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Robinson, Jack Roosevelt ("Jackie")

ROBINSON, Jack Roosevelt ("Jackie")

(b. 31 January 1919 in Cairo, Georgia; d. 24 October 1972 in Stamford, Connecticut), legendary baseball player who broke the color barrier in modern Major League Baseball. He was the first player to be selected rookie of the year, the first African American to earn Most Valuable Player, and first African American elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

America's most celebrated black athlete, Robinson was the youngest of five children born to Mallie McGriff and Jerry Robinson. Jerry ran off with another woman, leaving Mallie to bring up the children alone. In 1920 she moved her family to Pasadena, California, at the suggestion of her brother Frank. There, Mallie worked as a domestic laborer, and the family purchased a house in an all-white neighborhood.

To compete with his older siblings in street games, Jackie used speed and quickness against size and strength. As the neighborhood's best athlete, he succeeded at whatever sport he attempted, from Ping-Pong (he won the Pasadena championship in 1936) to baseball. He was later a star athlete at Pasadena Junior College (1937–1939), where he eclipsed the national junior college record in the broad (now long) jump set by his brother, Mack, with a leap of 25 feet, 51/ 2 inches. This performance was followed by a spectacular athletic career at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA; 1939–1941), where he played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track. In the 1940 Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) football season, he finished second in total yards—440 running, 435 passing. As a basketball player he led the PCC in scoring. Arguably, he was the best all-round athlete in America since Jim Thorpe.

Robinson met his future wife Rachel Isum, a vivacious straight-A student, three years his junior in 1941. In that same year financial difficulties forced Robinson to leave UCLA before graduation. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, he was involved in a series of racial confrontations. Robinson pursued an aggressive course of action to redress wrongs. He was rewarded with a court martial, found innocent, and discharged in 1944 for medical reasons.

Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs, a power-house in the Negro League, for the 1945 season. Despite a weak arm, he played shortstop. Soon after, Brooklyn Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey decided to sign "a Negro ball player," as he informed the broadcaster and Dodgers' announcer Walter "Red" Barber, the Dodger Board of Trustees, his wife, and family. Rickey sent out a flood of scouts seeking the right man. He received favorable reports on several players, but he fixed on Robinson for a number of reasons essential to his grand plan. He wanted the right man off as well as on the field. He wanted positive press and support from the African-American community. He wanted to win acceptance from Dodger teammates. As an officer and a gentleman, as a superior athlete and a solid family man, as an articulate individual who sprang from poverty, Robinson became the pioneer.

On 29 August 1945 Branch Rickey interviewed Robinson for three hours, during which he hectored, lectured, and tested the young athlete. He wanted Robinson to wear a "cloak of humility" as part of a long-term strategy designed to win acceptance. To a skeptical Robinson, he said: "I want a ball player with guts enough not to fight back! You've got to do this job with base hits and stolen bases and fielding ground balls, Jackie." On 23 October 1945 Robinson signed a contract with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' Triple AAA club in the International League.

He married Rachel on 16 February 1946. With Rachel leading the chorus of 25,000 cheering fans, Robinson enjoyed a spectacular debut in April at Jersey City's Roosevelt Stadium. In five trips to the plate, he banged out four hits including a three-run homer, scored four runs, and stole two bases to lead the Royals to a 14–1 win. Despite frequent threats, Robinson enjoyed a dream season before record-shattering crowds: batting a league-best of .349 with 113 runs scored and fielding a team best of .985. The Royals won the pennant by 191/ 2 games and the Little World Series over the Colonels of Louisville, four games to two. French Canadian fans serenaded Robinson at the conclusion of game six with a stirring rendition of "Il a gagné ses epaulettes." Fans hugged and kissed their hero. "It was probably the first time in history," observed reporter Sam Maltin, "that a black man ran from a white mob with love, instead of lynching, on its mind."

