1919-1972

Who Was Jackie Robinson?

Baseball player Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier as its first Black athlete. The infielder made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, and went on to have a decade-long Hall of Fame career despite repeated threats and abuse from fans and opponents. Also a vocal civil rights activist, Robinson served on the board of the NAACP and advocated for greater racial integration in sports. He died in 1972 at age 53. MLB retired Robinson’s jersey, No. 42, in 1997, and the league celebrates his legacy and accomplishments annually on Jackie Robinson Day.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Jack Roosevelt Robinson
BORN: January 31, 1919
DIED: October 24, 1972
BIRTHPLACE: Cairo, Georgia
SPOUSE: Rachel Robinson (1946-1972)
CHILDREN: Jack Jr., Sharon, and David
ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Aquarius

Childhood and Eduction

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. The youngest of five children, he was raised in relative poverty by a single mother. His older brother, Matthew, inspired Robinson to pursue his talent and love of athletics. Matthew won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash—just behind Jesse Owens—at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Robinson attended John Muir High School in Pasadena, California, and Pasadena Junior College, where he was an excellent athlete and played four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball. He was named the region’s MVP in baseball in 1938.

He continued his education at UCLA, where he became the university’s first student to win varsity letters in four sports. In 1941, despite his athletic success, Robinson was forced to leave UCLA just shy of graduation due to financial hardship.

After moving to Honolulu, Robinson he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears. His season with the Bears was cut short when the United States entered into World War II.

U.S. Army Service

From 1942 to 1944, Robinson served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. However, he never saw combat.

During boot camp at Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson was arrested and court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of a segregated bus. Robinson’s excellent reputation—combined with the efforts of friends, the NAACP, and various Black newspapers—shed public light on the injustice.

Ultimately, he was acquitted of the charges and received an honorable discharge. His courage and moral objection to racial segregation were precursors to the impact Robinson would have in Major League Baseball.

From the Negro Leagues to MLB

Jackie Robinson

After his discharge from the Army in 1944, Robinson began to play baseball professionally. At the time, the sport was segregated, with Black and white people playing in separate leagues.

Robinson began his pro career in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, but he was soon chosen by Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey to integrate Major League Baseball. He joined the all-white Montreal Royals, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1946. Robinson later moved to Florida to begin spring training with the Royals.

Rickey knew there would be difficult times ahead for the young athlete, so he made Robinson promise to not fight back when confronted with racism. Rickey also personally tested Robinson’s reactions to the racial slurs and insults he knew the player would endure.

Robinson played his first game at Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, making history as the first Black athlete to play MLB.

Facing Racism

From the beginning of his career with the Dodgers, Robinson’s will was tested. Some of his new teammates objected to having an African American on their team. People in the crowds sometimes jeered at Robinson, and he and his family received threats.

Despite the racial abuse, particularly at away games, Robinson had an outstanding start with the Royals, leading the International League with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage.

His successful year in the minors led to his promotion to the Dodgers. The harassment continued in the majors, however, most notably from the Philadelphia Phillies and their manager Ben Chapman. During one infamous game, Chapman and his team shouted derogatory terms at Robinson from their dugout.

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Many players on opposing teams threatened not to play against the Dodgers. Even some of Robinson’s own teammates threatened to sit out. But Dodgers manager Leo Durocher informed them that he would sooner trade them than Robinson. His loyalty to the player set the tone for the rest of Robinson’s career with the team.

Others defended Robinson’s right to play in the major leagues, including National League President Ford Frick, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, as well as Dodgers shortstop and team captain Pee Wee Reese. In one incident, while fans harassed Robinson from the stands, Reese walked over and put his arm around his teammate, a gesture that has become legendary in baseball history.

Rookie of the Year

Robinson succeeded in putting the prejudice and racial strife aside and showed everyone what a talented player he was. Although he predominantly played second base, Robinson was versatile enough to be positioned all over the infield. In his first year, he batted .297 with 12 home runs and helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant.

That year, Robinson led the National League in stolen bases and was selected as Rookie of the Year. He continued to wow fans and critics alike with impressive feats, such as an outstanding .342 batting average during the 1949 season. He led in stolen bases that year and earned the National League’s MVP Award.

