This year, on April 15, every player on every Major League Baseball team will wear the number 42 to mark 75 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and integrated professional sports.
Commentators will comment on his patience with white fans so filled with hate that they sent him death threats almost daily. People will talk about how he gave his fellow baseball players — who were suspicious of his presence — time to adjust to his being on the field. They might even mention his years of service in the United States Army and his arrest by military police after he refused a white bus driver’s command for him to sit in the back of an unsegregated bus line set up by the military.
People will say all these things on Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball — and they are all true. But what gets lost in all this talk about Robinson as a great civil rights figure is that he was also a great athlete.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, while in college, Robinson was UCLA’s first four-sport varsity athlete — not the first Black one. The first — period. The man ran track and field, played football, basketball, and, of course, baseball. Seemingly, Robinson excelled in any sport that he played. After leaving the military, he just focused on baseball and became a star.
In 1945, he was offered $400 a month to play for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League team, and batted a .387 while registering 13 stolen bases. He was so good that year that he played in the East-West All-Star game; he was placed on a list of Negro League players who would likely excel in the major leagues.
Then, in 1946, Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, chose to champion Robinson and gave him a chance to earn his way onto a major league team — and that point needs to be underlined. Robinson was not given an opportunity because he was Black; this was not affirmative action: baseball edition. Rickey was not some benevolent white man who pushed Robinson for the betterment of all mankind. He knew that there were good players in the Negro Leagues. He just had to find the right one who had talent and could deal with the pressure of being the “first.” Once the first made it, it would open the door to the untapped talent waiting to take over the league.
So, Robinson started this journey with the Montreal Royals, a AAA team. Once he joined the team, it took him some time to find the proper position, but he dominated once he moved from shortstop to second base. He led that league with a .349 batting average and a .985 fielding percentage and was named most valuable player.
Like I said: the man could ball. He was such a well-rounded athlete that after he finished with Montreal — just before he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers — he killed time by playing professional basketball with a team called the Los Angeles Red Devils.
Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947, when he took the field as a Brooklyn Dodger. In his rookie year, he dominated. He played in 151 games that year for the Dodgers with a batting average of .297 and an on-base percentage of .383. He had 175 hits and scored 125 runs. He also led the league in stolen bases, which was prominent in the Negro League, but not so much in the Major Leagues, with 29. His ability to steal bases drove pitchers crazy and, ultimately, changed the game. People saw how a great base runner could transform the dynamics of a game and began implementing Robinson’s style of play.
Robinson had such an overwhelming overall performance that first year that he earned the Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award. And this was all done while he continued to receive death threats from baseball fans and was treated harshly by other teams (most notably the St. Louis Cardinals — a reason why I can’t stand that team to this day).
He only played in the Major Leagues for 10 years and had six All-Star appearances. He was named the National League MVP in 1949, the National League batting champion in 1949, and a World Series Champion in 1955.
Yeah, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier — and he should be remembered for that. Yet, what we should not let happen, what we cannot let happen, is to forget that he was also an incredible athlete.
Remember that he was not given anything. He earned everything he received. The man was an outstanding athlete. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.