Robinson's elevation to baseball's major leagues stirred anxiety. Some of his own future teammates circulated a petition expressing their hostility to Rickey's brainstorm. Rickey and Dodger Manager Leo Durocher (soon to be banished for gambling) immediately squelched this move. In that first year—"when all hell broke loose" according to Dodgers' announcer Barber—Americans witnessed a milestone in race relations. Defying the odds, Robinson integrated professional baseball on 15 April 1947. Though hitless, he scored the winning run in a 5–3 victory over the Boston Braves. Robinson played under wraps. Containing his fury, he channeled his energies into batting and base running. A .297 average and excellent fielding at a new position, first base, earned rookie-of-the year laurels. He led the Dodgers to a National League pennant, the first of six during his ten-year career.

In the first nationally televised World Series, Robinson drove rookie Yankees catcher Yogi Berra crazy with his antics on the base paths. The Dodgers extended the highly favored Yankees to seven games until they succumbed to superior relief pitching and abler management, 5–2. Eddie Miksis, normally an infielder, was sent to left field instead of Al Gionfreddo, whose spectacular catch of Joe DiMaggio's towering drive in game six secured a Brooklyn victory. Miksis misplayed a fly ball in left field that led to a Yankees rally and World Series triumph.

During that first summer, Robinson endured verbal abuse, particularly from Phillies' manager Ben Chapman; physical intimidation from St. Louis Cardinals' player Enos "Country" Slaughter, who has vigorously denied it; and racists who rooted for Robinson to fail. As Robinson proved his worth on the field and at the turnstiles, he won friends and influenced people. African Americans felt ennobled by Robinson. In his first year he fielded expertly at a new position, showing wide range and an impressive .989 average, and "tore up" Red Barber's "pea patch" with a league-leading twenty-nine stolen bases while terrorizing opposing pitchers.

Robinson's style transformed the national pastime, bringing a distinctive Negro League synthesis of "Cool Papa" Bell's speed and science with the prevalent power of Josh Gibson. The twenty-eight-year-old rookie aroused the public imagination as no other athlete since the heavyweight boxer Joe Louis. His charismatic personality and exciting play evoked admiration from whites as well as blacks. To the latter, he arose as a savior. Fans flocked to the games; listened to the radio coverage; idolized their hero. Robinson inspired America not only by serving as trailblazer but also, according to Jules Tygiel, because he combined heroics, courage, and triumph—the stuff of Horatio Alger dreams. He validated our nation's quest for fair play coupled with social progress. Ultimately, he opened the doors for African Americans in other fields: education, public accommodations, business, broadcasting, banking, insurance, and construction. Dr. Martin King, Jr., acknowledged that "Jackie made my work much less difficult."

Shifted to second base in 1948 after Eddie Stanky was traded to the Boston Braves, Robinson grew in confidence and improved with experience. He hit .296, one point less than in his rookie year, but almost doubled his RBI output with eighty-five, and led all second basemen with only thirteen errors and a .980 fielding average. In the summer of 1948 the Dodgers brought up a second black ballplayer destined for glory: catcher Roy Campanella. The following year, pitcher Don Newcombe joined them. The trio would contribute to Dodger hegemony in the National League for the next seven years.

In 1949 Rickey's restraints on Robinson were removed, and the "Flatbush Flash" had a banner year with a league-leading and career-high .342 batting average, 16 homers, and 124 RBI. He also ranked first in stolen bases with thirty-seven. Voted the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP), Robinson crested as the Dodgers won an exciting pennant race on the season's final day. New York's other dominant team, the Yankees, thwarted a dream season with a four games to one triumph in the 1949 World Series.

After this superlative season, Robinson was summoned to Washington, D.C., to refute another black hero's stand on cold war politics. While traveling in Europe, the singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson had asserted that American blacks would never take up arms against the Soviet Union. Before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), at the behest of Branch Rickey, Robinson testified: "I've got too much invested … in the future of this country … for any of us to throw it away for a siren song in bass.…" Although obviously scripted, this text endeared Robinson to the press corps bent on patriotism. While acknowledging the persistence of racism, the Dodgers' star reaffirmed the American success story, thereby enhancing his popularity. The anti-Communists achieved a great coup with his testimony. Realizing that he had been used as a pawn in a power game, Robinson would later express regret for the assault on Robeson, "who … sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people."

Playing himself, the National League's MVP starred in the Jackie Robinson Story (1950), opposite Ruby Dee as wife Rachel. Robinson earned rave reviews from New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. The movie highlights the love, support, and calming influence of Rachel and their two children (they eventually had another child).

