Posted: Friday April 13, 2012 5:53PM ; Updated: Monday April 16, 2012 8:33AM
Richard Rothschild
Richard Rothschild>SPORTS HISTORY

Jackie Robinson's debut changed the game -- and the nation

Story Highlights

Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers 65 years ago this Sunday

He had played four sports at UCLA and baseball may have been his worst one

Robinson integrated baseball seven years before Brown v. Board of Education

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Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson won the Rookie of the Year and an MVP and helped the Dodgers to six pennants in his Hall of Fame career.
AP

Sixty-five years ago Sunday Jackie Robinson changed the course of history in his fourth-best sport.

After all, Robinson, UCLA's first four-sport letterman, was an NCAA long jump champion in track and field, led the nation in punt return average in football and played for the Bruins' basketball team but he batted only .097 during his one full season with the UCLA baseball squad.

Yet for Robinson to have achieved his lasting legacy as a sports icon and racial pioneer, his success on the professional level had to come in baseball. Because in the late 1940s there was baseball and there was every other sport.

Who today remembers that professional football had integrated in 1946, seven months before Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers? Kenny Washington and Woody Strode (teammates of Robinson's at UCLA) played with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, and Hall of Famers Marion Motley and Bill Willis suited up for the Cleveland Browns of the All-America Football Conference.

But in that era pro football played little brother to the college game in terms of national popularity. Meanwhile, the NBA was in its infancy, college basketball was a niche sport and hockey was played in too few cities.

Baseball's biggest competition came more from boxing and horse racing than any other team sport. Heavyweight champion Joe Louis was one of the world's best known athletes, black or white.

Baseball needed Robinson and Robinson needed baseball to create the greatest long-term impact on sports and society. And directly after World War II baseball was never more popular.

Four years of war-induced shortages and austerity measures had left Americans with a pent-up demand for the good things in life. The nation was in a mood to celebrate and baseball rode that wave. Between 1946 and 1951, 13 of the 16 major league franchises set single-season attendance records, 12 of them more than once.

Baseball was in prime position to command national attention, and Robinson turned out to be the man whose intelligence, physical talents and unconquerable courage made him one with history.

LIFE.com: Rare and classic photos of Jackie Robinson

Beginnings

Born in Georgia in 1919 and raised in Pasadena, Calif., Robinson was always an elite athlete. The younger brother of Olympic 200-meter silver medalist Mack Robinson, Jackie played baseball, football, basketball, track and tennis at Muir High School.

After his stellar career at UCLA, where met his future wife Rachel Isum, Robinson joined the armed forces in World War II, reaching the rank of junior lieutenant. He played one season (1945) with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues and attracted the attention of Branch Rickey, general manager of the Dodgers.

Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a longtime foe of integrating the major leagues, had died in 1944 and Rickey seized the moment to put baseball -- and the nation -- on a different path.

He invited Robinson to his office in Brooklyn on Aug. 28, 1945. During a three-hour meeting Rickey challenged Robinson to ignore the hatred and race-baiting that surely would come his way if he were to integrate baseball.

In a famous exchange Robinson asked, "Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?"

Rickey answered, "I need a player who has the guts not to fight back."

The Dodgers GM sensed he had a man whose intellect, maturity and character would enable him to pass through what Jesse Jackson years later described as "dangers seen and unseen.'' Robinson became the first African-American in the 20th Century to sign a Major League Baseball contract and what was called the "noble experiment" had begun.

There wasn't anything noble about the way Robinson was treated during his first spring training with the Dodgers in 1946. Florida's strict Jim Crow laws meant Robinson could not live in the same hotel as his teammates or dine at the same restaurants.

But once Robinson and Rachel headed north to join the Montreal Royals of the International League everything changed. The French-Canadian city embraced Robinson, who responded by hitting a league-leading .349 and winning MVP honors. He was ready for the majors.

Next stop, Brooklyn

As April 15, 1947, neared and the Dodgers prepared to play the Boston Braves in the season opener at Ebbets Field, the Brooklyn clubhouse was not exactly harmonious about Robinson's arrival. Southerners Dixie Walker, Eddie Stanky and Bobby Bragan drew up a petition saying they preferred being traded to playing with a black teammate.

Rickey and manager Leo Durocher silenced the rebels, with Durocher vowing Robinson would "make them all rich." Another Southerner, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, also supported Robinson

Statistically, Robinson's debut was forgettable. He was 0-for-3 with a run scored while recording 11 putouts at first base. But a new age had dawned before 26,623 fans and the Pittsburgh Courier wrote, "History was made here Tuesday."

