On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson famously broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier. But this historic event was many years in the making.
Baseball had been segregated since the 19th century. The color line that kept African Americans out was a “gentleman’s agreement” at the major league level and for some minor leagues, and a written rule for other minor leagues. Attempted violations of the color barrier in the 1880s had been snuffed out quickly, with each African American player squeezed out after appearing in few if any games. Since then there had been a smattering of Native American and Latino players, but any that were, or were suspected of being, part African American hadn’t lasted long before being driven out of the game. African Americans were strictly limited to playing in separate leagues of their own-the Negro Leagues.
In 1943, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers Branch Rickey obtained permission from the Dodgers Board of Directors to seek the right African American player with which to defy the color barrier. One of the biggest impediments to making this happen was the fact that powerful long time Commissioner of Baseball Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a strong proponent of the color line and was rumored that very year to have been instrumental in blocking an attempt by Bill Veeck to buy the Philadelphia Phillies on the grounds that Veeck intended to sign African American players to the team.
But Landis died in 1944 and was replaced by Happy Chandler in 1945. Chandler chose not to attempt to block teams from violating the traditional color barrier. So Rickey and the Dodgers were able to move forward with their plan.
Rickey held tryouts for African American players, pretending for the time being that the purpose in doing so was to find players for a possible Brooklyn Brown Dodgers team that could compete in the Negro Leagues.
Instead they soon identified their choice for the man to break the color line-Jack Roosevelt Robinson.
Jackie Robinson was 26 in 1945, but did not have a great deal of baseball experience. He had been a star athlete at UCLA, the first student athlete at the university ever to letter in four sports (baseball, basketball, football, and track, with baseball ironically being clearly his weakest sport of the four). He dropped out of college to play semipro football, but soon was drafted.
Robinson served in the military from 1942 to 1944, narrowly avoiding a court martial due to his less than total acquiescence to racism. (The incident for which he got into the most trouble occurred when Robinson refused to obey a bus driver’s order to move to the back of a bus, well over a decade before the famous Rosa Parks incident in Montgomery, Alabama.)
After his discharge, Robinson returned to semipro football, but then signed a contract in 1945 to play baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. So by the time of the Dodger tryouts later that year, Robinson had only played part of one season of professional baseball.
Even with his limited experience, Robinson was impressive enough on the field to convince Rickey that he could play for the Dodgers. However, more than his baseball abilities were relevant.
In an extended meeting on August 28, 1945, Rickey discussed with Robinson just what he could expect if he signed with the Dodgers. He would be vilified by fans, threats would be made against him and his family and possibly followed up on, opponents would play dirty against him and possibly seek to injure him, umpires and other baseball officials might well turn a blind eye to unfair treatment of him, there would be cities where he would not be allowed to lodge at the same hotel as the rest of the team, and likely some of his very own teammates would resent his presence. He would be cursed at, insulted, spit at, have things thrown at him, and possibly worse.
And, Rickey said, he would have to endure this. Robinson responded that it was in his nature to fight back, but Rickey said that in this case (foreshadowing Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement), fighting back meant not violence, but the courage and strength to steadfastly refuse to be deflected from one’s path. He told Robinson that the only way this could work were if Robinson was capable of taking the worst people could dish out and refusing to be provoked by it, but just to show by his play on the field that he belonged there until people had no choice but to accept him.
Satisfied that Robinson understood and could handle the pressure, Rickey signed him to a minor league contract for the 1946 season to play for the Montreal Royals of the International League, a club affiliated with the Dodgers, and broke the secret to the press that he had signed an African American player.
Robinson’s time with the Royals of course was just a trial run for his eventual promotion to the majors. Robinson started off the 1946 season a little shaky, especially in the field where he played shortstop. But after he was moved to second base he did much better, so much better in fact that he was named the International League’s Most Valuable Player.
He was for the most part very popular with the Montreal fans. On the road whether people came to cheer him, boo him, or just stare at him as a curiosity, they came. Attendance anywhere the Royals played skyrocketed. The Royals even scheduled a series of exhibition games in the South, but these had to be cancelled due to concerns about violence.
Pleased with Robinson’s play as well as with the demeanor with which he had handled being in the spotlight, Rickey decided one year in the minors was plenty, and signed Robinson to a contract to play for the Dodgers for the 1947 season.
The unofficial Major League Baseball color line was finally broken on April 15, 1947 when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League in their home park of Ebbets Field.
The majority of Major League Baseball players and officials who spoke on the record in fact supported Robinson’s presence, though there was certainly a sizable minority that opposed him, some vehemently. There were plenty of incidents of verbal abuse from fans and opponents, but Robinson persevered and managed to put together solid if unspectacular stats in his rookie season-12 home runs, a 297 batting average, and a league leading 29 stolen bases. Those stats, and all that he displayed that cannot be conveyed in stats, resulted in his being voted Rookie of the Year.
Once Robinson broke the color line, there was no turning back. Later that same season, Larry Doby was signed by the Cleveland Indians-by Bill Veeck, incidentally-as the first African American player in the American League. The Dodgers soon added such players as Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, while other teams signed future Hall of Famers such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. By 1959, every team in Major League Baseball had had at least one African American player on its roster.
Robinson himself if anything performed even better on the field after his rookie season. His career was not a very long one-he had started later than most players, he had health problems, and he chose to retire when he probably still had one or more good years left in him when he was traded to the rival New York Giants after the 1956 season-but in ten years in addition to his Rookie of the Year award, Robinson had a career batting average of 311, led the league in batting once, led the league in stolen bases twice, won Most Valuable Player once and finished in the top 20 in the voting eight times, was chosen for the All Star Game six times, and was elected to Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. During his career, his team won six National League pennants, and one World Series Championship.
After initially biting his tongue with the Dodgers to satisfy Rickey, once he was established and the color barrier was a thing of the past, Robinson became a vocal advocate for civil rights. He was a supporter of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, and in his last public appearance at the 1972 World Series just days before his death, he decried the lack of African American managers in Major League Baseball.
David Pitts, “Baseball Great Jackie Robinson Broke Color Barrier in 1947.” America.gov.
“Biography.” Jackie Robinson.
“Jackie Robinson.” Baseball Reference.
“Jackie Robinson Biography.” Biography.
“Jackie Robinson Breaks Baseball’s Color Barrier, 1945.” Eyewitness to History.