Jackie Robinson: He Came To Play
There are many things that you can say about Jackie Roosevelt Robinson: All-Star, Pioneer, Cultural Icon. But the best description of Robinson that I can make is this: he came to play.
Above all else Jackie Robinson was a consummate baseball player. He hit, he ran he fielded; all with excellence. From 1945 until his retirement in 1956, he roamed the infields of countless baseball fields, large and small, across this great nation.
He began with Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues where only the ball was white. In all, Robinson played 47 games at shortstop for the Monarchs, hitting .387 with five home runs, and registering 13 stolen bases.
Yet he always yearned to play in the Big Leagues. He tried out in 1946 for the Boston Red Sox. The tryout, however, was a farce chiefly designed to assuage the desegregationist sensibilities of powerful Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick.
However, there was one baseball executive who was willing to take a chance at integrating baseball. Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, began to scout the Negro leagues for a possible addition to the Dodgers’ roster. Rickey selected Robinson from a list of promising black players and interviewed him for possible assignment to Brooklyn’s International League farm club, the Montreal Royals.
Rickey questioned Robinson about the racial epithets that he would receive. Robinson was aghast: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.”
Once he received Robinson’s commitment to turn the other cheek, he signed him to a minor league contract for $600 a month. Jackie Robinson was on the first rung in the ladder to the Major Leagues.
Jackie Robinson’s first minor league spring training was no bed of roses. The Royals trained in Florida where there was a great deal of resistance to integration. Over the course of training there were a number of issues that took place brought about by Robinson’s presence.
On April 18, 1946, Roosevelt Stadium hosted the Jersey City Giants‘ season opener against the Montreal Royals, marking the professional debut of the Royals’ Jackie Robinson and the first time the color barrier had been broken in a game between two minor league clubs.
In his five trips to the plate, Robinson had four hits, including a three-run home run. He also scored four runs, drove in three, and stole two bases in the Royals’ 14–1 victory. Robinson proceeded to lead the International League that season with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage,
Six days before the beginning of the 1947 season, Jackie Robinson was called up to Brooklyn Dodgers. On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his major league debut at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, including more than 14,000 black patrons. Although he failed to get a base hit, he walked and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory.
Robinson nonetheless became the target of rough physical play by opponents (particularly the Cardinals). At one time, he received a seven-inch gash in his leg from Enos Slaughter. On April 22, 1947, during a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, Phillies players called Robinson a “nigger” from their dugout and yelled that he should “go back to the cotton fields”.
Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese once came to Robinson’s defense with the famous line, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” In 1948, Reese put his arm around Robinson in response to fans who shouted racial slurs at Robinson before a game in Cincinnati.
Despite all of the abuse Robinson finished the season having played in 151 games for the Dodgers, with a batting average of .297, an on-base percentage of .383, and a .427 slugging percentage. He had 175 hits (scoring 125 runs) including 31 doubles, 5 triples, 12 home runs, driving in 48 runs for the year. Robinson led the league in sacrifice hits, with 28, and in stolen bases, with 29.
His cumulative performance earned him the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award (separate National and American League Rookie of the Year honors were not awarded until 1949).
Jackie Robinson proved that he belonged in the major because among everything else, he came to play. Over the course of his career he averaged .311 with 1,518 hits, 137 home runs, 734 runs batted in and 197 stolen bases. He was a six-time All Star.
Oh, and Dem Glorious Bums won National League pennants in 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956. And on that glorious day in October 1955 next year finally came. The Dodgers beat the hated Yankees in Yankee Stadium and celebrated all the way back to Brooklyn.