In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and became the first African-American to play on a major league team.
After a lifetime of athleticism, a brief stint with a Honolulu football team was cut short by the onset of the U.S. entry into World War II. He served two years in the war from 1942-44, before he was arrested and court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus during training. He was later acquitted and received an honorable discharge. His courage and moral objection to segregation were a precursor to the impact Robinson would have in the major leagues.
After his discharge, Robinson played baseball professionally in the Negro Leagues. (At the time, the sport was segregated, and African Americans and whites played in separate leagues.) His skills caught the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed him to a farm team in 1945. Two years later, he was promoted to the Dodgers, marking the first time an African-American athlete played in the majors.
In his first season, he led the National League in stolen bases, hit 12 home runs and helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant. His efforts earned him Rookie of the Year honors but despite his success on the field, he encountered hostility from both fans and players.
When several of his teammates threatened to sit out, Dodgers manager Leo Durocher informed them that he would sooner trade them than Robinson, setting the tone for the rest of Robinson’s career with the team. And when members of several teams threatened to strike if Robinson played, baseball commissioner Ford Frick settled the question by promising to suspend any player who went on strike.
Even the team’s captain and short stop, Pee Wee Reese defended Robinson’s right to play. In one incident, while fans harassed Robinson from the stands, Reese walked over and put his arm around his teammate, a gesture that has become legendary in baseball history.
Jackie Robinson succeeded in putting the prejudice and racial strife aside and showed everyone what a talented player he was. In 1949, he led the National League in stolen bases and compiled an outstanding .324 batting average, earning him the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Over his nine year career with the Dodgers he compiled a .311 batting average and led the Dodgers to six league championships and one World Series victory.
After his historic breakthrough, baseball was steadily integrated, with professional basketball and tennis following suit in 1950. Robinson’s groundbreaking achievement also transcended sports: He became one of the most visible African Americans in the country, and a figure that blacks could look to as a source of pride, inspiration and hope.
And he didn’t fail his community; Robinson used his fame to speak out publicly for black equality. In 1949, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, surprising them with a scathing condemnation of the racial discrimination embodied by the Jim Crow segregation laws of the South. “The white public should start toward real understanding by appreciating that every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent any kinds of slurs and discrimination because of his race, and he’s going to use every bit of intelligence… to stop it…”
Robinson went onto become the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. In 1984, President Reagan posthumously awarded Robinson the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 1987, the Major League Rookie of the Year Award was renamed the Jackie Robinson Award. And in 2003, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
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