Jackie Robinson – A Brief Biography (1919-1972)

Jackie Robinson Biography
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Jackie Robinson. Image by janeb13 from Pixabay

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Jackie Robinson was an American professional baseball player, who was the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball (short-form MLB) in the modern era.

Robinson’s debut in MLB marked the end of racial segregation in professional baseball which had previously relegated black players to the Negro League since the 1880s.

His character and talent challenged the very basis of segregation, contributed to the civil rights movement, and influenced American culture as few others did.

Early Life

Jackie Robinson was born Jack Roosevelt Robinson on 31st January 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, to Mallie and Jerry Robinson.

He was the youngest of five children, after siblings Edgar, Frank, Mathew, and Willa Mae. His father was a sharecropper.

Robinson was born just 25 days after the death of Theodore Roosevelt, thereby gaining his middle name from the former President.

In 1920, barely a year after Robinson was born, his father left the family, forcing his mother to move to Pasadena, California, along with her five children.

In Pasadena, they settled on a residential plot containing two small houses at 121 pepper Street. Robinson’s mother worked multiple odd jobs in order to support the family.

The Robinsons lived in relative poverty in an otherwise affluent community. Due to this, the young Robinson was often excluded from many recreational opportunities enjoyed by other kids his age.

Early Education

In 1935, Jackie Robinson, aged 16, graduated from Washington Junior High School and then enrolled at the John Muir High School in Pasadena.

From an early age, it was quite evident that Robinson had great athletic talents, which were encouraged by his older brothers Matthew (who was a silver medalist in the 200m sprint at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, finishing behind Jesse Owens) and Frank. They inspired him to pursue his interest in sports.

At John Muir High School, Robinson began playing multiple sports at the varsity level, lettering in track, basketball, football, and baseball.

As part of the track and field team, he won awards in the long jump. He played guard on the basketball team, quarterback on the football team, and shortstop and catcher on the baseball team. He was also a member of the school’s tennis team.

In 1936, Robinson, aged 17, won the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament. He also earned a spot on the Pomona annual baseball tournament all-star team.

Junior College

After leaving John Muir High School, Jackie Robinson enrolled at Pasadena Junior College (short-form PJC).

Here he continued to take part in track, basketball, football, and baseball, quickly establishing himself in all four sports.

He even broke the school long jump record which was held by his brother Matthew.

In all the sports that he played, just as at John Muir High School, most of his teammates were white.

In the year 1938, Robinson, aged 19, was elected to the All-Southland Junior College Team for baseball and was selected as the region’s Most Valuable Player.

Robinson excelled at PJC and was even named to the school’s Order of the Mast and Dagger awarded to students for their outstanding service to the school and whose scholastic and citizenship record was worthy of recognition. He was one of only ten students to receive the award.

Run-ins with the Police

On 25th January 1938, Jackie Robinson was arrested after vocally disputing the detention of a black friend by the police. he received a 2-year suspended sentence.

The incident, along with a few other run-ins between him and the police, gave him a reputation for combativeness and standing up for himself in the face of racism and racial discrimination.

These incidents show Robinson’s impatience with authority figures he saw as racists, which was a character trait that would recur throughout his life.

UCLA

While his term at PJC was coming to an end, Robinson’s brother Frank, to whom he was closest, died in a motorcycle accident.

Frank’s death motivated Jackie Robinson to enroll at the nearby University of California, Los Angeles (short-form UCLA) so that he could remain closer to Frank’s family.

Robinson graduated from PJC in the spring of 1939, aged 20, and enrolled at UCLA, where he became the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports, track, basketball, football, and baseball.

He was one of only four black players on UCLA’s college team, making it the most integrated team of the time.

In 1940, Robinson won the NCAA Championship in the long jump by jumping 24ft. 10 1/4in (7.58m).

Ironically, while at UCLA, Robinson performed worst at baseball, hitting .097 in his only season.

While in his senior year at UCLA, Robinson met Rachel Isum, whom he would go on to marry and have three children with.