Although Robinson received threats, hate mail and racist comments from opposing dugouts, and teams constantly threw at his head and tried to spike him on the bases, baseball fans of all races were enthralled. All seven of the other National League teams drew their largest crowds of 1947 when Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers were in town, including a National League high of 52,355 at the Polo Grounds on April 19. Somehow Wrigley Field, with a baseball capacity of less than 40,000, squeezed in 46,572 fans for the Dodgers' first visit to Chicago on May 18.

Robinson was making more than just the Dodgers rich.

He finished with a .297 batting average and led the National League in stolen bases. He was named the first Rookie of the Year, and the Dodgers won the pennant before falling to the New York Yankees in a dramatic seven-game World Series.

That was a watershed year for baseball. The World Series was televised for the first time and the NCAA conducted its first College World Series. But Robinson's breaking the color line, one year before the U.S. military integrated and seven years before the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, was the sport's biggest story.

Change did not come overnight. Baseball and the NFL still had all-white champions as late as 1953, the NBA in 1958. The majors weren't fully integrated until 1959 and the American League did not have its first black MVP until 1963. But there would be no turning back.

By 1949 Robinson was at the top of his game. He led the National League with a .342 batting average and 37 steals (both career bests) and was second in RBIs and slugging percentage. He became the first African-American to be named MVP and the Dodgers won their second of six pennants with Robinson.

Also by '49, Rickey had loosened the reins, and Robinson was free to confront any player who spiked him or any manager who heckled him. His full competitive energy was unleashed.

Teammate Ralph Branca said, "Jackie didn't just win. He triumphed."

Durocher, who had started to manage the New York Giants in 1948, was a tad more salty: "This guy doesn't just come to play. He came to beat you. He came to stick the (bleep) bat right up your (bleep)."

From '49 through '53 Robinson was consistently among the National League leaders in on-base percentage, batting average, doubles, stolen bases, runs scored -- and getting hit by pitch. The Dodgers won NL pennants in 1952 and 1953 before finally winning their first World Series in 1955, then added another pennant in 1956.

Eventually, age and diabetes slowed Robinson and he retired after the '56 season rather than accept a trade to the Giants. Instead of going through the Dodgers, Robinson announced his retirement in the pages of Life magazine.

Robinson didn't join the major leagues until he was 28, so his career totals (1,518 hits, 734 RBIs) appear modest. His lifetime .311 batting average and .410 on-base percentage, however, are solid numbers in any era, and Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. Martin Luther King Jr. described him as "a legend and symbol in his own time who challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration."

By time Robinson entered Cooperstown, future black Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks had further transformed baseball.

Later years

Robinson recognized baseball was not ready to appoint a black manager, general manager or even third-base coach and he pursued other interests. He became the first black vice president at a major U.S. company (Chock full o'Nuts) and was active in politics and civil rights. He supported liberal Republicans such as New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller before switching to Democrat Hubert Humphrey when the GOP turned more conservative on racial issues. He assisted voter registration drives in the South.

But his diabetes was worsening, his sight was deteriorating and he was developing heart problems. The death of his oldest son Jackie Jr. in a 1971 car crash was a devastating blow.

In Roger Kahn's epic book on the old Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, he poignantly described the aging Robinson in the chapter "The Lion at Dusk." The nearly-blind Robinson moved practically in slow motion but Kahn marveled at "the vaulting human spirit imprisoned yet free, in the noble wreckage of the athlete, in the dazzling palace of a man."

Robinson's final public appearance was at the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati where he accepted a plaque honoring the 25th anniversary of his '47 season and threw out the first ball. Robinson appreciated the honor but added, "I'm going to be tremendously pleased and more proud when I look at the third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball."

He died nine days later at 53, missing baseball's first black manager, Frank Robinson, by 2 years.

At his memorial service, Jesse Jackson eulogized Robinson as being "immunized by God from catching the diseases that he fought" and praised him for having the capacity "to wear glory with grace" and for serving as "an instrument of peace." Robinson's funeral procession to Cypress Hill Cemetery in Queens drew tens of thousands of onlookers.

Today Robinson might feel honored that Major League Baseball retired his No. 42 for all teams on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of his first game. He certainly would approve that so many black managers have run major league teams and that one of them, Cito Gaston, won two World Series. But he also might be disappointed that African-American players currently make up less than 10 percent of major league rosters, down from nearly 30 percent in the 1970s.

April 15 is a gruesome day in history. In 1865, at 7:22 a.m., Abraham Lincoln died after being shot in the head the previous night. In 1912 the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. In 1927 the Great Mississippi Flood, the worst in U.S. history, began its devastating path.

On April 15, 1947, however, something glorious took place, something transcendent. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson helped make baseball a game for all Americans and clear the road for what Lincoln called "the better angels of or nature."

In another time, he might have been an Olympic medalist in the long jump, or an all-NFL running back or a shutdown defender in basketball. But as the man who integrated modern baseball, Robinson was the right man at the right time in the right sport.

 
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