Jackie Robinson, Impact regarding race and sports

*Note: This is an essay that I recently wrote for my Sport in North American Society class for which we had to watch a sports movie that dealt with a major social issue and relate it to the real world. For the essay I watch the video “42” about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the MLB’s color barrier, now exactly 69 years ago today. I also read his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made” which was an enormous help.

“What Jackie Robinson represents today is a complicated issue. I’m sure many of the black players know what he did, but it’s possible that some of the younger players don’t know that he was the man responsible for their being in the major leagues. … (I)t would really disturb me if I went into a locker room and found a black player who didn’t know what players like Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Don Newcombe did forty or fifty years ago.” – Hank Aaron

Brooklyn Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey said it best when he said, “Ethic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.” It wasn’t just baseball, though, that needed to desegregate. The National Football League implemented a full ban on black athletes in 1933, which stood for 12 years until Kenny Washington and Woody Strode suited up for the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. Four years later, Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd broke the National Basketball Associations color line.

It’s feasible to say that Major League Baseball is currently in a recession when it comes to amount of African-American players. As late as 1986, 19 percent of the MLB was composed of black players. Just 11 years prior to that, 27.5 percent of baseball players were African-American. Since then, though, that number has dropped to below 10 percent. Last year there were only 68 African-American players on Opening Day rosters. But as true as that is, Bob Nightengale notes in his USA Today article, that baseball is doing its best trying to improve those numbers.

While baseball struggles to improve its numbers of minority players, basketball and football don’t have problems getting non-white athletes to play its sport, but they do have problems in other places regarding race. Black athletes make up 63 percent of the NFL players, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Similarly, 78 percent of NBA players are black.  With that said though, stacking, or the result of disproportionately putting minority ethnicities in specific positions, which causes them to be underrepresented in others has become a big problem in sports. Sports in America as a whole have come a long way over the last 70 years, but there is still work to do. Racism is still relevant and minority athletes and coaches are still discriminated in one form or another.

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Jackie Robinson (right) steals home during a game against the Boston Braves in August 1948.  Photo via the Associate Press

One of the most well known stories involving an athlete overcoming racial issues is the story of Major League Baseball legend Jackie Robinson. Robinson overcame Jim Crow segregation laws, as well as what at that time were well-established “unwritten rules” in baseball that did not allow non-white players to play in the majors. There weren’t any written rules, just codes that were understood man to man. “42” is the movie that details Robinson’s break into baseball, showing us a look into his life in the Negro Leagues, in the Minor Leagues, and his first year in the majors.

Branch Rickey became the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. Two years later in 1945, Rickey hatched an idea that would later be referred to as “The Great Experiment.” The experiment was breaking one of the hallowed unwritten rules of baseball and introducing the MLB to an African-American baseball player. Rickey’s decision wasn’t a popular one, even amongst his own staff. Clyde Sukeforth, who managed the Dodgers farm system as well as being a coach in Brooklyn, told Rickey, “You break a written law and some people think you’re smart. You break and unwritten law, and you’ll be an outcast.” Rickey had scouts scour the country looking for the best black players. Robinson’s name made it to the top of the list. Despite Robinson’s reputation of being a troublemaker and a player with a short temper, Rickey liked the fact that Robinson opposed segregation.

The two met for the first time on August 28, 1945. During the meeting, Robinson asked, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey responded, “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts enough not to fight back.” Soon after, Rickey rattled off a slew of derogatory names, cursed at him, said anything he could think of to get under Robinson’s skin and get a reaction. That was the one of the most important things to Branch Rickey. His experiment wouldn’t work if Robinson fought back at every insult that was thrown at him. Robinson had to stay calm. Rickey continued later during the meeting, “We win if the world is convinced of two things: that you’re a fine gentleman, and a great baseball player.”

One of the biggest challenges Robinson faced early in his first year in the big leagues included Phillies manager Ben Chapman, who had a track record of using derogatory terms on the baseball field, even against white players. Robinson admits, “This day, of all the unpleasant days in my life, brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had before.” Chapman’s tongue lashing got to Robinson, which “42” showed when he went into the tunnel that led from the dugout to the locker room, smashed his bat against the wall and dropped to his knees in tears. Chapman, though, not only caught the attention of Robinson, but also of the Dodger players, Branch Rickey, and the media as well. Dan Parker, sports editor of the New York Daily Mirror wrote, “Chapman and three of his players poured a stream of abuse at Jackie Robinson. Jackie, with admirable restraint, ignored the guttersnipe language coming from the Phils dugout, thus stamping himself as the only gentleman among those involved in the incident.”

