The 75th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson Breaking the Color Barrier in Major League Baseball

Friday, April 15, 2022

Copyrighted by Sarah Morris, 2022

Seventy-five years ago today, Jack “Jackie” Roosevelt Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and it was the most important contribution that any professional sport has ever made to society. Most Americans do not know what segregation feels like in 2022, but I, as a physically disabled woman, have experienced both segregation and discrimination.

While born in Cairo, Georgia, Jackie was a year old when he and his family moved to Pasadena, California, an upper-class white community near Los Angeles. Somehow, Jackie’s mother, Mallie, working as a domestic, could buy a small house on Pepper Street. The Robinson family experienced prejudice, which made the youngest Robinson tough.

Unlike what most people think, Pasadena did not have a prejudice against African Americans. When the Robinson family grew up, they could use the community pool only one time a week, and afterward, the city drained the pool. I do not know what else the Robinson family had to endure.

About fifty years later, I was born in Pasadena. Since the federal government ruled Pasadena must bus to integrate the school, sending property values down, my parents could buy a house about six blocks from where the Robinson family lived. Jackie went to John Muir High School. Despite living in the same school district as

the Robinson family, I was not allowed to attend John Muir High School since I use a wheelchair. Although my high school had an elevator, my high school was much more hilly than Muir. For one summer, I could attend Muir and loved it.

While at Muir, Jackie emerged as a great athlete. His older brother Mack Robinson earned a silver medal in 200m, just behind Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin, Germany where Adolf Hitler was Führer. Although Mack graduated from the University of Oregon, he worked as a street sweeper. He was a constant presence at Pasadena Games, a track meet. Later in life, Mack helped the Pasadena Police Department to fight crime among the black population. He died in 2000 at the age of 85.

After graduating from Muir, Jackie went to Pasadena City College (PCC) and lettered in four sports – football, basketball, baseball, and track. Even in the late 1980s and in the early 1990s, when I attended PCC, there were a very few blacks in my classes. I only could imagine how many black classmates Jackie had.

Robinson continued to UCLA to be an athletic superstar. He was dismayed about having no blacks in his classes. He won the NCAA Long Jump competition. He played in Rose Bowl. While at UCLA, he played baseball, but it was his poorest sport. Meeting his future wife Rachel Isum was the most important aspect of his time at UCLA. After he lost his athletic eligibility, he dropped out of UCLA, citing his mother needing him to go to work.

Just before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Robinson played football in Hawaii. As most American able-bodied males did, Robinson joined the United States Army to participate in World War II, but he never saw combat. He was an officer. However, while he was based at Fort Hood, he refused to go to the back of an Army bus, he was court-martialed and was acquitted. In November 1944, Robinson was given an honorable discharge. When I moved to Texas in October 1995, I frequently heard “Nigger,” and I was offended even though I am white.

After leaving the Army, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs, the premier team in the Negro Leagues. Although Major League Baseball scouts thought Robinson’s throwing arm was weak, Robinson played shortstop. He soon became a superstar when he hit .414 with one homer. In the Negro Leagues, teams traveled by bus, and many gas stations did not allow black players to use their restrooms. When Robinson learned this, he changed the practice since the owners were selling ninety-nine gallons of gasoline. Unless the players could use the restroom, the gas station would not sell any gas. Life in the Negro Leagues was difficult since most hotels and restaurants would not serve blacks. The players must play many doubleheaders after riding the bus all night, and the Negro Leagues did not have an injured list. Unless a Negro League player played no matter if he was injured, he did not play. The salaries in the Negro Leagues were terrible, forcing their stars to barnstorm during the offseason.

For many years, black players wanted to integrate Major League Baseball, but Major League Baseball had a gentleman’s agreement that would not allow the black players to perform in the Majors. When Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a racist, became the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball in 1920, no one dared to cross him. He simply did not want black players to participate with white players in the national pastime. He was the Commissioner of Major League Baseball until his death in

November 1944.

Every time a minority group wants to make a social change, it needs an open-minded person to help it. Branch Rickey, a pious man, loved baseball, and he invented many things that helped the game.

A shrewd businessman, Rickey wanted to make money, and he understood winning teams made more money than losing ones. While with the Saint Louis Cardinals, Rickey created both spring training and the foundation of the modern Minor League system. While in college in Ohio, Rickey saw a black player mistreated and felt like he did not do enough to help. He wanted to right that wrong, and he saw an opportunity to attract black fans. Rickey viewed the Negro Leagues as automatic free Minor Leagues.

In 1942, after spending two decades with the Cardinals, Rickey became the President and the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wanted to make the Dodgers perennial winner. Before Larry MacPhail took over the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938, the Dodgers were “lovable” losers. Since McPhail hired Leo Durocher as manager and Durocher decided to play Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, a young-looking kid, at shortstop, the Dodgers were competitive until the beginning of World War II. No team played good baseball during the war since most of the sport’s stars fought in the war.

After World War II, Major League Baseball returned to normal, and Rickey saw his opportunity to integrate Major League Baseball. He instructed his top scouts to look for a talented black player who could relate with whites. Rickey also wanted a black player who had the spirit to take the racial abuse.

The Dodger scouts found Jackie Robinson, and Rickey met with Robinson where Rickey used every racial slur. After Robinson passed Rickey’s test and Robinson swore he would not fight back no matter what, Rickey signed Robinson to a contract with the Montreal Royals, a Triple-A affiliate for the Brooklyn Dodger organization. He also instructed Robinson to marry Rachel, so he would have a support system while playing.

Before the 1946 season, Robinson married Rachel, and at no point during Jackie’s baseball career, did neither Jackie nor Rachel want to quit no matter how much abuse Jackie had to endure. While with Montreal, Robinson won a batting championship and played second base. The young couple did not encounter much racism in Montreal.

Just before spring training of 1947, Rachel gave birth to Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, Jr., who died in an automobile accident in 1971. The Dodgers trained in Panama to minimize racial prejudice. While preparing to make his Major-League debut, Robinson learned how to play first base.

Many Dodgers did not want to play with a Negro, so they circled a petition to say they would not play with Robinson. Most of them were southerners, but Reese from Louisville refused to sign the petition even though Robinson might be competing with him to play shortstop. Soon suspended Durocher had a late-night meeting where he informed his team that anyone who refused to play with Robinson would be traded.

Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on Tuesday, April 15, 1947. Despite a slow start to the season, Robinson won the first Rookie of the Year. He endured countless racial taunts, beanings, and spikings. In 1949, he earned the Most Valuable Player, and he was a member of the 1955 world champion Brooklyn Dodgers. After the 1956 season, when the Dodgers wanted to trade Robinson to the hated New York Giants, he simply retired from baseball.

After his retirement, Robinson helped with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He died from a heart attack and complications from diabetes and had not seen a Major-League manager.

In 1997, the fiftieth anniversary, Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s number of 42 for all Major-League teams, and on every April 15th, every Major Leaguer wear #42 to honor Robinson.

If Robinson failed to integrate Major League Baseball, many Americans would have experienced segregation for much longer. For the first four years of my schooling, I was forced to attend a handicapped school where I received an inferior education. I thought the prejudice against people with disabilities was lessening, but it is not. The state of Wyoming has forced me to prove my intelligence and cognizance three times since December 2019 just because I need help with daily living tasks. When I protest this, they say, “Nothing personal. It is policy.” The state needs to change its policy until a person with disabilities proves he does not have either intelligence or cognizance; he needs to undergo either cognizance or intelligence testing.

Thank you, Jackie and Rachel Robinson, for making America better for all.