Today is April 15th. That means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For me, it’s Day 4,332 of my “social distancing” marathon. To some, it’s just Wednesday. The IRS, would normally be screaming “IT’S TAX DAY”. Several friends on my Facebook are owed a “Happy Birthday”. To Major League Baseball – it’s Jackie Robinson Day. Obviously, with everything happening in the world, there are no games on the slate. But that won’t stop us from paying our respects to one of the legends of the game.
On this date in 2004 commissioner Bud Selig officially declared April 15th to be “Jackie Robinson Day”. That year would be the first of what would later become an annual tribute to the player who broke the color barrier when he made his MLB debut in 1947. His career on the diamond is well documented, but I’d like to reflect a bit on Mr. Robinson’s legacy off the field of play.
The Man – Before The Uniform
“Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.”– Jackie Robinson
Born in Georgia in 1919, Jackie was the youngest of five children, raised by their mother, Mallie Robinson. His father, Jerry, left the family the next year, prompting them to move to California. His formative years were impacted greatly by their relative poverty compared to the neighbors, as well as inequities he and his siblings experienced. He was a truly gifted athlete, lettering in multiple sports in high school. His prowess continued through junior college and into his years at UCLA – where he was the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports – football, baseball, basketball and track. He would meet his wife during his senior year. He left UCLA shortly before graduating in order to work as an athletic director before turning to play semi-professional football. Just as his professional sports career was getting going, Pearl Harbor happened, and Jackie enlisted in the army.
World War II
The racial prejudices Jackie had been surrounded by while growing up didn’t disappear once he joined the army. In 1944, a racially charged incident on a bus led to a court-martial. His commanding officer at the time refused to authorize the legal action, and Robinson was transferred to a different unit whose commander saw fit to follow through with charges. Ultimately, he was acquitted of all charges by an all-white panel of nine officers, but the treatment he’d received throughout the ordeal would prove to be not only formative for his character, but a foreshadowing of things to come.
Life On The Diamond
After leaving the military, Robinson returned to the world of sports. He would eventually sign a contract in 1945 to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League. Over the course of that season and the subsequent years, he was scouted by Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey and ultimately offered a contract. He was subsequently sent to the AAA club affiliate Montreal Royals where his first season proved to be more of the same.
Opponents and teammates alike made life hell for him on the field, and the racial tensions of the time followed him outside of the game as well. Six days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the majors. On April 15th of that year, Jackie Robinson made history. He’d go on to have a legendary career, appearing in six All-Star games over the course of the 10 seasons he played – all with the Dodgers.
A Legacy Cemented
“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me…. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”– Jackie Robinson
Robinson would retire from baseball on January 5, 1957. Trying to recount what he meant to the Civil Rights Movement would be a monumental task. There are numerous tellings of the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson. I merely scratched the surface highlights of his story. His is a truly inspiring tale – only fitting for the remarkable life he lived.
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