In the spring of 1940, Robinson left college before graduating and took up a job as an assistant athletic director with the government’s National Youth Administration (NYA) in Atascadero, California.

Football Career

In 1941, barely a year after Jackie Robinson took up the job with the NYA, the government ceased all NYA operations.

In the fall of 1941, Robinson went to Honolulu, Hawaii, to play football for the semi-professional, racially integrated Honolulu Bears.

After a short season there, he returned to California in December 1941 to play for the Los Angeles Bulldogs of the Pacific Coast Football League. But unfortunately, Robinson’s football career came to an abrupt end after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, thereby drawing the US and Robinson into the war.

Joining the Army

In 1942, Jackie Robinson, aged 23, was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas.

Robinson and many of his black colleagues immediately applied for admission to an Officer Candidate School (short-form OCS) as they held the required qualifications.

However, even though the OCS was supposed to be race-neutral, very few black applicants were accepted. And so, the applications of Robinson and his colleagues were delayed for several months without reason, until the heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis (who was also stationed at Fort Riley) protested on their behalf, along with help from Truman Gibson (who was then an assistant civilian aide to the Secretary of War).

Robinson and his colleagues were finally accepted into the OCS. From then on, Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis became close friends.

In January 1943, after completing the OCS, Robinson was commissioned as a second lieutenant and reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas, where he joined the 761st ‘Black Panthers’ Tank Battalion.

Trouble in the Army

On 6th July 1944, Jackie Robinson boarded an Army bus with a fellow officer’s wife.

Even though the Army had commissioned its own unsegregated bus line, the bus driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus. Robinson refused to do so.

Upon reaching the end of the line, the bus driver called the military police, who took Robinson into custody to be questioned.

After the investigating officer and his assistants were done questioning him, Robinson confronted the officer regarding the racist line of questioning he had been subjected to. The officer became offended and suggested that Robinson be court-martialed.

However, Robinson’s commander in the 761st refused to authorize legal action against him. Instead, Robinson was briefly transferred to the 758th Battalion, where the commander wasted no time in charging him with multiple false offenses, including public drunkenness (even though Robinson did not drink) among other charges.

The court-martial took place in August 1944, by which time his charges were reduced to two counts of insubordination during questioning.

Robinson was acquitted by an all-white panel of nine officers.

Due to this incident, he never got to see combat action.

Last Days in the Army

After he was acquitted, Jackie Robinson was transferred to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky, where he served as a coach for army athletics.

While at the Camp, he met a former player for the Kansas City Monarchs, which was the longest-running franchise in the history of baseball’s Negro leagues. The player encouraged him to write to the Monarchs’ co-owner, Thomas Baird, and ask for a tryout. He took the player’s advice and wrote to Baird requesting a tryout.

In November 1944, Robinson received an honorable discharge from the army.

Life After Military Service

After being discharged from the army, Jackie Robinson went to play for his old football team, the Los Angeles Bulldogs, for a brief period.

Shortly thereafter, his old friend and pastor, Reverend Karl Downs, offered him a job to be the athletic director at Samuel Huston College in Austin.

Robinson accepted the offer and began coaching the school’s basketball team for the 1944-45 season.

But the program was not successful. Only a few students showed up to try out for the team. In order to attract more students, Robinson resorted to playing a few exhibition games himself.

Even though his team had an unsuccessful season and was consistently outplayed by better opponents, Robinson was respected and admired as a coach.

Kansas City Monarchs

Jackie Robinson’s decision to write to Thomas Baird paid off.

In early 1945, while Jackie Robinson was coaching at Sam Huston College, the Kansas City Monarchs sent him a written offer to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues. He accepted the offer and signed a contract.

Robinson started off and continued to play well for the Monarchs. But as the season went on, he grew more and more frustrated.

The league was highly disorganized and gambling was common. The travel schedule was also hectic and chaotic, due to which he was mostly away from home. He was only able to communicate with Rachel through letters, which caused a strain on their relationship.

Robinson played a total of 47 games at shortstop for the Monarchs, registering 13 stolen bases and hitting .387 with 5 home runs.

In 1945, he appeared in the East-West All-Star Game, going hitless in 5 at-bats.

Trying Out for the Boston Red Sox

No black man had ever played in the major leagues since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884 (the first black man to play in Major League Baseball).

While playing for the Monarchs, Jackie Robinson looked out for potential major league opportunities, even though not many teams were serious about signing a black player.

On 16th April 1945, the Boston Red Sox held a tryout at Fenway Park for black players. Robinson decided to be a part of it.

However, the tryout turned out to be a farce, mainly conducted to appease the desegregationist sensibilities of Boston City Councilman Isadore H.Y. Muchnick.

The tryouts did not go down as Robinson had expected. Even though the stands were limited to the management of the club, Robinson and the other black players were subjected to racial abuse.

Robinson left the tryout humiliated and furious.

The Boston Red Sox would become the last major league team to sign a black player, more than 14 years after this incident.

Signing for the Montreal Royals

In 1945, Branch Rickey, the president, and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers began scouting the Negro league for possible addition to the Dodgers roster.

Rickey ended up selecting Jackie Robinson from a list of promising black players, even though Robinson was not the best black player at the time.

Rickey interviewed Robinson for a possible assignment to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ International League farm club, the Montreal Royals. The interview went on for almost 3 hours, as Rickey wanted to ensure that Robinson could withstand the racial abuse he would inevitably face. Rickey wanted Robinson to ignore the abuse, turn the other cheek, and not fight back.

Robinson reluctantly agreed and gave Rickey his commitment.

On 23rd October 1945, it was publicly announced that Robinson would be a part of the 1946 Montreal Royals team. Robinson formally signed the contract on the same day.

Robinson became the first black baseball player in the International League since the 1880s, in what came to be referred to as The Noble Experiment.

Before Joining the Montreal Royals

Shortly before joining the Montreal Royals for the 1946 season, Jackie Robinson signed with Chet Brewer’s Kansas City Royals, which was a post-season barnstorming team in the California Winter League.

He also briefly toured Latin America with another barnstorming team.

On 10th February 1946, Robinson and Rachel were married by their friend, Reverend Karl Downs.

Racism in Florida

In 1946, Jackie Robinson arrived at Daytona Beach, Florida, for spring training with the Montreal Royals of the Class AAA International League.

Florida was racially segregated at the time and Robinson’s presence on the team attracted a lot of controversies. The manager of the Royals, Clay Hopper, had even asked Rickey to assign Robinson to some other Dodger affiliate. But Rickey refused to do so.

Robinson was not allowed to stay with his white teammates at the team hotel. Instead, he took up accommodation at the home of Joe and Dufferin Harris, who were a politically active African-American couple. Joe and Dufferin even introduced him to civil rights activist Mary Jane McLeod Bethune.

The Dodgers organization did not own a spring training facility of their own, because of which their training schedules were subject to the whim of local facilities. And many of these local facilities turned down any event that involved Jackie Robinson or Johnny Wright (who was the other black player signed to the Dodgers organization).

In Jacksonville, the stadium was shut and closed down without any intimation on the day of the game, by order of the city’s Parks and Public Property director.

In Sanford, the police authorities threatened to cancel games if Robinson and Wright continued to train there. Due to this, Robinson was sent back to Daytona Beach.

In another instance, a day game in DeLand was postponed due to issues with the stadium’s electrical lighting.

Debut with the Montreal Royals

After Rickey successfully persuaded the local authorities, the Montreal Royals were finally allowed to host a game involving Jackie Robinson in Daytona Beach.

On 17th March 1946, Robinson made his minor league debut in an exhibition game against the team’s parent club, the Dodgers, making him the first black player to play for a minor league team against a major league team since the baseball color line was established in the 1880s.

First Season with the Royals

On 18th April 1946, Jackie Robinson made his professional debut with the Montreal Royals against Jersey City Giants at the Roosevelt Stadium.

It marked the first time that the color barrier had been broken in a game between two minor league clubs. Once again, Robinson had made history.

The Royals won the game 14-1, with Robinson ending with 4 hits in his five trips to the plate, scoring 4 runs, driving in 3, and stealing 2 bases.

Robinson went on to have a highly successful season with the Royals. He lead the International League that season with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage.

He was also named the league’s Most Valuable Player for that season.

Although Robinson still faced tremendous racism and hostility while touring, the Royals’ fan base supported him with great enthusiasm and excitement.

Robinson’s presence on the field piqued the curiosity of the people, attracting more than a million people to the games in which he played, an extraordinary figure by International League standards.

Major League Baseball

In the year 1947, the Dodgers called Jackie Robinson up to the major leagues just six days before the start of the season.

On 11th April 1947, Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers, wearing the number 42, in a pre-season exhibition game against the New York Yankees at Ebbet’s Field.

And three days later, he made his professional major league debut at the relatively advanced age of 28, at Ebbets Field, with 26, 623 people in attendance, more than 14,000 of whom were African-Americans.

Again, Robinson had made history. He became the first black player since 1884 to break the major league baseball color barrier.

African-American fans began attending the Dodgers’ games regularly now, curious to see one of their own in the major leagues.

Racial Tensions

Although Jackie Robinson’s promotion to major league baseball was generally received positively, there were still certain sections of the league and the media that had mixed or negative reactions.

A lot of tension existed within the Dodger clubhouse itself. A few Dodger players insinuated that they would much rather sit out than play alongside Jackie Robinson. But the Dodgers management, including manager Leo Durocher, took a strong stand in support of Robinson, bringing an end to the mutiny.

Robinson was also subject to racial abuse by opposing teams. In one instance, members of the St. Louis Cardinals threatened a strike if Robinson played. They also threatened to spread the strike across the entire National League.

When an article regarding this proposed strike came out, it made national headlines. In response, National League President Ford Frick was quoted as saying that any striking players would be suspended and that he did not care even if half of the League went on a strike. He was also quoted as saying that this was the United States of America and one citizen had as much right to play as another.

The Cardinal players denied that they had planned any strike and Stanley Woodward (who had first published the article) later revealed that Frick himself was his true source.

Nevertheless, the article had a magical effect and Robinson began receiving increased support from the sports media.

But racial tensions remained. Robinson became the target of rough physical play by opponents, especially the Cardinals.

During a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, Phillies’ players, and manager Ben Chapman called Robinson a nigger from their dugout, yelling at him to go back to the cotton fields.

Support From Players

In spite of all the racial abuse Jackie Robinson had to suffer, he also got a lot of support and encouragement from several major league players.

Robinson revealed that Lee ‘Jeep’ Handley of the Phillies was the first opposing player to wish him well. Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Resse was also a supporter and defender of Robinson.

Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, who had also suffered ethnic abuses throughout his career, also encouraged and supported Robinson. Greenberg also advised him to overcome his critics by defeating them in games.

In his first season, Robinson won the Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award.

1948

In February 1948, Jackie Robinson signed a new $12,500 contract with the Dodgers, which was a substantial amount at the time. But it was still less than what he made in the off-season from a vaudeville tour (where he answered pre-set baseball questions) and a speaking tour of the south.

Between the tours, he also underwent surgery for his right ankle.

By the year 1948, Robinson was no longer the only black player in the major leagues. Satchel Paige had joined the Cleveland Indians, Larry Doby played in the American League (where he broke the color barrier), and the Dodgers had signed three other black players.

This had the result of elevating some pressure off of Robinson, as he was no longer alone.

The same year, a biography of Robinson titled Jackie Robinson: My Own Story, written by Jackie Robinson and Wendell Smith, was released.

Change in Batting Technique

In the spring of 1949, Jackie Robinson decided to improve his batting technique. And to help him improve, he sought advice from George Sisler, a Hall of Famer then working as an advisor to the Dodgers.

Under Sisler’s guidance, Robinson began working on his batting technique, spending hours practicing at a batting tee, learning to hit the ball to the right field. Sisler showed him how to stop lunging and how to check his swing until the last fraction of a second, and also taught him to anticipate a fastball, explaining to him that it was then easier to adjust to a slower curveball.

All this practice served to drastically improve Robinson’s batting technique, helping him to raise his batting average from .296 in 1948 to .342 in 1949. He came second place in the league for both doubles and triples that season, stealing 37 bases, and registering 124 runs batted in with 122 runs scored.

Robinson’s performance that season earned him the Most Valuable Player Award for the National League. He was also voted as the starting second baseman for the 1949 All-Star Game (the first All-Star Game to include black players) by baseball fans.

Rising Popularity

After the 1949 season, Jackie Robinson’s popularity was at an all-time high.

Musician Buddy Johnson wrote a song on Robinson titled Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball? that reached No. 13 on the charts.

In the 1950 season, Robinson led the National League in double plays made by a second baseman with 133. He received a salary of $35,000 which was the highest any Dodger player had been paid to that point.

Robinson’s rising popularity and influence led to several film offers from Hollywood. In 1950, a biographical film of his life titled, The Jackie Robinson Story, was released, in which Robinson played himself with calm assurance and composure.

Final Years with the Dodgers

In the 1951 season, Jackie Robinson kept the Dodgers in contention for the 1951 pennant. During the last game of the regular season, Robinson had a hit to tie the game in the 13th inning and then hit a home run in the 14th inning, which ended up being the winning margin.

During the best-of-three playoff series against the New York Giants, the Dodgers lost the pennant on Bobby Thompson’s famous Shot Heard ‘Round the World home run.

In 1952, Robinson had an average season. However, he did record a career-high on-base percentage of .436. That season, the Dodgers won the pennant but lost the World Series to the New York Yankees in 7 games.

The 1952 season would be the last season that Robinson was an everyday starter at second base. Another African-American player, Jim Gilliam, would soon take his regular second-base duties.

In 1953, Robinson led the Dodgers to another National League pennant. But once again they lost the World Series to the Yankees in six games.

Activism

Jackie Robinson used his fame and influence to openly talk about social, political, and racial issues, never shying away from condemning segregation and racism prevailing in America.

He often paid the price for his activism, suffering racial abuses and insults, and even receiving death threats on several occasions.

But all those threats and insults never deterred or discouraged him from speaking out on sensitive issues regarding race, civil rights, politics, etc. He often addressed these issues in interviews and on television shows.

In 1953, Robinson even served as editor for Our Sports magazine, a periodical focusing on Negro sports issues.

He also openly and publicly criticized segregated restaurants and hotels that served the Dodger organization. As a result of his criticisms, several such establishments, such as the five-star Chase Park Hotel in St. Louis, integrated.

World Championship

In 1955, the Dodgers defeated the New York Yankees in the World Series to win the championship. It was the first and last championship of Robinson’s career.

But Jackie Robinson was no longer the same. His abilities had greatly diminished and he had lost his usual second base to Gilliam.

The 1955 season was Robinson’s worst season in terms of his own individual performance, hitting .256 and stealing only 12 bases.

He was 36 years old by then, had missed 49 games, and did not play in Game 7 of the World Series.

Retirement

By the 1956 season, Jackie Robinson had begun to lose interest in the prospect of playing or even managing professional baseball.

The effects of his diabetes had begun to take a toll on him and he decided to end his major league career when he struck out to end Game 7 of the 1956 World Series.

At the end of the 1956 season, Robinson was traded to rivals New York Giants. But the trade was never completed, as Robinson had already made a deal with the President of the American coffee brand Chock full o’Nuts to become an executive with the company, without even informing the Dodgers of his decision.

On 5th January 1957, Robinson, aged 37, announced his retirement from professional baseball through Look magazine instead of the Dodgers, as he had sold exclusive rights to his retirement story to the magazine.

Post-Baseball Life

After retiring from professional baseball, Jackie Robinson continued with his political activism while dedicating himself to new endeavors.

