Black History Month: Celebrating the Life of Jackie Robinson

By Gabby Robinson

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was a professional American baseball player who not only broke the baseball color line but was determined to play no matter what racism threw his way. As Robinson once said, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me…All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.“ 

Robinson was born on Jan. 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia. He was the youngest of five, born to Jerry Robinson and Mallie McGriff. Sadly, a year after his birth, Robinson’s father left so his newly single mother moved them to Pasadena, California. Due to having a single mother, Robinson and his siblings grew up relatively poor, resulting in him joining a neighborhood gang. Luckily, his friend Carl Anderson convinced him to get out of it. Robinson then attended John Muir High School where his athletic talents were quickly recognized by his older brothers, Mack, who won a silver medal at 1936 Summer Olympics, and Frank Robinson. He played several sports such as football, basketball, track and baseball where he was at varsity level. After graduating, Robinson attended Pasadena Junior College. He continued to pursue his athletic career, and in 1938, was named Most Valuable Player in baseball. Unfortunately, that same year he was arrested for vocally disputing the detention of his African American friend by the police, resulting in a two-year suspended sentence and a reputation for combativeness in the face of racial antagonism. Later, Robinson’s older brother, Frank, was killed in a motorcycle accident, motivating him to continue his athletic career at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). 

At UCLA, he became the first athlete to win varsity letters in the same four sports he specialized in at John Muir High School. Also there, he met his future wife, Rachel Isum. To his dismay, Robinson left UCLA right before graduation due to financial hardship. He then took a job as an assistant athletic director with the National Youth Administration (NYA). In the year of 1941, he traveled to Honolulu, Hawaii to play football with the Bears, but his season was cut short when the U.S. entered World War 2. 

From 1942 to 1944, Robinson served in the U.S. army. He was a second lieutenant but never saw combat. Shortly after becoming second lieutenant, he and Isum were engaged. After receiving commission, he was reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas where he joined the 761st Black Panthers Tank Battalion. During this time, Robinson was arrested for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of the segregated bus, which shed public light on the injustice. He received an honorable discharge and briefly returned to his old football club, the Los Angeles Bulldogs. He then accepted an offer to become an athletic director at Samuel Huston College in Austin, Texas. 

In 1945, while at Samuel Huston college, Robinson was offered to play on the Kansas City Monarchs, a professional baseball team in the Negro Leagues (at the time sports were segregated). During his time on the team he was unhappy with his experience, and was soon chosen by Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to help integrate Major League Baseball. Rickey signed Robinson and on Oct. 23, it was publicly announced that Robinson would be assigned to the all-white Royals making him the first African American baseball player in the International Leagues since the 1880s. Knowing Robinson would face many challenges, Rickey made a promise with him to not fight back when confronted with racism. 

On Feb. 10, 1946, Robinson was married to Isum and had three children later on. Sadly, as Robinson made his career in the Major Leagues, he and his wife faced racist insults and death threats. As a result, the two became actively involved in the civil rights movement. 

Despite facing racism, Robinson was very successful in the Major Leagues, as he led the international league and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. 

 In 1947, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the Major Leagues and signed with them. Some of his new teammates objected to having an African American on the team, causing racial tension, but the Dodgers management took a stand for Robinson. He was also harassed by opposing teams as they threatened to not play against the Dodgers, and became the target of rough physical play. One time, during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Enos Slaughter put a seven-inch gash in Robinson’s leg. Another time, during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman called Robinson a racial slur from their dugout. Contrary to the unjust and disgraceful behavior Robinson endured, he did receive significant encouragement from many Major League players such as Lee “Jeep” Handley and Pee Wee Reese. At one point, Reese put his arm around Robinson in response to fans shouting racial slurs. Finishing the season with a great record, Robinson earned himself the Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year. 

The Dodgers briefly moved to first place in the National League in 1948, and in Robinson’s decade-long career, he and his team won the National League several times; they ultimately went on to win the league title in the World Series in 1955. 

In December of 1956, Robinson was traded to the New York Giants, but the trade was never completed and he ended up retiring on Jan. 5, 1957. After his baseball career, he became a businessman and continued to work as an activist for social change, helping establish the African American-owned Freedom Bank. He was a vocal champion for African American athletes, civil rights and other political causes, serving on the NAACP board until 1967. In 1962, Robinson was the first African American to be put into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In honor of his legacy, the Dodgers retired his jersey number 42. 

On Oct. 24, 1972, Robinson died of heart and diabetes problems in Stamford, Connecticut at age 53. After his death, his wife established the Jackie Robinson Foundation dedicated to honoring his life and helping young people in need by providing scholarships and mentoring programs. Jackie Robinson was a hero to many young African Americans. He deserves to be honored, as he fought not only for what he believed in, but for what was just. He was courageous and determined, and will always be remembered.