Robinson soon became a hero of the sport, even among former critics, and was the subject of the popular song, “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” His success in the major leagues opened the door for other Black players, such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.

Jackie Robinson’s Stats

jackie robinson standing for a photo amid four of his dodgers teammates

Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Carl Furillo helped form a potent Dodgers lineup in 1953.
Getty Images

An exceptional base runner, Robinson stole home 19 times in his career, setting a league record. Before he retired, he also became the highest-paid athlete in Dodgers history.

Over the course of his MLB career, from 1947 to 1956, Robinson had a .311 average over 4,877 at-bats and recorded the following stats:

• 137 home runs

• 1,518 hits

• 734 runs batted in

• 197 stolen bases

• .409 on-base percentage

• .883 on-base plus slugging

Robinson’s wins above replacement value, or WAR, was later calculated to be 63.8, according to Baseball Reference. This means, just with Robinson in their lineup, the Dodgers won almost 64 more games than they would have with a replacement-level player instead.

Other notable honors include being named Rookie of the Year in 1947 and National League MVP in 1949, as well as becoming a World Series champion in 1955.

World Series Win and Retirement

In his decade-long career with the Dodgers, Robinson and his team won the National League pennant several times. Finally, in 1955, he helped them achieve the ultimate victory: winning the World Series. After failing before in four other series matchups, the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees in seven games. Robinson helped the team win one more National League pennant the following season.

In December 1956, Robinson was traded to the New York Giants, but he never played a game for the team. He retired on January 5, 1957. Five years later, in 1962, Robinson became the first African American to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

After baseball, Robinson became active in business and continued his work as an activist. He worked as an executive for the Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee company and restaurant chain and helped establish Black-owned Freedom Bank.

Wife and Kids

jackie robinson wiping his baby daughters face as wife rachel stands behind them

Jackie Robinson tends to his young daughter, Sharon, as his wife, Rachel, looks on in a circa 1951 photo.
Getty Images

In the early 1940s, Robinson met nurse-in-training Rachel Isum when they were both attending UCLA. The couple married on February 10, 1946.

As Robinson forged his career in the major leagues, the couple faced mounting racism, from insults to death threats. Later in life, both Jackie and Rachel became actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Jackie and Rachel had three children together: Jack Robinson Jr., Sharon, and David. Rachel said that she and Jackie went to great lengths to create a nurturing home that sheltered their kids from racism.

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In 1971, the couple mourned the death of their oldest child, Jack, who was in a car accident. According to The New York Times, the 24-year-old was reportedly driving at high speed toward his parents’ home when he crashed into a fence and then an abutment on the parkway.

Jack had been the assistant regional director of Daytop Inc., a rehabilitation center he previously attended for two years after becoming addicted to drugs following his Vietnam War service. He suffered shrapnel injuries in combat while trying to rescue a friend that later died.

Civil Rights Activism

Robinson was a vocal champion for Black athletes, civil rights, and other social and political causes, serving on the board of the NAACP until 1967. In July 1949, he testified about discrimination before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In 1952, he publicly called out the New York Yankees as a racist organization for not having broken the color barrier five years after he began playing with the Dodgers. In his later years, Robinson continued to lobby for greater racial integration in sports.

Robinson was close friends with Martin Luther King Jr. and attended the March on Washington, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. Robinson and his wife, Rachel, also organized a jazz concert at their home to raise bail money for King and other activists arrested during protests.

Death and Funeral

Robinson collapsed in his Stamford, Connecticut, home from a heart attack in the early morning of October 24, 1972, and died shortly after. He was 53 years old.

Although the heart attack was ruled the immediate cause of death, Robinson had also suffered from type 2 diabetes complications for years. This heart attack was his third in a span of four years, and he had needed cardiology care for congestive heart failure.

Robinson also lost sight in one eye and was growing blind in the other. His blood pressure was abnormally high for years, and he suffered pain and burning sensations in his legs from diabetic nerve and artery damage.

Robinson’s funeral was held at the Riverside Church in New York City on October 27, 1972. Author Kostya Kennedy wrote about the service in his 2022 book True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson. Although the church’s official capacity was only 2,500 people, thousands more either squeezed into its doors or gathered along nearby streets to honor the baseball hero.