From 1957 to 1964, he served as the vice president for personnel at Chock full o’Nuts, becoming the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation.

In 1959, Robinson entered a whites-only waiting room at the Greenville Municipal Airport. On being asked to leave by the airport police, he flatly refused.

He then went on to give a speech at an NAACP gathering in Greenville, South Carolina, in which he called for complete freedom of African-Americans, encouraging them to protest their second-class status and vote.

In January 1960, around 1000 people marched to the Greenville Municipal Airport in protest. Shortly thereafter, the airport was desegregated.

In 1964, Robinson and businessman Dunbar McLaurin founded the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned bank in Harlem, which became one of the largest black-owned banks in America. He became the bank’s first chairman of the board and served in that position until 1967.

In 1965, he became an analyst for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts, once again breaking the color barrier by being the first black person to do so.

In 1970, he formed the Jackie Robinson Construction Company in order to build housing for low-incoming families. And in 1972, he served as a part-time commentator on Montreal Expos telecasts.

Death

As his diabetes worsened, Jackie Robinson began having complications from heart disease. He became weaker and weaker. By the early 1970s, he was almost blind.

On 24th October 1972, Robinson, aged 53, died of a heart attack at his home in North Stamford, Connecticut.

His funeral service was held three days later at Upper Manhattan’s Riverside Church. Around 2,500 people attended the funeral service. His former teammates and other well-known baseball players served as pallbearers and Reverend Jesse Louis Jackson gave the eulogy.

Thousand of people lined the procession route to the Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, where he was interred next to his son, Jackie Robinson Jr. (who was killed the previous year in an automobile accident, aged 24), and mother-in-law, Zellee Isum.

Legacy

Without a doubt, Jackie Robinson was more than just an athlete. More than just a baseball player.

He was an activist. He stood for hope, becoming an example and inspiration to the African-American community. He showed them the possibility of what they could achieve, of what they were capable of.

Robinson’s debut in the major leagues brought an end to almost 60 years of segregation in professional baseball, thereby inspiring thousands of youth from his community to dream big. His success symbolized the fight for equality and justice, showing the people of America that the fight for equality was more than just a political matter.

His activism and professional success were a giant step in the civil rights movement, forcing black and white Americans to be more respectful and appreciative of each other’s abilities.

The great Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that Robinson was a legend and a symbol in his own time, who challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.

In terms of baseball, Robinson is often credited to have revolutionized the game by shifting reliance on raw power-hitting and instead using footspeed to create runs through aggressive baserunning. He exhibited the combination of hitting ability and speed which defined the new post-long ball era in baseball.

He was an outstanding fielder throughout his 10-year career in the major leagues and is often referred to as the father of modern base-stealing.

In 1962, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And in 1972, the Dodgers retired his uniform number 42.

In 1999, Time magazine included him in their list of the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century.

In Pasadena, Robinson was honored with a baseball diamond and stadium named Jackie Robinson Field in Brookside Park, and with the Jackie Robinson Center, which is a community outreach center providing health services.

In 1987, the National and American League Rookie of the Year Awards were renamed the Jackie Robinson Award. And in 1997, jersey number 42 was retired throughout Major League Baseball, something which was unprecedented.

From 2004 onward, MLB began observing Jackie Robinson Day on the 15th of April every year, in order to commemorate and honor the day Robinson made his major league debut. On that day, as an exception to his retired number 42, players are allowed to wear No. 42 in his honor, a tradition that has been followed by almost all members of various major league teams.

Statutes have been erected in his honor and several ballparks have been named after him. Hi house in Brooklyn, now known as Jackie Robinson House, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

After his death, his wife Rachel founded The Jackie Robinson Foundation, an NGO which provides scholarships to minority youths for higher education and preserves his legacy as well.

Many have described and have tried to assess Jackie Robinson the man and the legend, but none did it better than the man himself when he said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me…all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

Perhaps, this simple sentence reveals more about the real human being behind the legend and icon than all the biographies written on him and the compliments showered upon him.

Arthinkal Magazine