On this day in 1945, Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier and the great game changed forever when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey secured him from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Rickey, who called the move baseball’s “great experiment,” knew that the player chosen to cross the “color line” would have to be a strong individual, able to stand up to intense public observation and avoid confrontation even when met with insults and hostility. As such Robinson’s first season was spent with the Montreal Royals.
Robinson was an excellent natural athlete; in college, he competed in baseball, football, basketball, and track. He was also involved in civil rights issues and he had served in the Army. On October 23, 1945, Robinson “officially” signed his contract with the Dodgers, and after a year in the minors testing the experiment and sharpening his skills, he put on his first Dodgers uniform (number 42) in April 1947.
Reaction to Robinson from baseball fans and players ranged from enthusiasm and joy to hostility and death threats. However, his talent on the field could not be denied, and he won respect as well as the first Rookie of the Year award in 1947. In 1949, he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award, leading the league with a .342 batting average and 37 stolen bases. Robinson went on to play in six World Series and contributed to the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series championship.
Off the field, he was the subject of everything from songs to a feature-length film about his life. Robinson even starred as himself in the movie, “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Released in 1950, it was one of the first films to portray a black man as an American hero. Robinson retired from baseball after the 1956 season. A legend even in his day, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.
In 1997, MLB “universally” retired his uniform number, 42, across all major league teams; he was the first pro athlete in any sport to be so honored. MLB also adopted a new annual tradition, “Jackie Robinson Day”, for the first time on April 15, 2004, on which every player on every team wears No. 42.
Robinson’s character, patience, use of nonviolence, and his unquestionable talent challenged the traditional basis of segregation which then marked so many aspects of American life. His presence in America’s Pastime contributed significantly to the civil rights movement. Robinson also was the first black television analyst in MLB, and the first black vice president of a major American corporation, Chock full o’Nuts. In the 1960’s, he helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned financial institution based in Harlem, New York.
After his death in 1972, in recognition of his achievements on and off the field, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom.