Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson, who integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, was born to a sharecropping family in Cairo, Georgia, on this day in history, Jan. 31, 1919.
His fight for racial equality and his exploits on the field of play made him the first athlete in North American sports to have his jersey number (42) retired by every team in his game.
Among many achievements off the diamond, Robinson was an incredible four-sport star at UCLA. He was widely considered one of the most exciting college football players of his era. Plus, he served in the U.S. Army in World War II, where he first stood up for racial equality.
“His mother, Mallie Robinson, singlehandedly raised Jackie and her four other children. They were the only Black family on their block, and the prejudice they encountered only strengthened their bond,” says Jackie Robinson.com, the official website of the late sports legend.
“From this humble beginning would grow the first baseball player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier that segregated the sport for more than 50 years.”
Robinson stepped on the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, after excelling for the franchise’s Montreal farm team in 1946.
“It was the most eagerly anticipated debut in the annals of the national pastime,” authors Robert Lipsyte and Pete Levine wrote in “Idols of the Game.”
“It represented both the dream and the fear of equal opportunity, and it would change forever the complexion of the game and the attitudes of Americans.”
“It was the most eagerly anticipated debut in the annals of the national pastime.” — Robert Lipsyte and Pete Levine in ‘Idols of the Game’
Robinson played well enough that season to earn National League Rookie of the Year honors and win over fans nationwide.
His presence changed baseball, opening the floodgates for it to become the diverse multinational sport it is today.
In addition to White, Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans, more than one quarter of Major League Baseball last season were foreign born — representing 21 different nations around the world.
In addition to changing the future of baseball, Robinson also changed the fortunes of a historically struggling Brooklyn franchise dubbed “Dem Bums.”
The Dodgers played for decades in the shadows of crosstown rivals the New York Yankees in the Bronx and the New York Giants in Manhattan.
They quickly rose to their greatest period of success with Robinson on the roster.
Brooklyn won National League pennants in 1947, 1949, 1952 and 1953, though it lost the World Series each year.
Robinson and the Dodgers finally broke through and beat the Yankees in the 1955 World Series, the only championship for the organization in more than half a century of playing in Brooklyn.
Robinson left baseball after the 1956 season. The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
In just 10 years, Robinson accrued an incredible list of individual and team honors: Rookie of the Year, National League MVP, National League batting champ, two-time stolen base leader, six-time All Star, and World Series champion.
“Robinson’s presence changed baseball, opening the floodgates for it to become the diverse multinational sport it is today.”
Before baseball, Robinson served the nation honorably in the U.S. Army in World War II.
He was drafted in 1942, commissioned a second lieutenant in January 1943 and assigned to the 761st “Black Panthers” tank battalion in Fort Hood, Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
There, he made a public stand for equal treatment on a military bus.
“The driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus, but Robinson refused. The driver called the military police, who took Robinson into custody. He was subsequently court-martialed, but he was acquitted,” writes the Department of Defense.
“After his acquittal, he was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he served as a coach for Army athletics until receiving an honorable discharge in November 1944.”
Robinson attended UCLA before he was called up by Uncle Sam.
He remains the only player in school history to letter in four sports: baseball, football, basketball, and track and field.
Remembered today for his exploits on the diamond, he was a bigger star on the gridiron in college.
“Robinson became an All-American football player who set the UCLA record for yards per carry in a season at 12.2 yards per attempt on 42 carries in 1939,” reports the NCAA of his gridiron success.
“Jackie Robinson made my success possible.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He led the country in punt return average in 1939 and 1940 … He made a critical goal-line tackle in front of more than 103,000 fans in a scoreless tie against eventual national champion Southern California in the Los Angeles rivals’ regular-season finale.”
In track and field, Robinson “won the Pacific Coast Conference and NCAA titles in long jump with leaps of 25-0 and 24-10,” reports the NCAA.
“Had the 1940 and 1944 Olympics not been canceled due to World War II, Robinson likely could have competed.”
His battle for equality as a professional, however, was fought and won on the baseball diamond.
Robinson was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He received an unprecedented honor on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of his first appearance for the Dodgers, when his number was retired by every Major League team.
The rare recognition has been repeated only twice since in North American sports.
Wayne Gretzky’s #99 was retired by every National Hockey League team in 2000; the National Basketball Association announced last year that Bill Russell’s #6 will be retired by every team in its league.
“Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
Robinson suffered ill health after his playing career. He was just 53 years old when he suffered a heart attack and died in 1972.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” Robinson said in a widely noted quote.
In that respect, few excelled better than the baseball great.
“Jackie Robinson made my success possible,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. later said. “Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”