Race in Sports: Breaking Boundaries
April 15th, 1947 not only marked a historic day in baseball history but American history.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers started Jackie Robinson at first base that day, it was the first time ever that an African-American played in the Major Leagues. As a military veteran of WWII and a man of great character, the Georgia native earned himself the opportunity no other black man had been offered. In the heat of the civil rights movement, Robinson breaking the segregation line in the game did not boat over well for him initially.
On the baseball diamond, Jackie’s high motor and consistent production at the plate etched him an everyday spot in the Dodger lineup. Normally a second basemen, he was not going to steal the job from Eddie Stanky on day one. But by the time his first season has come to a close, Jackie’s exceptional play was awarded with the first ever Rookie of the Year award. His .297 batting average, a league-leading 29 stolen bases, and 175 hits made the decision easy. However, throughout the course of that season, hardly anything was easy for Jackie.
As opposing teams and coaches scoffed at the idea of a black man playing outside of the Negro Leagues, Robinson grew adept at blocking out the hostility. The St. Louis Cardinals said that they would not play against the Dodgers if he was in the starting lineup, and attempted spread their same ideals across baseball. A testament to Happy Chandler’s tenure as MLB commissioner, he was one of the few, but most important people to stand up for Robinson.
“I do not care if half the league strikes. Those who do it will encounter quick retribution. All will be suspended and I don't care if it wrecks the National League for five years. This is the United States of America and one citizen has as much right to play as another.”
Despite the commissioner's disposition, not all of Jackie’s teammates even wanted to play with him out there on the field with them. He continued to be heckled and was regularly taunted with racial slurs. In a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Robinson received a seven-inch gash on his leg from a dirty slide. Fed up with the treatment of Jackie, Dodger manager Leo Durocher sent a pivotal message to his team that resonated across baseball, and the country.
"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f*****’ zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays."
By the 1948 season, racial tensions began to very gradually subside as Larry Doby and Satchel Paige signed with the Cleveland Indians in the American League. Eddie Stanky was traded to the Atlanta Braves, making Jackie Robinson the starting second basemen after just one season. Robinson continued to show consistency on the field, but in 1949, he was more than just consistent.
Batting .342 with 16HRs, 124RBI, 9.6 WAR, and 37 stolen bases, Jackie Robinson was the Most Valuable Player in baseball. His batting average earned him a batting title, and it was the second time in which he lead the MLB in steals. While the award was humbling for Robinson, he always identified himself as a team player. As the team's leader in sacrifice hits, Jackie wanted more than just another personal accolade, he wanted a title.
After losing in the World Series four times to the New York Yankees (1947, 1949, 1952, 1953), the Dodgers finally beat them in 1955. Being able to hoist the World Series trophy marked the crowning moment in Jackie Robinson’s unbelievable career. A career that transcended sports and baseball, Robinson’s legacy will echo forever and certainly not be forgotten.
Today, all 30 MLB teams wear number 42 on April 15th to continue to honor his unparalleled courage. This year marked the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball.