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Jackie Robinson: Breaking Down the Color Barrier in Baseball

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For decades following the Civil War, Jim Crow laws terrorized the lives of African Americans, barring them from the facilities and opportunities available to whites. They were forced to drink from separate water fountains, to stay in separate hotels, and to eat in separate restaurants. This time period in which Jim Crow laws reigned in the United States reflected the “Separate but Equal” ruling in the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson case. However, using a variety of approaches, civic leaders and historical figures terminated this racist system and dismantled the norms of segregation and discrimination. One such individual successfully broke down the color barrier in baseball. Born in 1919 in Cairo, Georgia, Jackie Robinson grew up in the heart of the segregated South (Extra Bases 3). The grandson of a slave and son of plantation sharecroppers, he grew up with Jim Crow laws being a part of his everyday life. He attended elementary school in the town of Pasadena, where African American students were taught by white teachers (Robinson, Sharon 12). After graduating from Pasadena Junior College, Robinson went to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and became the first in school history to win varsity letters in four sports: basketball, baseball, track, and football. At UCLA, he was not the African American pioneer that he would later become. Various African American alumni and current students had accomplished amazing feats; for example, some played in the Negro Leagues while others participated in “clown teams” such as the Harlem Globetrotters (Extra Bases 4). Robinson then went on to play in the Negro Leagues and ultimately became the first ever African American to set foot in the Major Leagues. In the words of authors Robert Lipsyte and Pete Levine, “It [Jackie Robinson’s debut] represented both the dream and the fear of equal opportunity, and it would change forever the complexion of the game and the attitudes of Americans” (“Jackie Robinson”). His debut in the Major Leagues sent a shockwave through the country, bringing men and women of all ages and races to their feet. Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in baseball was one of the most influential moments in the call for equality because of the rigidness of the barrier, his ability to win over fans with his talent, and pioneering nature of his actions.

Robinson’s accomplishment had such an explosive impact on the civil rights movement because of the rigidity of the color barrier in baseball and the seemingly insurmountable opposition that plagued his career. Due to unwritten laws and the social norm of discrimination against people of color, the Negro Leagues were formed primarily as an outlet for players of other races. In the late 19th century, there were numerous African American players who played in professional baseball games. In fact, prior to 1920, many unofficial leagues tried to host games with players of other races and create an atmosphere similar to the Major Leagues. On various occasions, separate baseball leagues were established but were eventually disbanded. One notable attempt occurred in 1906 when there was an explosion of African American baseball teams around the New York area. Experiencing a brief period of success, it eventually died away (Hogan 104). Finally, after various failed attempts, Rube Foster and a few business partners formed the first official Negro National League in 1920 (Hogan 157). In the years following, this league stood strong although disagreements inevitably led to a scattered organization of teams. In 1932, Greenlee, the current Negro League owner, brought together a number of teams to strengthen the foundation of the Negro National League. Five years later, in 1937, a second league, known as the Negro American League — most likely influenced by the parallel American League in the major leagues — was established (Tygiel 25). Many players rose to fame through this league, including Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, and Josh Gibson. One of the defining characteristics of the Negro Leagues was their players’ style of play. African American ballplayers tended to play “tricky baseball”, which included stealing bases and trick plays (Tygiel 24). Even so, the Negro Leagues always seemed to be a smaller, insignificant counterpart to the Major Leagues. In the words of Sam Lacy, the Negro Leagues was “a mongrel puppy licking at the heels of a prospective master” (Hogan 349). Because of the need for fans and income, players and owners even implemented forms of entertainment that belittled African Americans in order to draw attention. African American players actually added elements of minstrel shows before their games, further entrenching the idea of subordination of African Americans (Tygiel 26). Additionally, the Major Leagues had unwritten rules that denied black players the opportunity to play, thus forcing them to seek recognition from the Negro Leagues. African American ballplayers were also forced to follow Jim Crow laws for road games. Finally, their salaries were also significantly lower and their schedules were much less structured (Robinson, Sharon 22). The creation of the Negro Leagues emphasized the harsh boundary of professional baseball between white men and men of color, while also solidifying the ideas of discrimination and segregation.

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In order for an African American to play in the Major Leagues, three groups had to agree: team management, the players, and most importantly the fans. The commissioner of the Major Leagues, Kenesaw Mountain Landis himself, actually acknowledged that there was no written law that prevented the signing of a player of color. However, he personally thwarted efforts to sign African Americans up until his death in 1944. In addition, team managers predicted that the addition of African American players would lead to an influx of African American fans, who would inevitably drive away other people. Fearful of the potential loss of supporters, team managers also opposed the signing of African American players. The managers of Negro League teams themselves believed the integration of baseball would take away from their profit. According to a New York Times article published during that time, “A general competition among major and minor league owners for the best Negro players would certainly wreck the Negro leagues and with them the not inconsiderable capital investment of Negro entrepreneurs” (Simons 45). With both Negro League managers and Major League figures opposing the breaking of the color barrier, it seemed that the color barrier might never be broken. (Hogan 55, 332)

However, Branch Rickey was a unique individual who saw beyond social stigma and cultural traditions. Rickey first expressed interest in Robinson when he was still playing in the Negro Leagues. He set expectations with Robinson, telling him that insults and racial slurs would be tossed around frequently. Robinson knew to keep his head down and fight back through his skill and talent rather than his fists. In their conversations, Rickey often mentioned how the future of Robinson’s whole race rested on his shoulders. He once said to Robinson, “You are carrying the reputation of a race upon your shoulders. Bear it well and a day will come when every team in baseball will open its doors to Negroes. The alternative is not pleasant” (Robinson, Jackie 182). Rickey’s own family advised against signing Robinson, fearing the danger that would surely come to their family accompanying Robinson’s signing. Rickey already had a multitude of success stories including Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider. His decision to sign Robinson ultimately reflected his win-at-all-costs attitude. He ignored the threat of certain slander that would accompany his decision; his only goal in mind was to win and Jackie Robinson would help him do that. In his mind, Robinson was merely a skilled player who deserved a chance to win the Dodgers a pennant. In some ways, Branch Rickey was a mentor to Robinson, assisting him with every step along the way and helping him remain calm in times of crisis. As Robinson himself said, Branch Rickey was just as responsible for the integration of baseball as he was (Robinson, Jackie 185). Robinson officially broke the barrier in 1947, with his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Robinson, Jackie 180-185)

Jackie Robinson was able to successfully integrate baseball partly because of his ability to deal with racism through his talent on the field, instead of with his fists. Having overcome the problem of opposition from team management, Robinson now faced a formidable obstacle of winning over both fans and other players. Many believed that the general public was not ready for the integration of baseball, and that this was the real reason behind the unwritten rules barring African Americans from the Major Leagues (Hogan 332). Various players refused to play with or against Robinson. Some St. Louis Cardinals players once contemplated organizing a strike in response to their upcoming game against Robinson and the Dodgers (“Robinson Reveals Written Threats”). He also admitted to receiving death threats after playing a few games. Instead of trying to confront the public directly, Robinson turned to Rickey — a move that proved his wise instincts. He would never be able to win over the fans by himself; he did not have enough credibility. However, he could lean on people who did. For example, in one game, fans jeered at Robinson and yelled at the Dodgers’ shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, a white player. They screamed all sorts of things, of which included that he should not have to play with a man of color. A pivotal moment in the history of baseball, Pee Wee Reese ignored the fans and instead, embraced Robinson (Robinson, Sharon 41). The fans immediately quieted down and this event symbolized one step towards the integration of baseball beyond the color barrier. If one of their own players was willing to play with a African American, what more could the fans want? As time went on, Robinson’s teammates began to embrace his talent, even those who were outright racist to him at the beginning of his career. Branch Rickey also recognized the role fans had. As recounted by Jackie Robinson, Rickey would work with African American fans to ensure that they took the same passive approach towards racism during baseball games that Robinson took (Robinson, Jackie 182).

