On August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson, a rookie shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, met with Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in his Brooklyn office.
Rickey was interested in signing Robinson and ending baseball's color line.
Rickey knew that the 26-year-old Robinson, who played four sports at UCLA, was a talented athlete. But Rickey didn't know if Robinson was tough enough to deal with the raw bigotry that would follow him on and off the field if he broke Major League Baseball's color barrier.
Rickey stood over Robinson, who was sitting in a chair, and taunted the ballplayer with a series of racial obscenities. Rickey's words stung Robinson, whose fists clenched while anger stirred in his stomach.
Robinson started to respond. But Rickey cut him off.
"I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back," Rickey said.
Rickey asked Robinson if he was that ballplayer.
Robinson paused and then responded, "Yes."
Rickey secretly signed Robinson toward the end of their three-hour meeting. Two months later, the Brooklyn organization announced it had signed Robinson to a contract with its top minor league team, the Montreal Royals. Robinson played the 1946 season with the Royals before playing his first game with Brooklyn on April 15, 1947.
No athlete ever withstood more physical and emotional torment than Robinson. No athlete ever demonstrated such courage in the face of such unrelenting abuse.
70 years have passed since Robinson sat in Rickey's Brooklyn office. Robinson's name will always be primarily associated with Brooklyn. It was there he played his major league career. It was there he became the most important civil rights figure in the years immediately following World War II.
Robinson lived in the East from 1947 until his death in 1972. Robinson found his greatest success in Brooklyn, but he could not have become the man he did if he had not grown up in Southern California. It was there he became an athlete, but, most importantly, it was there he developed the intestinal fortitude that allowed him to not merely endure but to triumph.
Robinson became the man he did because of his mother, Mallie; Karl Downs, his minister at Scott United Methodist Church in Pasadena, and Rachel Isum, who he met at UCLA and later married.
Shortly after Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, his father abandoned his family. Mallie moved her five children across the country to Pasadena, where she worked long hours as a domestic. Frequently absent from her children, she instilled in them the belief that God would take care of them. "I never stopped believing that," Robinson later said.
Robinson, however, did not come easily to religion. He became, in his words, a "full-fledged juvenile delinquent," an angry boy who committed petty crimes and fought other kids and challenged authority, when prompted by racial antagonism.
In his biography of Robinson, Arnold Rampersad described how the teenager was rescued from the streets by Karl Downs, who saw something in Robinson that perhaps only his mother did.
"To Downs," Rampersad wrote, "Robinson was someone special who had to be rescued from himself and the traps of Jim Crow. To Robinson, Downs was a revelation." Under Downs' influence, Robinson returned to church and became transformed. "I'm not sure what would have happened to Jack if he had never met Reverend Downs," Robinson's friend, Ray Bartlett said.
From that point on, Robinson always prayed beside his bed before going to sleep. He taught Sunday school and channeled the anger of poverty, resentment, and bigotry into athletic competition. He excelled as an athlete at John Muir Technical High School, Pasadena Junior College, and then at UCLA.
Robinson never let go of his anger -- or his anger never let go of him. In Rachel, however, he found someone who was as tough as he. She did not deny or reject the pressures on her husband but, rather, accepted his burden as theirs. "We began to see ourselves in terms of a social and historical problem," Rachel said, "to know that the issue wasn't simply baseball but life and death, freedom and bondage, for an awful lot of people."