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The legacy of Jackie Robinson

“But as I write these words now I cannot stand and sing the National Anthem. I have learned that I remain a black in a white world.”

Dodger’s Infielder
Jackie Robinson
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In front of a crowd of 26,263, a 28-year-old rookie made history. Bat in hand, he slowly walked from the on-deck circle, his face resolute, to face one of the best pitchers of the era. The crowd gave him a warm reception as he arrived at the plate, buzzing in anticipation as he took a few practice swings and dug in. Getting his signs from the catcher, the right-hander let loose and got the rookie to ground out to third base. In his second trip to the plate, he shot a sharp grounder past the pitcher, but the nimble shortstop made an outstanding dive, flipping the ball over to his partner at the keystone for a picture perfect double-play that got the lead runner by a half-step. In his third trip to the plate, he laid down a beauty of a push bunt that forced the fielding first baseman to throw the pitch away in his attempt to shuffle it to the covering pitcher. The 28-year-old would end up going 0-3 in the game, reaching base on the error in the seventh inning and scoring a run. Jack Roosevelt Robinson would win up reaching base over 2,330 more times over the course of his ten-year career.

Throughout virtually all his career, Robinson faced enormous hostility when the Dodgers were on the road. Fans hurled vile racial epithets at him and death threats were common. Hotel owners refused to let him stay in their establishments. Restaurant owners refused to let him eat in their establishments. At home though, back in Brooklyn, things were very different. Home to just over 2.5 million people, men and women of virtually every race and ethnicity made their homes in post-World War II Brooklyn. It was far from an idyllic post-racism utopia, but people were generally more accepting of others than in many other places in the United States. Baseball was the glue that brought the people of Brooklyn together at the time, regardless of their race and ethnicity; Jackie Robinson was a Brooklyn Dodgers, and nothing else really mattered.

Robinson would go on to become a six-time All-Star, winning the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 and the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949. While he continued playing excellent baseball well into his career as the 1940s rolled into the 1950s, he began slowing down by mid-decade. His long-standing dislike of Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, combined with the effects of diabetes, began sapping Robinson’s desire to play baseball. Robinson struck out to end Game 7 of the 1956 World Series, and the at-bat would end up being the last of his career, as he retired after the season ended—and in an ironic turn, in his retirement, Robinson was able to get one final dig in at O’Malley, as the organization attempted to trade him to the New York Giants for Dick Littlefield and $35,000 in cash but had the transaction nullified because of his retirement had already been submitted to National League President Warren Giles.

The 1960s were a tumultuous time in America, and according to Martin Luther King Jr., “You’ll never know what [Don Newcombe] and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job.” His success on the baseball diamond demonstrated that African Americans were in no way inferior to Whites. His success on the baseball diamond demonstrated that a racially integrated society was possible. His success on the baseball diamond was an integral part of the burgeoning civil rights movement.

While many sports professionals fade away after ending their careers, Jackie Robinson parlayed his fame into social activism. In August 1944, Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus when the driver demanded, despite the fact that buses had been already officially desegregated on military bases. He beat the trumped-up charges, but wrote that the ordeal woke him up to the fact that “…I was in two wars, one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home.”

Robinson was active in politics throughout his post-baseball life. All throughout the 1960s, he was a regular presence at civil rights rallies and protests. In 1964, he was a co-founder of Freedom National Bank, a black-owned and operated commercial bank that served the Harlem community, a community that had been long underserved by white-owned banks. In 1969, he refused to participate in a baseball Old Timers Game because he did not see Major League Baseball making a “genuine interest in breaking the barriers that deny access to managerial and front office positions.” In 1970, he founded the Jackie Robinson Construction Company, which helped finance and build low-income housing. In his final public appearance, throwing the ceremonial first pitch before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, Robinson accepted a plaque denoting the 25th anniversary of his MLB debut and commented, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

Jackie Robinson died from heart attack due to complications from diabetes a few days later, on October 24, at the age of 53. His funeral, held at Riverside Church, was attended to 2,500 mourners. Tens of thousands lined the funeral procession from the church to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, where he was laid to rest next to his mother-in-law and his son, Jackie Robinson Jr., who died at the age of 24 in an automobile accident.

In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s rookie season, Major League Baseball retired his number, 42, in all perpetuity in a ceremony at Shea Stadium attended by Jackie’s widow, Rachel, baseball dignitaries of all sort, and even the President of the United States of America. In a speech given to the tens of thousands in attendance, Bill Clinton said,

“Today, I think every American should say a special word of thanks to Jackie Robinson and to Branch Rickey and to members of the Dodger team who made him one of their own and proved that America is a bigger, stronger, richer country when we all work together and give everybody a chance. And today I think we should remember that Jackie Robinson’s legacy did not end with baseball, for afterward he spent the rest of his life trying to open other doors and keep them open for all kinds of people… I can’t help thinking that if Jackie Robinson were here with us tonight, he would say that we have done a lot of good in the last fifty years, but we can do better. We have achieved equality on the playing field, but we need to establish equality in the boardrooms of baseball, and throughout corporate America… And he would remind us - look around this stadium tonight - that as we sit side by side at baseball games, we must make sure that we walk out of these stadiums together. We must stand for something more magnificent even than a grand slam home run. We ought to have a grand slam society, a good society where all of us have a chance to work together for a better tomorrow for our children. Let that be the true legacy of Jackie Robinson’s wonderful, remarkable career and life.”

While a member of the Dodgers, Robinson was inextricably linked to Brooklyn. In 2005, a statue depicting Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson embracing was unveiled to a crowd of a few hundred that included Rachel Robinson, Dottie Reese, Mike Bloomberg, Marty Markowitz, Johnny Podres, Joe Pignatano, Jeff Wilpon, and John Franco, among others. “Jackie was a role model”, according to Bloomberg, who went about his life and his athletic pursuits with “style, grace and dignity,” and “electrified a nation.” “When Pee Wee Reese threw his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder in this legendary gesture of support and friendship,” said Markowitz, “they showed America and the world that racial discrimination is unacceptable and un-American.”

Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese
Steve Sypa

Two years later, Robinson would once again be honored by the team that played in the city that had embraced him decades earlier. When it was announced that the Mets would be building a new stadium to replace Shea Stadium, it was announced that the new stadium’s entrance rotunda would not only be named after Robinson, but would honor his life and legacy. According to Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, “What the rotunda means to me is the progress we’ve made in the past and how that’s going to affect future generations. When fans and families and children walk through the rotunda, I hope they will reflect on not only what Jackie Robinson accomplished, but also think about themselves and think, ‘What am I doing? How am I living my life? What am I doing in my community?’ It’s a place where I hope people will feel inspired.”

Robinson fought his entire life for equality; “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me... all I ask is that you respect me as a human being,” he said. While the dream was not fully realized in his life, and is still something we as a country are still struggling with, his life is a legacy worth reflect upon.

“There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.”