In 1947 Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player to play for a modern major league team.
Don’t Know Much about History: Everything You Need to Know about American History But Never Learned. Kenneth Davis. Published April 13th 2004 by Harper Perennial.
In the world of sports, more athletes are striving to promote social awareness and discuss issues that are important to them. LeBron James, considered by many to be the best basketball player in the NBA today, is outspoken regarding issues that impact blacks in America today. Colin Kaepernick, who played quarterback in the NFL for several years, is a social activist – activism that some people believe has kept him from getting to play in the NFL again. Serena Williams, arguably the best women’s tennis player of all time, has voiced her views about the issues blacks face as well.
But to think there was a time in which black athletes couldn’t even get to play on the major stages of sports, much less be able to speak out about their positions.
In the earlier years of Major League Baseball, the field was dominated by white players. That was by design – black players were not allowed to the opportunity to play, no matter how talented they may be. A black ballplayer had to join the Negro Leagues, in which teams were predominantly comprised of blacks (and to a lesser extent, Latinos). Many blacks who had the talent to play alongside those in Major League Baseball never got the chance.
That changed in 1947 when a black man named Jack Roosevelt Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field.
Jackie Robinson, as he came to be known, first entered professional baseball in 1945 when he joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Negro League. He received $400 per month while touring with the Monarchs. He might never have received the chance to play for Major League Baseball, had Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey not been scouting the Negro Leagues.
Robinson first played alongside white ballplayers after he signed a minor league contract with the Dodgers’ farm club, the Montreal Royals. After playing with the Royals in 1946, Robinson was promoted to the big leagues. As Robinson told his wife prior to his first game, “If you come down to Ebbets Field, you won’t have any trouble recognizing me. My number’s forty-two.”
It didn’t come without a price. As Kenneth Davis wrote in his book Don’t Know Much About History, Robinson received insults and death threats throughout his career. Such threats didn’t just come from states that have been most associated with discriminating against blacks – when he played in Philadelphia, Robinson heard racial slurs and taunts come his way from the players in the opposing dugout.
But Robinson’s debut was the first step in breaking down the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Four other black players would join major league teams in 1947: Larry Doby, Henry Thompson, Willard Brown and Dan Bankhead. Robinson achieved the most fame, winning Rookie of the Year honors for the 1947 MLB season, batting .311 in his 10-year career, and becoming one of the best second basemen to play the game – accolades that earned him an induction into the Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
But the other four blacks who joined MLB teams in 1947 made their own impact. Larry Doby was the first black player to debut in the American League (the Brooklyn Dodgers were part of the National League). Though Doby struggled in his first year in the majors, he broke out in 1948, batting .301 with 14 home runs for the Cleveland Indians, who would win the World Series that year.
Willard Brown and Henry Thompson held the distinction of being the first black players to be teammates – both debuted with the St. Louis Browns, who purchased their contracts from the Kansas City Monarchs. Their teammates were hostile to them, though, and both were let go after one month with the Browns. Thompson would later join the New York Giants baseball team and spent nine years in the majors, while Brown returned to the Negro Leagues. He is considered the best home run hitter not in the Hall of Fame.
Dan Bankhead held the distinction as the first black pitcher to play in the majors. Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey purchased Bankhead’s contract from the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro American League and Bankhead made his major league debut in August. Though Bankhead struggled on the mound in his debut, he hit a home run in his first major league at-bat, the first pitcher to ever do so. Bankhead spent several season in MLB and the minor leagues, pitching in a total of 52 games.
Robinson, though, holds the most notoriety among these five men. And like most blacks in those years, Robinson faced discrimination throughout his life. He grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, served in World War II when the armed forces were segregated, and was once arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a public bus.
Though Branch Rickey deserves some credit for recognizing that so many black players were unfairly denied the chance to play MLB, it took time for black players to become accepted as part of the MLB landscape. When Rickey announced Robinson would start for the Dodgers, newspapers editorials questioned whether Robinson was capable of playing and some of his teammates petitioned to keep him from playing. The Philadelphia Phillies threatened to boycott a game, only stepping away when the baseball commissioner said he would ban all the players from baseball if they went through with a boycott. There were several instances of pitchers trying to bean him, players who would slide into a base with their spikes raised, and even one instance of a Cubs player who kicked Robinson in the head when trying to steal a base.
One of Robinson’s teammates remained supportive of him, though – Pee Wee Reese, considered the Dodgers’ team leader and one of the most respected players in the majors. Reese made it a point to put his arm around Robinson and back him in response to racial slurs and taunts. But Robinson himself remained silent about the criticism, until 1949, when he spoke out against the slurs and taunts. His choice to speak out about racism only drew more ire.
But Robinson continued to prove himself as one of the best in baseball. That same year he publicly spoke out about racism, he batted .347 for the season and was named the National League Most Valuable Player.
Today’s environment sees more blacks, Latinos and other ethnicities competing in multiple sports, but there remains plenty of criticism regarding those who decide to speak out about racism and social issues that are important to those athletes. It isn’t that much different from the criticism Robinson received when he spoke out in 1949 and serves as a reminder that, while we have made strides in improving racial relations, much work remains to be done.
Even so, Robinson’s distinction as the first black player to take the field for a Major League Baseball team is a pivotal moment in sports history. More black players would join MLB teams in the following years and proved they belonged there. Over time, desegregation took place not just throughout MLB, but other sports, the military, schools and other institutions.
Indeed, Robinson’s major league debut, followed by his decision to speak out against racism, were important pieces that built toward the civil rights movement and forced Americans to confront racial relations. They serve as a reminder about why black athletes today speak out about the issues they face – because by speaking out, you may convince somebody to change perspective.
What memories do you have of this event? How did people around you respond to the news?