Here’s to you…Mr. Robinson!
Jackie Robinson. That name, alone, evokes memories of pride, achievement, and a man who was able to “step out” from under the incorrect ‘rules’ of a society to become one of the biggest names in sports, as well as the Civil Rights Movement.
What many do not know is that, on October 18, 1972, Jackie Robinson gave his final interview to Larry Upton, who was a former shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers and a huge Boston radio personality. Six days after he spoke with Upton, Jackie Robinson – who was virtually blind and facing leg amputations as a result of complications from diabetes, passed away from a heart attack. But this seven minute interview went on to be called one of the greatest sports stories of the past twenty-five years.
Jackie Robinson was, and still is, a colossal icon in the world of baseball. But, unlike others, Jackie Robinson didn’t go down in history as the ‘homerun hero,’ or the man who pitched thousands of no-hitters. No. Jackie Robinson went far and above the ‘norm’ of baseball icons. This is a man who broke down the ‘color barrier’ – not only in baseball, but in life.
This amazing human being saw many triumphs and tragedies during his lifetime – including that of losing his eldest son, Jackie Jr., in a car accident while the young man had been going through a horrific time of drug abuse.
“Civil rights is not by any means the only issue that concerns me – nor, I think, any other Negro. As Americans, we have as much at stake in this country as anyone else. But since effective participation in a democracy is based upon enjoyment of basic freedoms that everyone else takes for granted, we need make no apologies for being especially interested in catching up on civil rights.”
These are the incredible words of Jack Roosevelt Robinson who was born in Cairo, Georgia in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers. His mother was a single mom, who raised Jackie and his four other siblings, and they were the only black family on their block. No one knew that from these humble beginnings, a Major League Baseball star would be born!
Jackie became the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track, while attending UCLA. And in 1941, Jackie was named to the ‘All-American Football Team.’ Unfortunately, because of lack of funds, Jackie ended up in the U.S. Army.
In 1942, Robinson was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. However, civil rights would soon come into play. Having the correct qualifications, Jackie Robinson and several other black soldiers, applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School (OCS) which was located at Fort Riley. Although the OCS had been stated as being race-neutral, very few African American applicants were admitted into the school. As a result, the applications of Jackie and his colleagues were delayed for several months. It wasn’t until after protests by heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis – also stationed at Fort Riley – that the men were finally accepted.
However, on July 6, 1944, an incident occurred that completely derailed Robinson’s military career while making our nation look, once again, ridiculous. Apparently, Jackie Robinson boarded an Army bus. Although the Army had commissioned its own un-segregated bus line, the driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus. When Jackie refused, the driver backed down, but when the bus came to its destination the driver summoned the MPs, who took Jackie into custody. Absurdly, Jackie was court-martialed in relation to his objections of racial discrimination. Even then, Jackie Robinson was striving to challenge the idiotic world on segregation, and would never be placed at ‘the back of the bus.’
Playing one season in 1945, in the Negro Baseball League, Jackie earned $400 per month and went back to his baseball ‘roots.’ But, six days before the start of the next season, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, invited Jackie to become part of the team. The Major Leagues had not had an African American player since 1889, which is the year that baseball became segregated.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his debut at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators. Although he failed to get a base hit, the Dodgers won, and Robinson became the first player since 1880 to openly break the major league baseball color line.
When Jackie first donned the Dodger uniform, number 42, he became a true pioneer in professional athletics. By breaking the color barrier in baseball -at the time, the nation’s favorite sport – Jackie challenged racial segregation in both the North and the South. And at the end of Robinson’s rookie season, he had walked away with the National League Rookie of the Year honor with 12 homeruns, a league-leading 29 steals, and a .297 average.
In 1949, Jackie was then selected as the National League’s Most Valuable Player of the Year, while also winning the batting title with a .342 average. It is no surprise that #42 – with all of his great success – wound up inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
As an African American baseball player, Jackie was on display for the whole country to judge – and they did. But with the help of his wife, Rachel, and their three children – Jackie Jr., Sharon, and David – Jackie Robinson was given a huge amount of emotional support to ‘rise above’ the pressure of his early days in baseball.
This is a legacy. Jackie Robinson is remembered as one of the most important people in American history. And, in 1997, the world celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Jackie’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier, by honoring him! On the date of Robinson’s historic debut, fifty years later, all Major League teams across the nation celebrated this milestone. Also that year, the United States Post Office honored Jackie Robinson by making him the subject of a commemorative postage stamp. And, on Tuesday, April 15th, 1997, President Bill Clinton paid tribute to Jackie at Shea Stadium in New York City at a special ceremony.
Major League Baseball retired uniform number 42, across all major league teams. And Jackie was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal for his service to America on and off that baseball diamond!
Jackie Robinson is a man who went down in history as someone who defied the world while defining civil rights. He stood his ground and stood up for diversity, and made a huge impact on American culture.
Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson, the best of the best!