Having completed author Jonathan Eig’s “Opening Day,” a taut and incisive look at Jackie Robinson’s rookie season of 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, it gave me pause to reflect on the meaning of his life.
Robinson was this country’s greatest and most important athlete, and not merely because he was the first African-American to play major league baseball in the 20th century. He could have played any sport and been superb.
The second World War was over two years when Robinson smashed the color line, and the country was booming economically. We were the defenders of freedom and enlightened, or so we thought.
There were many plusses being an American but there was one significant blind spot when it came to integration. Blacks could serve in the military and vote but were not fully equal to whites when it came to housing, employment and playing in the major leagues.
This changed with the signing of Robinson by Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, a pioneer and visionary, unequaled even to this day.
When Robinson walked onto the grass at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn that April 15 day against the Boston Braves, he set the groundwork for every other African-American player. If exceptional, a player will reach the majors by their late teens or early twenties. Robinson was that but didn’t get his chance until 28 because of his skin color. He spent two years at Pasadena Junior College, two years at UCLA and time in the United States Army.
Robinson gained some fame at junior college and even more at UCLA, where he became the first person in the school’s history to letter in four sports: football, basketball, track and field and baseball – which coincidentally was his worst sport.
The Dodgers weren’t picked to win the National League pennant in 1947 but did with Robinson – selected Rookie of the Year – being a key cog. He batted .297 with 125 runs scored and 29 stolen bases.
Running the bases was Robinson’s calling card, and he enjoyed upsetting opposing teams with his daring style. A .311 career hitter, Robinson would help the Dodgers to five more pennants, and would bring glory to Brooklyn in 1955, winning its first and only World Series title.
Initially, Robinson, who played first base in 1947, had some doubt about his ability but not for long. Once he found his groove, Robinson would carve out a 10-year run that culminated with a trip to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962.
With his bat held high and his legs spread wide, Robinson, a six-time All-Star, became a leader, along with shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Robinson won the Most Valuable Player award in 1949, and was an integral member of those marvelous Dodger teams.
All of this was accomplished while many opposing players taunted him with racial venom, so horrible and mean-spirited that it would get one tossed today. Early in 1947, there were rumors that a few members of the St. Louis Cardinals would refuse to play the Dodgers if Robinson was in the lineup.
At the end of 1999, ESPN named basketball star Michael Jordan the greatest athlete during that century. The network had it wrong. That honor should have gone to Robinson, who passed away in 1972 at age 53.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a contributor to trufanboxing.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.