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Jackie Robinson wasn't just any great athlete. He was a hero because he stood up for what was right, even in the face of hate.
Before Jackie Robinson first went to bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 at Ebbets Field, several of his Major League Baseball teammates threatened to strike. When he finally stepped up to the plate, in front more than 25,000 spectators, his team’s own fans booed and shouted insults. Many echoed a player, who, egged on by his manager, shouted at the 28-year-old rookie: “Why don’t you go back to the cottonfield where you belong?”
The venom arose from the fact that Jackie was black. For 60 years, Major League Baseball had been an all-white sport. That was about to change, for in 1945 Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Dodgers, recruited a brilliant young black player he knew would carry the Brooklyn Dodgers to glory.
Most other managers in the game at the time believed Rickey was wrong. Integration, in their view, would cause white fans to boycott baseball not flock to their favorite diamond as they'd never done before.
Rickey recruited Jackie from the “Negro Leagues” where talented black athletes were forced to play for less money and prestige than their white counterparts. But he did so with both eyes open, knowing the tidal wave of "ugly" that was coming. Before hiring him, Rickey made Robinson vow he would never respond to the racist attacks that were sure to rain down on him from bigoted players and fans. If Robinson fought back, Rickey knew, the racists would have him thrown off the field. And fired from the game. Forever. Robinson agreed.
In his first two seasons, Jackie withstood the barrage of hatred with the patience of a saint. He played his heart out on the diamond, taking the Dodgers to the World Series that first year, in 1947. Jackie’s incredible athletic skill, along with his courage in the face of the abuse he suffered, led his white teammates to rally around him – especially the Kentucky-born shortstop, Pee Wee Reese. Little by little, as white Dodgers' fans recognized that Jackie could win the pennant for their beloved team, their booing turned to cheers.
Most important of all, black people flooded into the games to see Robinson play. Ticket sales rose. Other white Major League Baseball managers realized that recruiting talent from the Negro League would bring more public, and profits, to their franchises.
Segregation in baseball was dead.
While he kept his promise to Rickey to turn a deaf ear on the field, Jackie Robinson would not be silenced with regard other forms of discrimination in sports. He again ran afoul of racism when he pronounced it unjust that black players were forced to stay in inferior “Jim Crow” hotels when their teams traveled, sometimes even in the North. In response, sportswriters labeled Jackie ungrateful and a “rabble-rouser.”
When he retired from baseball in 1957, Robinson brought his “rabble-rousing” to the growing Civil Rights movement. In 1962, he used his celebrity to pressure Nelson Rockefeller, then Governor of New York, to be the first to appoint black representatives to high-level positions in the state government.
While Jackie Robinson didn't always see eye-to-eye with other black civil rights activists, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, he always put the movement above ideology. When churches were firebombed in Georgia in 1962, he helped the Good Reverend raise money to rebuild them. Although Malcolm X accused Robinson of being an “Uncle Tom,” a derogatory term connoting a servile black person, Robinson praised Malcolm for his eloquence on the black experience in America.
Even as his health failed him, Robinson stayed true to his principles. In 1969, he boycotted a celebration of his career in protest at the continued lack of black managers in US Major League Baseball.
For his courage, his talent, his focus (imagine trying to win for your team and your race when bigoted idiots are heckling you with hate), and his incredible determination to change the world for the better; for modeling with Branch Rickey that whites and blacks can forge deep, heartfelt friendships at a time when the races were kept apart; and in celebration of the color barriers the two would break down together, we are proud to claim Jackie Robinson as a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
Thank you to TTT&T Team member, Marcie Colleen, for nominating him on the anniversary of his signing to be the first black man in history to play baseball in the Major Leagues.