by Ken Zornes
On April 15th millions of American will take part in that annual ritual of filing their federal income tax returns. Another significant event on that day will be overlooked by most of us, save for those attending major league baseball games where every player on every team will be wearing jersey number 42.
It was April 15, 1947 when Jack Roosevelt Robinson trotted out to his first base position at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn wearing jersey number 42, and became the first black player in major league history. Robinson went hitless in three at bats, reached base on an error and then scored the winning run as the Dodgers beat the Boston Braves 5-3.
As a major leaguer, Robinson proved his worth over a ten year career which included being named to the National League All-Star team 6 times, the Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, a 1955 World Series Championship and induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Jackie Robinson will be remembered in baseball parks around the country on April 15 not only for his exploits on the field but even more so for his courage and determination as one of America’s great civil rights leaders.
Few people could have handled the pressure and endured the abject degradation and outright hatred hurled at Robinson during that rookie season of 1947. Branch Rickey, an owner and President of the Dodgers in 1947 was determined to break the color barrier in major league baseball. He needed a pioneer, a man who could keep his cool, withstand the verbal and physical abuse, and play the game at the highest level. He found that man in Jackie Robinson.
The resistance began immediately. Some of his own Brooklyn Dodger teammates said they wouldn’t play with Robinson on the team. That is until manager Leo Durocher told them Robinson would help them get to the World Series and make them a lot of money and if they didn’t want to make a lot of money he would trade them. They played. The St. Louis Cardinals threatened to strike if Robinson came to St. Louis to play but Commissioner Happy Chandler told them any striking player would be suspended. They played.
None of this was new to Robinson. While serving in the US Army and a decade before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson, an officer and a gentleman, boarded an Army bus and refused to move to the back as ordered by the bus driver. This incident resulted in Robinson being court-martialed for insubordination and then acquitted by an all-white panel of military officers.
Robinson was considered by many to be opinionated, stubborn and combative. Robinson himself would not have disagreed with that characterization. He said, “I had to fight 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 died from complications of diabetes and heart failure on October 24, 1972; he was only 53 years old. Jackie Robinson didn’t just make baseball better, he made America better.