With all the talk the past week of the courage and grace displayed by the Rutgers University women’s basketball team after being insulted by a morning radio host, I think it’s worth remembering the anniversary of the arrival on the national scene of a man who exhibited genuine courage in the face of some of the most vile and withering racist abuse ever addressed to an athlete.
Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut sixty years ago this weekend. He survived and thrived for ten years following, leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to six World Series, including a win in 1955 against hated cross-town rivals the Yankees, played in six All-Star games, was decorated the first-ever Rookie of the Year award, and won the title of 1949 National League Most Valuable Player.
Contrary to the popular myth, Jackie was not the first black man to play in the Major Leagues. Moses Fleetwood Walker played for several teams in the American Association and the International League from 1884 to 1889 before the team owners formed an unofficial “gentlemen’s agreement” to ban black players from Major League Baseball. From Walker’s release in the summer of 1889 to Jackie Robinson’s debut at for Brooklyn on April 15, 1947, baseball was as segregated as the rest of America. When Jackie trotted out of the dugout to play alongside his white teammates that day at Ebbets Field, it was against the law for a black man to eat in the same dining room or use the same bathroom as a white man in much of the United States.
The abuse Jackie endured during the early days of his career is difficult to imagine today. A number of his own teammates initially refused to play with him in the lineup until general manager Branch Rickey informed them that any man who did not wish to play beside Robinson was welcome to leave the team. Fans and opposing players shouted epithets whenever Jackie walked onto the field.
Bound by a promise to Rickey not to answer such abuse in kind, Jackie responded with his exemplary play. In his first season Jackie played in 151 games, hit .297 and led the league in stolen bases. On June 24 he stole home for the first time; he did it 12 more times in the next three years, a total of 19 by the time he retired after the 1956 season. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility. Ten years later the Dodgers retired his uniform number, 42.
Jackie’s number 42 was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997 in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his debut. This year on April 15, to honor the sixtieth anniversary since Jackie broke the color barrier, more than 150 players will take the field wearing number 42, including Ken Griffey Jr., David Ortiz, Andruw Jones, Dontrelle Willis, Ivan Rodriguez, and Barry Bonds. Five teams plan to field their entire rosters wearing 42: the Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Jackie’s old team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.