Furthermore, Robinson, a player of amazing talent and accustomed to playing elements of “tricky baseball”, fought opposition with his performance. Although his talent sucked away fans from the Negro Leagues at times, Robinson brought the best of two worlds together (Tygiel 27). Through his career, he acquired a total of 1518 hits out of 4877 at-bats, of which included 137 home runs — a miraculous feat for a player of any race (“Jackie Robinson”). He maintained a batting average of .311, a significant statistic even for players today. Robinson played a total of ten seasons with the Dodgers, winning six National League pennants, a feat that had been accomplished only three times in over 30 years before his debut (Kahn 272). In one minor league game, both teams received threats of boycott if Robinson took the field. Even so, both teams agreed to play. The game started off tense, with fans tossing racial slurs left and right. However, as the game went on, the crowd’s attitude changed. When Robinson eventually stole home later in the game, the fans gave him a standing ovation (Robinson, Sharon 34). At the beginning of the season, after Rickey had told him that Robinson would be playing for him, Clay Hopper, the manager of the Montreal Royals responded, “Do you really think that n*gger is a human being, Mr. Rickey?” Clearly, this outright racism implies that Robinson should not get any opportunity to play for the team, because of his skin color. At the end of the season, Hopper says, “Robinson must go to the majors. He’s a big-league ballplayer, a good team hustler, and a real gentleman.” Hopper does not even mention the issue of race, instead acknowledging Robinson’s raw talent, maturity, and leadership (Kahn 189).

There were many other attempts to integrate baseball but the pioneering nature of Robinson allowed his successful career to set a precedent for the future. In one event, three players had tried out for the Boston Red Sox but were completely disregarded. The manager never got back to them about their tryouts; it seemed that they had been completely ignored (Hogan 331). As a result of the failed integration attempts of the past, the legacy of the integration of baseball has been attributed to Robinson and many events after his career have been attributed to him.

Robinson’s feat resulted in lasting impacts of the future of baseball. Just 81 days after his debut, Larry Doby, an African American player, made his own debut with the Cleveland Indians (Castrovince). While Robinson enjoyed the luxury of training in the minor leagues for a year, Doby left the Negro Leagues and went to play in the Major Leagues in a matter of weeks, exemplifying the forward movements of professional baseball (Extra Bases 104). The St. Louis Browns signed both William Brown and Hank Thompson, thinking that it would supply them with more fans, and thus, profit. Then, the Dodgers signed yet another player, Dan Bankhead, who became the first African American to pitch in the Major Leagues. In the 1948-1949 season, four Major League teams all signed African Americans to play for their farm teams (Extra Bases 106). Furthermore, players of other nationalities also joined the Major Leagues. Minnie Minoso, the first Major League Latino player, took inspiration straight from Jackie Robinson, “If Mr. Jackie could make it, I could make it too” (Castrovince). Robinson’s actions set a precedent for the future that players of all races deserved an equal opportunity to play in the Major Leagues.

On April 15th of every year, each team honors Robinson as the first-ever African American to play in the Major Leagues (“Jackie Robinson”). His number has been retired from every team, showing the respect that the country has for his accomplishments. Since his retirement, MLB has increased the amount of Hispanic and African American players significantly. Jackie Robinson’s debut shocked the world. His breaking of the color barrier in baseball was augmented by the seemingly impossible task due to the widespread opposition to his signing. However, he was able to create a lasting legacy by acquiring the respect of fans through his calm demeanor and impeccable talent, which in turn, proved to whites that African Americans could just as much play in the major leagues as white men could. His story is one of silent abuse, of pressure and difficulty, of success and failure. Through all the hardships of racial abuse, Jackie Robinson was able to successfully integrate baseball and create a lasting legacy that would affect the generations to come.

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