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Jackie Robinson (left) poses with Phillies manager Ben Chapman (right) days following the incident mentioned above. This iconic photo may have just been a PR move by the Phillies, but it was important nonethless.

Public opinion of Jackie was starting to change – very slowly – but changing nonetheless. The opinion of him amongst his teammates was beginning to change, too. During a game in Boston, the home crowd began heckling Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who was a native of Kentucky, for playing baseball on the same teams as an African-American. Reese didn’t acknowledge the taunts outwardly. Instead, “He left his position and walked over to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and began talking to me.” According to Robinson’s autobiography “I Never Had It Made,” what Reese said during that conversation didn’t matter to Robinson; it “was the gesture of comradeship and support that counted.”  Two other teams followed in Brooklyn’s path. Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League when he signed with the Cleveland Indians, and Willard Brown and Henry Thompson each signed with the St. Louis Browns.

Not everyone’s opinion was changing, though. Some Dodger players requested to be traded, so they wouldn’t have to play on the same team as Robinson. A petition was even created that said the players who signed wouldn’t play alongside their new teammate. A group of St. Louis Cardinals players threatened to go on strike against Robinson’s playing in the big leagues, and Phillies President Bob Carpenter called Rickey to try to persuade him to not include Robinson in the lineup. Carpenter threatened to not put his team on the field if Robinson was in uniform. Former Cardinal great Roger Hornsby was even quoted as saying, “They’ve been getting along all right playing together and they should stay where they belong in their league.” Throughout his first year in the big leagues, Rickey, Robinson, and the Dodgers consistently received hate mail and threats of violence. According to the movie, the FBI had been notified and was taking threats made to occur during an impending series in Cincinnati seriously.

Rickey, though, gives some of the credit of the uniting of the Dodgers to the Phillies organization. “Chapman did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. … Chapman made Jackie a real member of the Dodgers.”

In 1947 there were 144 million people in the United States according to US Census estimations. Branch Rickey knew that, although a large number of that population were white spectators who may not pay to see a black baseball player, there would be plenty of African-Americans who would pay to watch Jackie play. As Branch Rickey, portrayed by Harrison Ford in “42” said, “New York is full of Negro baseball fans. The colors aren’t black and white; they’re green. Every dollar is green.” Later in the movie, when Robinson asks Rickey why he was doing what he was doing, Rickey responded, “I’m in the baseball business.” As it is with a number of issues involving sports, money and economics was an underlying issue (and result) of Robinson’s breakthrough into the majors. Even Jackie himself noted this condescendingly in his autobiography when he said his, “(Teammates) hadn’t changed because they liked me any better; they had changed because I could help fill their wallets.”

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The act of breaking the color barrier at that time not only meant increased opportunities for black baseball players, but for black journalists as well. Wendell Smith was the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, which at the time was the largest national black newspaper, when the Dodgers picked up Robinson. Smith, like other African-American journalists, weren’t allowed to sit in the press box with the other (white) writers. Instead, he was forced to sit in the stands with the fans and with his typewriter on his lap. Smith had been an established writer for the Courier for a decade, covering numerous Negro League teams, but despite his impressive baseball background, Smith was turned down to be part of the Baseball Writers Association when he originally applied. Smith was instrumental to getting black players in baseball. He helped organize tryouts for numerous black players during 1945, and he was the one that suggested to Robinson to Rickey. His hard work paid off, and due to his coverage of Robinson throughout the 1946 and ‘47 seasons, Smith became the first African-American sports writer to join the BWAA the next year in 1948.

What Jackie Robinson did for baseball, and for African-American athletes in general, cannot be over- or understated. There is still a lot of work to do in the game of baseball, but for all that it’s worth, Robinson is proud of the mark he left on the game he loved, as he rightfully should be. “If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards, and citations, and a child of mine came to me into that room and asked what I had done in defense of black people and decent whites fighting for freedom – and I had to tell that child I kept quiet, that I had been timid, I would have to mark myself a total failure in the whole business of living.” – Jackie Robinson



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