When did jackie robinson start playing baseball ? Few players in the history of baseball did more for the sport than Jackie Robinson. And it began with a signature on a contract. On April 10, 1947, Robinson signed his first National League contract. Five days later, Robinson would make history by becoming the first African American to play in the AL/NL since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884, breaking the color barrier in baseball.
Born in Cairo, Ga., Robinson was a standout athlete at UCLA where he lettered in four varsity sports – football, basketball, baseball, and track. After a brief military career post college, Robinson began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. Following good numbers in Kansas City, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a pro contract and sent him to Montreal, where he integrated the International League in 1946.
Breaking the Color Line: 1940 to 1946
By the 1940s, organized baseball had been racially segregated for many years. The black press and some of their white colleagues had long campaigned for the integration of baseball. Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier was especially vocal. World War II experiences prompted more people to question segregation practices.
Although several people in major league baseball tried to end segregation in the sport, no one succeeded until Brooklyn Dodger’s general manager Branch Rickey set his “great experiment” (See Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment in the bibliography) into motion. In 1945, the Jim Crow policies of baseball changed forever when Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson of the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs agreed to a contract that would bring Robinson into the major leagues in 1947.
In addition to racial intolerance, economic and other complex factors contributed to segregation in baseball. For example, many owners of major league teams rented their stadiums to Negro League teams when their own teams were on the road. Team owners knew that if baseball were integrated, the Negro Leagues would probably not survive losing their best players to the majors, major league owners would lose significant rental revenue, and many Negro League players would lose their livelihoods. Some owners also thought that a white audience would be reluctant to attend games with black players. Others saw the addition of black players as a way to attract larger white as well as black audiences and sell more tickets. Looking back on this time, Rickey described the problems he faced and the events that influenced his decision in a speech to the One Hundred Percent Wrong Club in 1956.
Branch Rickey (1881-1965) was involved with baseball in a variety of capacities — as a player, coach, manager, and owner — for more than sixty years. His Hall of Fame plaque mentions both his creation of baseball’s farm system in the 1920s and his signing of Jackie Robinson. Rickey’s interest in integrating baseball began early in his career. He had been particularly troubled by the policy of barring African Americans from grandstand seating in St. Louis, when he worked for the Cardinals.
The noted sportswriter Red Smith fondly summed up Rickey’s multi-faceted persona: “player, manager, executive, lawyer, preacher, horse-trader, spellbinder, innovator, husband and father and grandfather, farmer, logician, obscurantist, reformer, financier, sociologist, crusader, sharper, father confessor, checker shark, friend and fighter.” (Editorial page, St. Louis Post- Dispatch, Monday, October 31, 1955)
In 1942, Rickey joined the Dodgers and quietly began plans to bring black players to the team. The first black baseball player to cross the “color line” would be subjected to intense public scrutiny, and Rickey knew that the player would have to be more than a talented athlete to succeed. He would also have to be a strong person who could agree to avoid open confrontation when subjected to hostility and insults, at least for a few years. In 1945, when Rickey approached Jackie Robinson, baseball was being proposed as one of the first areas of American society to integrate. Not until 1948 did a presidential order desegregate the armed forces; the Supreme Court forbid segregated public schools in 1954.
The player who would break the color line, Jack (John) Roosevelt Robinson, was born in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. His mother moved the family to Pasadena, California, in 1920, and Robinson attended John Muir Technical High School and Pasadena Community College before transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles. An outstanding athlete, he lettered in four sports at UCLA — baseball, football, basketball, and track — and excelled in others, such as swimming and tennis. Consequently, he had experience playing integrated sports.
Robinson showed an early interest in civil rights in the Army. He was drafted in 1942 and served on bases in Kansas and Texas. With help from boxer Joe Louis, he succeeded in opening an Officer Candidate School to black soldiers. Soon after, Robinson became a second lieutenant. At Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson faced a court martial for refusing to obey an order to move to the back of a bus. The order was a violation of Army regulations, and he was exonerated. Shortly after leaving the Army in 1944, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs, a leading team in the Negro Leagues.
After scouting many players from the Negro Leagues, Branch Rickey met with Jackie Robinson at the Brooklyn Dodgers office in August, 1945. Clyde Sukeforth, the Dodgers scout, had told Robinson that Rickey was scouting for players because he was starting his own black team to be called the Brown Dodgers. At the meeting, Rickey revealed that he wanted Robinson to play for the major league Dodgers. Rickey then acted out scenes Robinson might face to see how Robinson would respond. Robinson kept his composure and agreed to a contract with Brooklyn’s Triple-A minor league farm club, the Montreal Royals.
On October 23, 1945, Jackie Robinson officially signed the contract. Rickey soon put other black players under contract, but the spotlight stayed on Robinson. Rickey publicized Robinson’s signing nationally through Look magazine, and in the black press through his connections to Wendell Smith at the Pittsburgh Courier. In response to allegations that Negro League contracts had been broken, Rickey sought assurances that Robinson had not been under formal contract with the Monarchs. Robinson responded to Rickey in a letter preserved in the Branch Rickey Papers.
Minor League career
Robinson began his professional career in baseball in 1945 when he signed a contract with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues. Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey first expressed interest in signing him shortly after, and by 1946, he had reported to Dayton Beach, Fla. for Spring Training with the organization.
In Robinson’s first Minor League season with the Dodgers, he was named the MVP of the International League, hitting .349. He also made the change from shortstop to second base, and then eventually to first base that year.
Major League career
The Dodgers called Robinson up to the Major Leagues six days before the start of the 1947 season. He made his Major League debut at Ebbets Field on April 15 of that year at the age of 28, breaking baseball’s color barrier.
Being the first African-American Major League Baseball player obviously came with its challenges, but Robinson will forever be known as the person who forever changed sports.
He earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1947, and went on to be named to six All-Star teams over a 10-year career with the Dodgers. Robinson was named MVP of the league in 1949, winning a batting title that season. He also won the World Series in 1955 and was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
In December of 1956, the Dodgers traded Robinson to the New York Giants. However, instead of playing for the rival team, Robinson elected to retire from baseball at the age of 37.
After his retirement, Robinson devoted his time to a number of business opportunities. He was very active in politics in his post-career life, and also served as a sports analyst.
On June 4, 1972, the Dodgers retired his No. 42 uniform number, alongside those of Roy Campanella (39) and Sandy Koufax (32). MLB decided to retire his number throughout the entire sport in 1997.
Unfortunately, Robinson did not get to live out much of his post-career life as heart disease and diabetes weakened him and quickly made him blind. He died of a heart attack in his home in North Stamford, Conn. on Oct. 24, 1972, at the age of 53.
Robinson is survived by his wife Rachel, his daughter Sharon and his son David. He also had another son named Jackie Jr. who passed away in 1971. Rachel founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation after her husband’s death, and that continues to this day.
MLB celebrates “Jackie Robinson Day” on April 15 every year, and all players across the league wear his No. 42 jersey on that day only.
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