Among the pallbearers carrying Robinson’s casket were NBA legend Bill Russell, as well as teammates and peers like Pee Wee Reese, Larry Doby, and Ralph Branca. Other sports greats such as boxer Joe Louis and MLB stars Hank Greenberg, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Willie Stargell attended.

Reverend Jesse Jackson gave Robinson’s formal eulogy. “[Robinson] didn’t integrate baseball for himself,” Jackson said. “He infiltrated baseball for all of us, seeking and looking for more oxygen for Black survival, and looking for new possibility.”

Robinson was buried next to his son Jackie Jr. at Cypress Hills Cemetery, six miles from the site of his former home ballpark Ebbets Field.

Legacy: Jackie Robinson Day, Museum, and More

a blue number 42 sits painted into the pitchers mound at fenway park

Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 adorned the pitching mound of Fenway Park in Boston during a 2020 game.
Getty Images

Since his death, Robinson’s life has been memorialized in many ways. A New York City park in Harlem bears his name, Nike released released a shoe celebrating him called the Nike Dunk Low, and his jersey has been retired throughout the MLB. He also has a dedicated museum and an annual MLB honorary event, Jackie Robinson Day.

Jersey Retirement

The Dodgers were the first to retire Robinson’s jersey number of 42. They did so in 1972, the same year he died.

Decades later on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s historic debut—April 15, 1997—MLB executive Bud Selig retired No. 42 from the major leagues entirely. Hall of Fame New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera was the last player to wear the number full-time, as players who had it at the time of Selig’s decree were allowed to keep it until retirement.

Jackie Robinson Museum and Foundation

After Robinson’s death in 1972, his wife, Rachel, established the Jackie Robinson Foundation dedicated to honoring his life and work. The foundation helps young people in need by providing scholarships and mentoring programs.

In September 2022, the foundation debuted the Jackie Robinson Museum located in New York City. The museum possesses 4,500 artifacts from Robinson’s life and career, including many directly from the Robinson family. A few items displayed are his original plaque from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, trophies from throughout his career, vintage scorecards, ticket stubs, trading cards, and jerseys.

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Jackie Robinson Day

In 2004, MLB began celebrating Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 to honor the legendary player’s accomplishments on the anniversary of when he broke baseball’s color barrier. Pre-game festivities were held to commemorate Robinson, with scholars from the Jackie Robinson Foundation throwing out the first pitch at every game.

Since 2009, all uniformed MLB personnel have worn 42 on Jackie Robinson Day as a tribute. On the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s first game in 2022, all players, coaches, and umpires wore the number in famed Dodger blue.

Jackie Robinson Movies and Books

In 1950, Robinson starred in The Jackie Robinson Story, a biographical movie directed by Alfred E. Green and co-starring Ruby Dee as Robinson’s wife.

Robinson’s book I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson initially published in October 1972 and delves into his life, baseball career, activism, and troubled relationship with his son Jack Jr. Numerous other books about Robinson’s career and effect on baseball have been written.

Robinson’s life was the subject of the acclaimed 2013 Brian Helgeland movie 42, which starred Chadwick Boseman as Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. The film helped turn Boseman into a bona fide Hollywood star.

In 2016, filmmaker Ken Burns premiered a documentary about the baseball legend on PBS simply titled Jackie Robinson.

Quotes

  • There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.
  • The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it.
  • A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.
  • Baseball is like a poker game. Nobody wants to quit when he’s losing; nobody wants you to quit when you’re ahead.
  • Not being able to fight back is a form of severe punishment.
  • A Black man, even after he has proven himself on and off the playing field, will still be denied his rights.
  • I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had, but I always believe I won’t have it made until the humblest Black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made.
  • I had learned that I was in two wars: one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home.
  • I want to thank all of the people throughout this country who were just so wonderful during those trying days.
  • I like friends just as much as other people. But if it comes down to the question of having a choice between the friendship of some of these writers and their respect, I’ll take their respect.
  • 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.
  • Black America has asked so little, but if you can’t see the anger that comes from rejection, you are treading a dangerous course.
  • If I had to choose tomorrow between the Baseball Hall of Fame and full citizenship for my people, I would choose full citizenship time and again.
  • The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.
  • Above anything else, I hate to lose.
  • I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.

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