Almost anyone, Black or white, who knows anything about baseball’s history is familiar with the name “Jackie Robinson.” Jackie, born Jack Roosevelt Robinson on January 31, 1919, was the first African American to play in Major League baseball in the modern era.
Although best known as a second baseman, he played first base in the momentous game of April 15, 1947. That was the date on which Jackie made his debut as a Brooklyn Dodger, finally breaking the color barrier that had existed in MLB until then. From the 1880s until Robinson’s debut as a Dodger, Blacks in baseball had been relegated to what were called the “Negro Leagues.”
His debut, though it heralded the dawn of a new era, wasn’t all rosy. Inflamed white supremacists threw soda bottles at him, spit at him, and in other ways harassed the upstart “n___r” who dared to play in what had until then been a white man’s game in a white man’s league.
But it was not only for breaking the color barrier that Jackie became famous. He was a stellar performer on the diamond. In his 10-year career, he captured many honors, starting with the first-ever Rookie of the Year award in 1947. He played in the All-Star game for six consecutive years, 1949-1954. He was named the National League’s MVP in 1949 (the first Black player to be so honored). He playhed in six World Series, including 1955, when the Dodgers won the Series.
For his outstanding achievements, Jackie Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. And in 1997, MLB retired his uniform number, 42, not only on the Dodgers team but throughout the Major Leagues. He was the first pro athlete—in any sport whatsoever—to be accorded that honor. But there was one exception: MLB instituted a new annual tradition, Jackie Robinson Day, on which occasion every player on every team wears Jackie’s number 42 on his uniform. The first Jackie Robinson Day was held on April 15 (the anniversary of Robinson’s debut as a Dodger) in 2004.
He became famous off the field as well. A proponent of nonviolence and a peaceful participant in the Civil Rights Movement, he influenced many Americans’ views of Blacks and segregation.
After retiring as an active player, Jackie became a TV baseball analyst, the first Black to hold such a position, and then became the first Black VP of a major American corporation (Chock Full o’Nuts). Subsequently, in the ’60s, he helped found the Freedom National Bank, owned by POCs and based in New York’s Harlem.
Robinson, who died in 1972, didn’t live to see the arguably two greatest awards he was honored with, the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, both awarded posthumously for his achievements all around, not only on the baseball diamond but off it.