Jackie Robinson: A Triple Threat

by B. Cook

Jack Roosevelt Robinson retired with 137 home runs, 734 runs batted in, 197 stolen bases, and a life time batting average of .311.[1] He was inducted into the hall of fame on July 23rd, 1962. However, “To see Robinson’s career in numbers, is to see Lincoln through Federal budgets and to miss the Emancipation Proclamation.”[2] The true scope of what Jackie Robinson accomplished during his career could not be measured by simple statistics, at least not baseball statistics. His entry into the majors, and the success he had at that level, carried with it a social, economic and even political impact. A single man, playing a game, changed the face of the nation.

In 1945, just as Robinson had finally become fed up with the Negro leagues, an interesting opportunity presented itself.[3] Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, had a proposition for the black ball player. Rickey wanted to sign Robinson to become the first black player in white organized baseball. The deal came with a condition though. Rickey demanded that Robinson not lash out or retaliate, no matter what provocation he encountered. Robinson would start out in the Dodgers’ minor league system and, if he played well enough, work his way onto the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson accepted the deal as well as Rickey’s challenge not to fight back. The move was the equivalent of Rickey “toss[ing] a bomb into baseball and [sticking] his fingers in his ears.”[4]

It didn’t take long for most people to realize that Rickey’s strategy had worked. In the first year of the “experiment”, Robinson led the International League in batting average (.349) and fielding percentage (.985).[5] He played so well in the minors that a call up to the majors was inevitable. On April 15th, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in the Major Leagues. Continuing his string of success, Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award that year and the Most Valuable Player award in 1949. Seizing on his new celebrity status, Robinson became a spokesman for African Americans. He addressed issues anywhere from segregation and racism to government and politics. Robinson had overcome amazing odds and hardships, countless sleepless nights, innumerable threats to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB), and become a champion for the African American people.

Perhaps the most obvious and publicized results of Robinson’s triumph were the social effects his actions brought about. As soon as the announcement of Robinson’s signing reached the world, Robinson was saddled with the hopes and dreams of his entire race. Conversely, Rickey had scorn and insults heaped upon him. Many claimed Rickey was trying to set himself up as baseball’s version of Lincoln. One picture of Robinson in Time magazine showed Robinson during his UCLA football career with the caption of “Rickey’s Robinson” while giving Rickey, not Robinson the credit for breaking the color line.[6]

Despite the mixed reception, Robinson became a figure for all African Americans to look up to as well as one of the most visible representatives of his race. If Robinson failed, white owners, not to mention fans, who had resisted integrating baseball, would use his performance as “evidence” to support their stance. Every time he stepped on the field, Robinson strapped his race to his back and carried it on his journey with them. One teenager at the time, years later reminisced that

Jackie Robinson was as important to me and other blacks, especially young blacks, as a parent would have been … he brought pride and the certain knowledge that on a fair playing field, when there were rules and whites could not cheat and lie and steal, not only were they not supermen but we could beat’em[7]

Robinson did not flinch at this challenge. In fact, he inserted himself even further into the social scene. After his successful rookie season, Robinson performed in vaudeville shows, spoke at several public appearances, and even agreed to star in a movie.[8] Later in 1947, “a nationwide contest placed him ahead in popularity of President Truman, General Eisenhower, General MacArthur, and comedian Bob Hope, and second only to Bing Crosby.”[9] In contrast, the previous year, six African Americans had been lynched.[10] Just a year later, Robinson was voted more popular than the President of the United States!

Robinson’s success not only made him a celebrity, but also opened the door for more African American players to enter MLB. The year after Robinson broke the color line, five African American players had played games in the majors.[11] By 1958, “baseball no longer symbolized the inequities of racial segregation;” rather it “offered a model [of race relations] for the nation and the world.”[12]

Even with the victories Robinson won for African Americans socially, not all viewed his entry into the Major Leagues as a positive development. As it became more and more apparent that African Americans had a permanent place in the majors, the Negro leagues began to struggle. Scouts from major league teams began to harvest the talent, signing black players into their farm systems. Also, African American fans who had previously only been able to see black players by going to Negro league games, could now watch their heroes compete on the playing field against whites. Robinson biographer, Arnold Rampersad, went so far as to say that “Robinson’s success in the majors [helped] to destroy the Negro leagues as an attraction.”[13] The collapse of the Negro leagues was no small matter to African Americans. During the depression, the leagues had been the number one employer of African Americans. The relatively swift collapse of the leagues dealt a large economic blow to many in the community.

Despite that fact, one would be hard pressed to find evidence that Robinson was sad to see the Negro leagues go. In fact, his verbal attacks against the leagues probably hastened the collapse. In 1948, Robinson initiated a “devastating attack on the Negro Leagues.”[14] For the leagues to continue, Robinson argued, they needed “a lot of house cleaning.”[15]

The main factor to the Negro league’s demise was not as direct as Robinson’s comments, but just as lethal. As more teams integrated African American’s into their farm systems and teams, fewer fans attended the Negro league games. They soon played a second fiddle to watching Robinson. The Negro leagues’ loss of attendance, however, was the Dodgers’ gain as they saw an extra $150,000 come in from admissions.[16] As one writer for Time magazine put it, “Wherever the Dodgers have played, Negroes have turned out in force.”[17]“Walter White of the NAACP (National Association for Advancement of Colored People) estimated the extra income for the league [strictly due to Robinsons’ entry] at $200,000.”[18] In following years new heroes such as Campanella and the great Satchel Paige would only accelerate the shift in attendance. MLB’s integration had killed the Negro leagues, and with it, one of the primary employers of African Americans.

