many people resented my impatience and honesty, but I never cared about acceptance as much as I cared about respect.”
Jackie Robinson suffered a heart attack at his home in Stamford, CT on October 24, 1972 and died at Stamford Hospital.
[Image via sportsillustrated.cnn.com]