Nearly everyone knows Jackie Robinson braved appalling racism with imperturbable dignity as the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century. His high character and remarkable performance on and off the diamond helped elevate integration from a tentative experiment to a permanent fact of elite sports. Within a quarter-century of Robinson’s 1947 debut, competitive pressures compelled every major college and professional program to open their squads to the best athletes, irrespective of color.
Sadly, his civil rights heroism has tended to overshadow Robinson’s indubitable athletic greatness. He ranks among the most accomplished and versatile sportsmen in American history — rivaled only by Jim Brown, and exceeded only by Jim Thorpe.
Evidence? Robinson lettered in football, basketball, baseball and track at UCLA. On the gridiron, he led the NCAA in punt return average from 1939–40. As a senior, although listed as a halfback, he led the Bruins not just in rushing and scoring, but also in passing, logging more yards through the air than his team’s quarterback. In hoops, Robinson led the Southern Division of the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring for two consecutive seasons. On the track, he became the NCAA broad jump champion.
Ironically, Robinson’s weakest collegiate sport was baseball. Still, he ultimately resolved to make a living at it, largely because baseball was the only well-remunerated professional team sport in his day.
Getting drafted into World War II delayed Robinson’s pro debut. He qualified for officer training and earned the rank of second lieutenant. When his tank unit deployed overseas, Robinson had to stay behind due to an unfortunate racial snafu: An Army bus driver violated military policy by ordering him to sit in the back of the bus; Robinson refused and wound up before a court martial. He ultimately won acquittal, but the Army assigned him stateside duty for the remainder of his service.
After the war, Robinson briefly played pro football, but soon switched to baseball. After one All-Star season with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues (1945), the Dodgers chose Robinson as their integration test case. After a season with their AAA farm team, the Montreal Royals, Robinson made his Major League debut for Brooklyn in 1947.
It is true that the Dodgers selected Robinson as much for his character as his playing skills. However, the complaint that he usurped an honor that should have gone to more accomplished Negro League stars misses the mark. It ignores the obvious fact that teams tend to invest in young talent. The greatest black players of the day — Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige—were indeed total badasses, but by the time the Dodgers signed Robinson, Gibson was retired (disabled, and soon dead), while Paige was pushing forty. At age 27, Robinson seemed to offer far more upside.
No one could have predicted that Paige would prove an ageless wonder, winning a World Series at the age of 42, earning All-Star honors at 46 and 47, and throwing his last professional pitch in his 59th year — nine years after Robinson retired.
Still, the Dodgers did even better by choosing Robinson. In 1947, he won Rookie of the Year in 1947 and led the National League in stolen bases; he repeated the latter feat in 1949, while piling on a batting title, the Most Valuable Player award, and the first of six consecutive All-Star honors. He won a World Series in 1955 before diabetes forced him into retirement.
His achievements on the field alone sufficed to earn admission to Cooperstown; his status as the first black player in the modern era merely gilded the lily of his impeccable Hall of Fame credentials.
Some radicals derided Robinson for his supposed conservatism during the Civil Rights Revolution, but that, too, is misguided. Reflecting mainstream African American opinion, Robinson supported the movement and attended the March on Washington, but disagreed with Dr. King’s decision to oppose the Vietnam War.
Like many African Americans, Robinson remained loyal to the party of Lincoln until the Republicans reversed field on civil rights and openly courted white supremacists, first by nominating Goldwater, and then by coupling Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” with the racially coded rhetoric of “law and order.” By then, Robinson considered himself a political independent; he endorsed the Democratic candidate, civil rights stalwart Hubert Humphrey, in 1968.
Complications from diabetes finally killed Robinson in 1972. He was only 53 years old. Had he lived to our time, he might have rued baseball’s plummeting popularity, both generally and in the African American community, but would certainly appreciate the increased opportunities for athletes in professional football and basketball.
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