Early Life and Gateway into Sports
Born on January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of former slaves, Jackie Robinson grew up in Pasadena, California. Raised by a single working mother of five, he graduated from Pasadena Junior College and went on to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). Robinson became the university's first four-sport letter winner, excelling in football, basketball, track and field, and baseball. After leaving UCLA, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II but was court-martialed and honorably discharged for standing up for his rights and refusing to move to the back of a segregated military bus.
In 1945, Robinson joined baseball's Negro Leagues, playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs. The following year Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, invited him to become the first African-American to play with the all-white Dodgers' farm team, the Montreal Royals. Anticipating the great adversity Robinson would face, Rickey professed he needed a player who could bear the torment, famously telling Robinson he was "looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."
An Unprecedented Career in the Major Leagues
On April 15, 1947, Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field for his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, beginning an unparalleled career in baseball. At the end of his explosive nine years as a Dodger, his record included a .311 batting average, 137 home runs, 734 runs batted in, and 197 stolen bases. In 1955, he helped the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees to win their first World Series Championship.
The Fight for First-Class Citizenship for All
After integrating baseball, Robinson became a full-fledged leader in the Civil Rights Movement, using his celebrity status to further human rights and change the landscape of race relations in the United States. Upon retiring from the game in 1957, Robinson was hired as the Vice President for Personnel at Chock full o’Nuts, the first African-American to be named a vice president of a major American company. He used his position to improve working conditions for employees.
An active member of the NAACP, Robinson was often a featured speaker at civil rights rallies—including the famed March on Washington in 1963—and frequently participated in picket lines. As a nationally syndicated columnist for the New York Post and New York Amsterdam News, Robinson wrote passionately on social issues, sports, and family life, always encouraging people in his community to become active in politics and business.
In 1964, Robinson co-founded Freedom National Bank of Harlem, a black-owned and operated bank created for the express purpose of financially aiding African-American communities. In 1970, he founded the Jackie Robinson Construction Company, which sought to provide housing for low-income people.
In 1972, just twenty-five years after the start of the “Great Experiment,” Jackie Robinson died following a decade long battle with diabetes—but his legacy can be felt throughout society and baseball to this day.
Impact on Other Lives
After Robinson’s death, his wife Rachel continued his pioneering efforts to challenge inequality and integrate American society as president of the Jackie Robinson Construction Corporation, now the Jackie Robinson Development Corporation, specializing in building low-to-moderate income housing.
Additionally, in 1973, with the assistance of Martin Edelman, Charles Williams, and Franklin Williams, Rachel honored her husband's memory by establishing the Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF). JRF provides four-year scholarships, hands-on mentoring, and leadership development opportunities to talented college students with limited financial resources.
Selected Awards and Achievements
1947 Inaugural Rookie of the Year Award
1949 MLB Most Valuable Player Award
1955 World Series Champion
1956 NAACP Spingarn Medal
1957 First African-American to be named vice president of a major American corporation
1962 First African-American inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame
1965 First African-American to serve as a sports analyst on national television with ABC
1984 Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Ronald Reagan*
1994 MLB retires “42” in perpetuity in a ceremony led by President William J. Clinton*
2005 Congressional Gold Medal presented by President George W. Bush and Congress*
* Posthumous awards