“Martin Luther King told Jackie and some of the other players that they paved the way for the civil-rights movement,” says Richard Justice, a veteran baseball columnist who now writes for MLB.com. “They put change in people’s minds, and you have to respect the impact they had.”
Robinson played 10 years with the Dodgers and had a lifetime batting average of .311. He led the National League once in hitting and twice in stolen bases. He was a part of six Dodgers teams that went to the World Series. They won only once, in 1955. When Robinson left baseball at age 37, however, he was only getting started with more important work.
“When my father retired from baseball and was hired by Chock full o’Nuts, part of the deal was that he was going to be a volunteer and spokesperson for the civil-rights movement,” Sharon Robinson says.
“He was free to travel down south whenever he wanted to be supportive in a march or wherever there was a need. “There was a church bombing in Alabama, and four little girls were killed. My father and [former heavyweight boxing champion] Joe Louis went right down and toured the site and met with the families. His first assignment as a fundraiser for the NAACP was to raise $1 million in one year, and he did it. That was a lot of money at the time.”
The real Jackie Robinson was far from the man who had agreed to enter baseball so delicately with the mission to not offend anyone, so his outspokenness on major civil-rights issues was not a surprise.
“He had the success; he had the position,” says Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. “It was incumbent on him as a leader of men, not just of his race but of men, to speak out. Looking back, it wasn’t that surprising. He was a positive force in moving the pendulum forward in the area of social justice.”
Now You Know:
Only three years after signing with the Dodgers, Robinson played himself in The Jackie Robinson Story. He had no acting experience.
For all of Robinson’s considerable athletic skills — he had excelled in four sports at UCLA — his body ultimately betrayed him. He had diabetes, was nearly blind and died in 1972 at age 53. The physical maladies were debilitating, but Kendrick wonders if the stress Robinson endured also had an impact.
“Jackie wasn’t just playing for Jackie,” Kendrick says. “This was so much bigger. He was carrying 26 million black folks on his back when he walked across those baseball lines. I think he understood that had he failed, an entire race of people would have failed.”
Robinson’s reputation seems to grow continuously and will be bolstered in the spring when the movie 42, Robinson’s life story, is scheduled for release. Chadwick Boseman will star as Robinson, and Harrison Ford will portray baseball executive Branch Rickey. Sharon Robinson also has done her share to perpetuate her father’s legacy by writing six books. The latest is a children’s book from Scholastic, Jackie Robinson: American Hero, that will be released in March.
Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has been a force in honoring Robinson’s impact on the game. In 1997 — the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s joining the Dodgers — Selig announced Robinson’s uniform number, 42, would be retired. Players who wore it at the time could continue to do so, but no other player would be permitted to wear the number. The one exception each year: “Jackie Robinson Day,” which Selig established. On that day, each uniformed personnel in MLB wears the number 42.
“Bud Selig is a 78-year-old Jewish man who has felt the other side of anti-Semitism,” Justice says. “He thought it was important to remember Jackie Robinson because Selig is a big student of civil rights.”
Justice says writers for MLB.com, which is owned by Major League Baseball, are also required to find some sort of connection with the team and players they cover and write a Robinson-inspired feature every year. Selig has been aggressive in ensuring the Robinson family stays close to baseball. Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, is a regular at ceremonies honoring her husband. And Sharon Robinson is an education consultant to Major League Baseball and even has an MLB.com email address.
“Bud Selig and the players embraced the legacy so strongly,” Sharon says. “It started when Ken Griffey Jr. asked to wear No. 42 on ‘Jackie Robinson Day.’ Then it grew to all the players wearing it. That’s when I really realized everyone — blacks, whites and Latinos — had embraced Jackie Robinson and history. All of us have benefitted from how Jackie changed baseball.”
This is the first time that American Way Associate Editor JAN HUBBARD has written about Jackie Robinson, but he is quite sure it won’t be the last.