Robinson’s reach stretched even into the realm of politics. Early on, politicians scrambled to choose sides on the controversial issue of integrating baseball. As, Robinson’s success and fame grew, he came to represent blacks on nearly every issue, including politics. The quintessential example of this was his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had been called before the committee to express his thoughts of Paul Robeson’s comments suggesting African Americans would be sympathetic to the Soviet Union should the Cold War escalate into actual warfare. Robinson addressed the issue of communist sympathy by stating that “most Negroes…would act just [they] did in the last war: They’d do their best to help their country stay out of war. If unsuccessful, they’d do their best to help their country win the war.”[19] Robinson did not stop there though. He took the opportunity to speak out about the inconsistencies he saw in the democratic rhetoric being preached, and the type of Jim Crow democracy that he and other African Americans knew to be reality. Robinson stated:

The white public should start toward real understanding by appreciating that every single Negro who is worth his salt is going to resent any kind of slurs and discrimination because of his race… The more a Negro hates Communism because it opposes democracy, the more he is going to hate any other influence that kills of democracy in this country – and that goes for racial discrimination.[20]

This activist attitude was not a new, reformed Robinson; however, it was a version that the public was not used to seeing. In the early years of his career, Robinson had restrained himself from retaliating or causing a disturbance. He was a man of his word and had given his word to Rickey to hold back for three years. In 1949, Rickey told Robinson that he had “earned the right to be [himself].”[21] Robinson now felt that he could speak his mind about the issues of the day, including politics. After retiring from baseball, Robinson’s political activism increased as he became a prominent figure in the NAACP and often campaigned for various politicians.

When Robinson retired, only three teams in the majors did not have a black player on their major league squad.[22] The other major sports had followed baseball’s lead in breaking down the color barrier. Thousands of African American’s had watched a member of their own race compete with, and triumph over, whites. While Joe Louis had emerged first, Robinson integrated the nation’s game, its pastime. An African American was dominating the sport nearest and dearest to much of the country. Robinson’s actions on and off the field started a wave of social change that would sweep the United States.

The implications of Robinson’s actions did not stop on the social frontier. His heroic achievements led to the collapse of the Negro leagues. The money the Negro leagues had been bringing in instead paid for entry to major league games and lined the pockets of team owners. The single largest employer of African Americans during the Depression years had been brought down not by an economic collapse, but by a single man (and perhaps his words).

On the political front, Robinson was nearly as visible as he was on the baseball diamond. His entry into the major leagues was instantly political as the New York mayor endorsed Robinson’s entry in hopes of gaining the votes of the cities African American population. As his career progressed, Robinson would be called upon to take stands on political issues facing African Americans. Episodes such as his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee illustrated just how political Robinson’s career had become. Later in his career, Robinson would embrace politics in an effort to further the cause of his race.

The fact that Robinson’s entry into MLB was able to have such profound effects across such wide sectors of society makes it blatantly obvious that his career was not one merely about base hits or stolen bases. It would be more appropriate to look upon Robinson’s baseball career as a tool which he used to transcend sports and reach into every aspect of the American life. His bravery in facing the challenge, supported by his superior athletic prowess, allowed him to have a social, economic and political impact on American society, both black and white. Both on and off the field, Jack Roosevelt Robinson truly was a triple threat.

Bibliography

“Branch Breaks the Ice.” Time, 5 November 1945. 77.

ESPN Baseball. “Jackie Robinson.” Available from http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/alltime/playercard?playerId=11758&type=0. Internet. accessed 6 December 2005.

“Jackie Makes Good.” Time, 26 August 1946. 63-64.

“Jackie Robison pitching; before House un-American activities committee.” Newsweek, 1 August 1949. 18-19.

Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York: Ballantine Books, 1997.

“Riches for a Rookie.” Time, 24 November 1947. 54.Robinson, Jackie. Baseball Has Done It. Brooklyn, New York: IG Publishing, 1964.

Robinson, Jackie. 18 July 1949. “Testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.” Academic Search Premier. Database on-line. EBSCOhost. accessed 29 November 2005.

Robinson, Jackie. Baseball Has Done It. Brooklyn, New York: IG Publishing, 1964.

“Rookie of the Year.” Time, 22 September 1947. 70-76.

Tygiel, Jules. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law. “Lynching Statistics by Year and Race.” Available from http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingyear.html. Internet. accessed 6 December 2005.


Footnotes

[1] ESPN Baseball, “Jackie Robinson,” Available from http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/alltime/playercard?playerId=11758&type=0, Internet, accessed 6 December 2005.

[2] Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 8.

[3] Ibid., 124

[4] “Jackie Makes Good,” Time, 26 August 1946, 63.

[5] “Rookie of the Year,” Time, 22 September 1947, 72.

[6] “Branch Breaks the Ice,” Time, 5 November 1945, 77.

[7] Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 179.

[8] “Riches for a Rookie,” Time, 24 November 1947, 54.

[9] Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 188.

[10] University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law, “Lynching Statistics by Year and Race,” Available from http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingyear.html, Internet, accessed 6 December 2005.

[11] Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 223.

[12] Ibid., 333

[13] Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 117.

[14] Ibid., 203

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Rookie of the Year,” Time, 22 September 1947, 70.

[17] “Rookie of the Year,” Time, 22 September 1947, 70.

[18] Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (New York: Ballantine Books, 1997), 188.

[19] Jackie Robinson, 18 July 1949, “Testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee,” Academic Search Premier [database on-line], EBSCOhost, accessed 29 November 2005.

[20] “Jackie Robison pitching; before House un-American activities committee,” Newsweek, 1 August 1949, 19.

[21] Jackie Robinson, Baseball Has Done It (Brooklyn, New York: IG Publishing, 1964), 21.

[22] Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 328.

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