By Dennis J. Freeman
Los Angeles-Jackie Robinson fought the good fight and won. He looked at unflinching bigotry and hatred in the face and swatted them back to the land of ignorance.
Before Rosa Parks decided not to move to back of the bus, before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream and before the Voting Rights Act removed racial barriers at the polls, Robinson was the face of the beginning of a movement that would change America.
When Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 as the first black player to play in Major League Baseball, he automatically became the face of the Civil Rights movement, a movement seeking to create an atmosphere of equality and fairness for of all America’s citizens.
“Every visitor we hope leaves the Hall of Fame understanding the game and its history and its relationship to American culture. But we go to great lengths to talk about the character lessons that Jackie Robinson teaches, even today, many years after his passing,” said Brad Horn, senior director, Communiton and Education, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “We call out the struggles, and we call out the challenges that Jackie Robinson faced…Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier 15 years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. ”
In becoming the first black man to integrate America’s favorite pastime, Robinson didn’t just speak for himself; what he did on and off the field spoke for millions of others just like him. He didn’t get heckled; he was often repudiated and put down simply because of the color of skin.
He was spat at. He was called the N-word many times over. He was refused service accommodations to sleep in the same hotel as his white teammates. He endured the relentless ugly racial taunts, taunts unimaginable considering the time and era he played baseball in. Some teammates even avoided him.
At times, the weight of a whole race seemed to rest on Robinson’s broad, muscular shoulders. In many ways, it did. With all eyes on him and his every move, Robinson was forced to take all the racial epithets, the death threats, catcalls and objects thrown at him in silence.
Any type of retaliation-verbal or otherwise-by Robinson would have in all likelihood negated the contract Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey had agreed to with the Kansas City Monarchs slugger, and push integration of the sport back.
Dodgers’ legend Don Newcombe, the only player in league history to win Rookie of the Year, CY Young and MVP Awards, told a crowded gymnasium of students at Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles, California that if Robinson failed, then they all would fail.
As the now Los Angeles Dodgers and the rest of MLB paid homage to No. 42 on April 15th, designated as Jackie Robinson Day, Newcombe said it was critical to all black baseball players that his former roommate succeeded in the “great experiment.”
“Jackie was the leader,” Newcombe said. “And we started out with a movement. Some of you heard of that movement called civil rights. I know what he meant to me. Jackie gave me a chance to become somebody. He made me a winner. He made our team a winner. He became the first.”
Despite all that he endured, Robinson gave the sport of baseball and a restless, divided country a whirlwind career that is nothing short of spectacular. He captured the Rookie of the Year honors in his first season, temporarily shutting up the haters that couldn’t believe that a black man could succeed at that level. He went on to earn the coveted MVP trophy in 1949 and became a six-time All-Star in 10 glorious years.
When he left the sport for good in 1957, Robinson, who became the first black player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, baseball and America were both making strides, albeit slowly, to be more inclusive. Current Dodgers first baseman James Loney said this is what makes Robinson special.
“I think being that figure that everybody knows worldwide…I think he made more of an impact on different races, as far as making them change their minds about different situations, just letting certain people play and stuff like that,” Loney said. “I think that’s the main thing…just his whole aspect of handling any situation.”