Jackie Robinson: The Early Years

Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, on 31 January 1919, the youngest of five children born to sharecroppers Jerry and Mallie Robinson. His father deserted the family when Jackie was still a baby, and Mallie moved the children to Pasadena, California, the following year. After graduating from John Muir Technical High School Junior College, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College and then the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where he excelled in track, basketball, football and baseball. At college he also met his future wife, Rachel Annetta Isum. One of his older brothers, Mack, won a silver medal at the 1936 Olympic Summer Games in Berlin, finishing second behind African-American superstar Jesse Owens in the 200m race.

During the Second World War, Robinson was drafted into the army. Although he was initially denied entry into the Officer Candidate School, the decision was reversed after fellow soldier and boxer Joe Louis intervened. Robinson became an officer and was assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, but faced continued discrimination and was banned from playing on the camp baseball team. In July 1944, he refused to move to the back of a local bus as instructed by the White driver. When questioned by military police and the assistant provost marshal, Robinson was referred to as “the n—er lieutenant” and told not to be “so uppity.” When Robinson protested this treatment, he was court-martialed — not for refusing to move to the back of the bus (the army had banned segregation on buses operating at military bases), but for swearing and insubordination during questioning. At his court martial hearing, Robinson ably defended himself and was acquitted. Not long after, he was given an honourable discharge due to an injured ankle.

The Brooklyn Dodgers Sign Jackie Robinson (1945)

After leaving the army, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, a baseball team in the Negro American League. At the time, African-American players weren’t allowed in the major leagues. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, some Blacks (such as Moses “Fleetwood” Walker) played on what had traditionally been Whites-only baseball teams. However, in 1887, the International League banned any future contracts with African-American players, reflecting broader developments in the United States, including the adoption of Jim Crow (segregation) laws in the South. The 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision by the United States Supreme Court, which upheld Louisiana’s “separate but equal” law, enshrined racial segregation in the southern states and elsewhere.

The military service of Black Americans during the Second World War prompted many Americans to demand an end to segregation. However, resistance was strong — in baseball as in American society more broadly (segregation in public facilities and businesses was prohibited by the Civil Rights Act of 1964). While African-American baseball players excelled in the Negro leagues, team owners in the majors argued that they weren’t talented enough. They also feared that White fans might boycott games if teams were integrated.

However, Branch Rickey, the general manager, president and co-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was determined to break the colour barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB) for both ideological and practical reasons. A devout Methodist, he believed discrimination was wrong; he also saw the Negro leagues as a source of talented players who might give his team an advantage. There was also pressure to integrate the MLB from Black and left-wing presses, and from New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

Rickey knew, however, that integrating the majors would be difficult. He needed a strong player who could handle the pressure and backlash that was sure to come. Rickey sent his scouts to teams in the Negro leagues, searching for the right candidate. They found Robinson, then playing for the Monarchs. Although there were more talented and experienced baseball players in the Negro leagues, Robinson was attractive for other reasons. A talented player in his own right, he also had experience playing and working in a racially mixed environment, both in school and the army. Robinson also had discipline, determination and courage, all of which he would need when facing the inevitable racial taunts and threats. “I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts not to fight back!,” Rickey told Robinson. The first Black player in the majors would have to bear abuse stoically, focusing on the game and proving his detractors wrong.

Robinson agreed; and, in October 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers announced that they had signed him to the organization for a $3,500 signing bonus and $600 a month. To prepare Robinson for his debut in the majors, Rickey decided to send him to the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ farm team in the Triple-A International League (see Early History of Baseball in Montréal).

Before Robinson and his wife, Rachel, moved to Montréal, they first endured a month of spring training camp in Florida. The experience was “horrendous,” according to Rachel. Even getting to training camp was difficult, as the Robinsons were bumped off two flights, the seats given to White passengers. In the end, they decided to complete their journey to Daytona Beach by bus; in the middle of the night, they were told to vacate their reclining seats and move to the back of the bus to make room for White passengers. Once in Florida, the Robinsons were unable to stay at the team hotel, and a number of cities cancelled exhibition games against the Royals because they had Black players on the roster. (Black pitcher John Wright was signed to the Dodgers organization after Robinson and attended training camp that spring as well, but he never achieved the same success. In May 1946, the Royals sent him to their Class-C team in Trois Rivières.)

