On this day in 1919, a baby boy is born to poor sharecroppers in Georgia. Jack “Jackie” Roosevelt Robinson would go on to become the first black man to play Major League Baseball during the 20th Century.
Robinson had a rough time of it when he was little. His father left his mother, who ended up moving her entire family to California. Mallie Robinson had a brother there, and she hoped to get help. Unfortunately, life wasn’t too much easier in California.
Mallie got a job doing laundry, but it was never quite enough. Child care was difficult, too. Robinson’s siblings took care of him while Mallie was at work, but when the youngest went to Kindergarten, Mallie had a bit of a problem. Who would watch Jackie?
“[M]y mother asked the teacher to allow Willa Mae to leave me in the sandbox in the yard while classes were going on,” Robinson later explained. “Every morning Willa Mae put me into the sandbox, where I played until lunchtime, when school was dismissed. If it rained, I was taken into the kindergarten . . . . I certainly was happy when, after a year of living in the sandbox, I became old enough to go to school.”
Robinson would go on to college (and college sports), but he didn’t stay long enough to graduate. “I was convinced that no amount of education would help a black man get a job,” he wrote. He thought it more productive to get out and start making money immediately.
But then Robinson experienced what so many young men experienced in those days: His life was interrupted by World War II.
One incident in Robinson’s army experience went badly awry. He refused to move to the back of the bus when asked to do so one evening. Racial discrimination was not allowed on Army buses—and Robinson knew it. Nevertheless, the matter exploded into a court martial. He was eventually acquitted, but the incident left its mark.
Fortunately, Robinson was soon introduced into the world of black professional baseball. And that’s where he was when he met a man named Branch Rickey.
Rickey was the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was looking for just the right guy to help him break the color barrier in baseball. This baseball player would need to be tough enough to take a lot of abuse. Yet the player would also need to be brave enough to take the abuse with a gentlemanly spirit.
Rickey had evaluated many players in the black professional league, and he’d settled on Robinson.
The first meeting between Rickey and Robinson was tough. Robinson didn’t quite know what to make of it. Finally, he asked a simple question: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey’s response was simple: “Robinson,” he said, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
The deal was done. Robinson played for the Dodgers’ farm team before finally making his Major League debut on April 15, 1947.
The rest, as they say, is history. It wasn’t easy, and Robinson would spend too much time being jeered or harassed. But, in the end, his performance would earn him a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame—and it would encourage many black Americans to believe in themselves, just when they needed it most.
Martin Luther King, Jr. perhaps said it best when he spoke to another black player who had joined the Dodgers’ roster: “You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job.”
When you are fighting for freedom, every effort counts.
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Jackie Robinson & Alfred Duckett, I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson (1972)