On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. He would later become the first African American named a vice president at a fortune 500 company; serve as an advisor to politicians; start a bank and a housing development company; and, was a key figure in advancing equal opportunity and first-class citizenship for all Americans during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Hailed a “..freedom rider before freedom rides,” Robinson’s name has become synonymous with breaking barriers.

 

EARLY LIFE AND GATEWAY INTO SPORTS

Jackie Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of former slaves. Young Jackie grew up in Pasadena, California, raised by a single working mother of five. After graduating from Pasadena Junior College, Jackie attended the University of California Los Angeles. A star athlete, Jackie 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 marshalled and honorably discharged for standing up for his rights and refusing to move to the back of a segregated military bus.

Upon returning home from the military, Jackie Robinson set his sights on joining baseball’s Negro Leagues and began playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. Later that year, opportunity beckoned when Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, invited Robinson to become the first African American to play with the all-white Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals. Anticipating the great adversity that Robinson would face as he integrated modern baseball, 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, Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field for his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was the beginning of an unparalleled career in baseball. At the end of his explosive ten 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. Robinson took home the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, and in 1962 became the first African American inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.


 

THE FIGHT FOR FIRST CLASS CITIZENSHIP FOR ALL

After integrating baseball, Robinson became a full-fledged leader in the Civil Rights Movement. He used his celebrity status to further human rights and endeavored to change the landscape of race relations in the United States. Upon retiring from the game in 1957, Robinson was hired to serve 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 at Chock full o’ Nuts 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 his decade long battle with diabetes.

An Enduring Legacy

1947 – Rookie of the Year Award

Honored by the Baseball Writers Association and the Sporting News, Jackie Robinson won the inaugural Rookie of the Year award for his trailblazing 1947 season. Robinson batted .297, scored 125 runs, hit 12 home runs, 31 doubles and led the National League with 29 stolen bases, taking the Brooklyn Dodgers to a World Series against the New York Yankees. Originally named the J. Louis Comiskey Memorial Rookie of the Year Award, it was renamed the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award in 1987 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier.

1949 – Most Valuable Player Award

Robinson garnered 264 of 336 points from the Baseball Writer’s Association and was named the 1949 National League’s Most Valuable Player. A dominant figure on the field that year, he played all 156 games, and was the National League’s batting and base stealing champion; was second in hits (203) runs batted in (124), doubles (38), triples (12); and third in runs scored (122). He would lead the Dodgers to the World Series where they lost to the Yankees in five games.

1950 – The Jackie Robinson Story

“The Jackie Robinson Story” starring Jackie as himself and Ruby Dee as Rachel Robinson premiered May 16, 1950, beginning decades of depictions of Robinson on screen, on the stage, and in the popular culture. With Robinson starring as himself, the film attempted to capture a transformative moment, not only in baseball but in American history as it was happening. Robinson himself uses the film to open doors for African American actors, demanding that performers such as Bernie Hamilton, George Dockstader and Roy Glenn be written into the script.

1955 – World Series Champion

Jackie Robinson led the Brooklyn Dodgers to six World Series, with the team eventually winning the championship in 1955 against their cross-town rivals, the New York Yankees. Appearing in six games, Robinson went 4-for-22 with one double, one triple, one RBI, two walks and famously stole home base during game one of the series.

1956 – NAACP Spingarn Medal

The Spingarn Medal awarded annually by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1915 for outstanding achievement by an African American.  Established June 29, 1914, it is named for Joel Elias Spingarn, a white writer, educator, and civil rights activist who served as the NAACP Chairman of the Board of Directors from 1913-1919 and as president from 1930-1939. Jackie was awarded the Spingarn Medal for “superb sportsmanship and for his singular role in athletics on December 8, 1956.

1962 – Hall of Fame Induction

Five years after retiring from baseball Robinson was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame. He and his co-inductee Bob Feller were the first, first-ballot electees by the Baseball Writer’s Association since the inaugural class in 1936. Among his many accomplishments were his .311 batting average, 197 stolen bases, scoring more than 100 runs a year, six times and his six All Star game appearances.

1963 – Afternoon of Jazz

In response to rising racial violence and the assassination of Medgar Evers, Rachel and Jackie begin strategizing their deepening involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in a fundraising concert, An Afternoon of Jazz, on their property in Stamford, Connecticut. The concert, the first in what would become an annual event, supports Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and features Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck. A second concert was held the first year to raise bail money for students participating in lunch counter sit-ins.

1997 – Number “42” Retired

A year-long celebration marks the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s April 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In the same year, the U.S. Postal Service releases a Jackie Robinson stamp, the U.S. Mint produces gold and silver Robinson coins, and Sharon and Rachel Robinson publish books in commemoration of Robinson’s legacy. Upon the initiative of Leonard S. Coleman Jr., former president of the National League and chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, Major League Baseball retires the number 42 from baseball, the only number retired throughout the leagues.

1984 – Presidential Medal of Freedom

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian decoration awarded in the U.S. by a sitting president. Jackie Robinson was posthumously awarded the medal by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, who stated, “He bravely demonstrated to all that skill and sportsmanship, not race or ethnic background, are the qualities by which athletes should be judged. In doing so, he struck a mighty blow for equality, freedom, and the American way of life.”

2005 – Congressional Gold Medal

Jackie Robinson is posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor by President George W. Bush, the legislative branch’s highest honor. The medal was presented to Rachel Robinson on March 2, 2005, in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda before congressional leaders and the commissioner of Major League Baseball. The award honors Robinson’s contributions on the field as a talented baseball player who faced unprecedented challenges in integrating Major League Baseball. Rachel recognized the award as a tribute to her husband’s unwavering courage and conviction as a “heroic role model for Americans who believe in justice and equality.”

2013 – “42” Film Premiere

The biographical film 42 by director Brian Helgeland is released in American movie theaters starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey on April 12, 2013. The movie tells the story Jackie Robinson’s racial integration of professional baseball and gives audiences a sense of how the legacy of Jackie Robinson has been remembered decades later.

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