Jackie Robinson and the Montreal Royals (1946)

After their experience in Florida, the Robinsons were uncertain what kind of reception they would face in Montréal. Much to their relief, however, the Canadian city welcomed the new arrivals. Although Rachel Robinson feared they would have difficulty renting an apartment in the city, she was warmly greeted by her prospective landlady, who offered her the apartment at 8232 De Gaspé Avenue and invited her for tea. When it became clear that the couple were expecting their first child (Jack, Jr.), the neighbouring children carried Rachel’s groceries for her, while the women helped her make maternity clothes and gave her rationing cards, admonishing her to “eat more meat.” The experience in Montréal was “almost blissful,” Rachel later remarked.

Jackie Robinson was soon embraced by Montréal fans for his talent on the baseball diamond. His first game with the Royals was played on 18 April 1946 at Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City; while some opposing fans shouted racial slurs, others (many of them Black fans from Harlem, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Baltimore) cheered Robinson’s impressive performance. The Royals won 14–1, while Robinson himself made four hits (including a home run).

While Robinson faced racial threats and taunts on the road, Royals fans loved him. According to his teammate, pitcher Jean-Pierre Roy, “Up in the [Royals] stands, no one dared insult Jackie. He was Black, but in their eyes and hearts the fans didn’t see that. I heard obscenities thrown at him in the US. In Montréal, he was always respected as a baseball player.” In June, the Montreal Gazette dubbed him the “Colored Comet.”

Robinson led the Triple-A International League that season in average runs (.349) and in runs scored (113), while the Royals won the league pennant. Robinson was also a key player in the Royals’ victory against the Louisville Colonels in the Triple-A International League “Little World Series.” The first three games of the series were played in Kentucky, where Jim Crow laws prevailed. Robinson was unable to stay at the team hotel and had to find alternate accommodation, while the Louisville owners limited the number of Black fans who could attend the games. Uncharacteristically, Robinson played poorly, perhaps as a result of the strain. Over the course of three games, two of which the Royals lost, he recorded only one hit in 11 at bats.

Robinson recovered his form when the series moved to Montréal, bolstered by the support of Royals fans infuriated by the treatment he had received in the southern United States. The Royals won all three of the remaining games, with Robinson hitting .400. When the Royals won Game Six, taking the series, the stadium erupted. Jubilant fans hugged and kissed Robinson, chanting “Il a gagné ses épaulettes” and hoisting him on their shoulders. When he had to leave to catch a plane, the crowd followed him, prompting sports reporter Sam Maltin to remark that it was “probably the only day in history that a Black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching in its mind.”

Jackie Robinson Breaks the Colour Barrier in the Major Leagues (1947)

The following year, Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, making his major league debut on 15 April 1947. Earlier that year, 15 of the 16 clubs in the MLB had voted against allowing him to join the Dodgers (Branch Rickey was the only one to vote in favour). However, MLB commissioner Albert Chandler disallowed the vote, and Robinson joined the team. At the end of the 1947 season, he was named Rookie of the Year, the first time the award was given. In 1949, he was named Most Valuable Player in the National League. By 1950, integration was so successful that the Negro leagues had effectively closed down.

During his 10-year career in the majors, Robinson won six pennants (1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956) and one World Series (1955) with the Dodgers. In 1962, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame; and, in 1972, the Dodgers retired his number 42. Robinson died in October 1972, at only 53 years of age.

Commemoration

A statue of Jackie Robinson stands outside the Olympic Stadium in Montréal, home of the former Montreal Expos. In 2011, US diplomats unveiled a commemorative plaque at 8232 De Gaspé Avenue, the Robinsons’ home in Montréal.

Robinson’s number 42 was retired across the majors in 1997. However, since 2009, players and coaches in the MLB have worn his number on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, in honour of his debut with the Dodgers and the breaking of Major League Baseball’s colour barrier.