The joy of fatherhood was offset by the agony of defeat, which plagued Robinson and the Dodgers on the last day of the next two seasons. The Philadelphia Phillies avoided a certain loss in the ninth inning of the 1950 finale, as the plodding Cal Abrams was gunned down by the weak-armed centerfielder Richie Ashburn. The Phillies won the pennant in the tenth on Dick Sisler's three-run home run against Dodgers' pitcher Don Newcombe. History repeated in 1951 as Bobby Thomson's homer—"the shot heard round the world"—propelled the New York Giants to a dramatic comeback win over the Dodgers 5–4 in the ninth. In both of these heartbreak seasons, Robinson continued his superior hitting, .328 and .338, and sensational fielding, .986 and .992, the latter a league record.

Robinson led the Dodgers back to the top of the National League in 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, his final season. In his later years he adapted to team needs and demonstrated valuable versatility. To accommodate younger players like Jim "Junior" Gilliam, Robinson played third base and left field. He played a shallow third base in his final year to compensate for a weak throwing arm. He covered the hot corner with catlike agility and amazing grace. Playing three positions, he helped the Dodgers gain their only World Series victory, won in 1955 against the Yankees.

In the 1956 World Series, a loss to the Yankees, Robinson knocked in the winning run in the tenth inning of game six and made the final out in a 9–0 Yankees rout in game seven. It was the last hurrah of a magnificent athlete. Over a ten-year span, he led the Brooklyn Dodgers to six pennants and one—Brooklyn's only—World Series victory. During that decade he hit .311 with the Dodgers and .333 in All-Star games (1949–1954). He led the National League in stolen bases in 1947 and 1949. An excellent fielder, he paced all second basemen in double plays in 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1952. His on-base percentage of .410 ranks historically among the best twenty-five.

Refusing to be traded to the New York Giants in 1957 "for thirty pieces of silver" as wife Rachel remembered, Robinson retired from baseball and launched a new career as vice president of a restaurant chain, Chock Full O'Nuts. The qualities that he brought to baseball, indeed all sports, carried over into business, civil rights activism, and civic concerns. His crowning glory—election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York—came in 1962, the first year of his eligibility. He was the first African American to be so honored.

Unfortunately, a long happy life eluded the "Lion at Dusk," as aptly described in Roger Kahn's poignant memoir The Boys of Summer. Robinson lost his oldest child and namesake first to drugs then to a high-speed car wreck. Racked by diabetes and its attendant miseries, Robinson suffered blindness and heart trouble. Undaunted, Robinson made his last public appearance at the 1972 World Series, where he was honored on 16 October, twenty-five years after his major league debut. To a television public in the millions, Robinson exhorted the baseball establishment to hire black managers and black coaches. Nine days later, Robinson died at the age of fifty-three.

On 28 October 1972 Robinson received a hero's funeral, as 2,500 people turned out to pay tribute. In Manhattan's Riverside Church, over a silver-blue coffin decorated with red roses, Jesse Jackson delivered the eulogy, saying "Today we must balance the tears of sorrow with the tears of joy. … When Jackie took the field, something reminded us of our birthright to be free." Robinson was, as Red Smith put it in a single word, "unconquerable."

Roger Kahn's brilliant tome, The Boys of Summer (1972), reawakened national interest in Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson coauthored several autobiographies, the best of which is the last: I Never Had It Made, with Alfred Duckett (1995). Jules Tygiel, Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1997), remains definitive, and his collection of essays, The Jackie Robinson Reader (1997), is useful. Arnold Rampersad, Jackie Robinson: A Biography (1997), offers the most comprehensive study of a heroic life. Maury Allen, Jackie Robinson (1987), is full of pertinent information and quotations. For an insider's view coupling love and illumination with a trove of photographic treasures, see Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait (1996). Though Sharon Robinson, Stealing Home (1996), provides fewer pictures of her famous dad, her book confronts the dilemma of a child living in the shadow of a giant Dodger. Joram Warmund and this writer, Joseph Dorinson, contribute new perspectives in Jackie Robinson: Race, Sports and the American Dream (1998).

Joseph Dorinson

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