Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey’s choice to break the Big League color barrier, had a history of standing up to injustice. In the Army, Robinson was courtmartialed for his open objections to racial discrimination. As baseball’s pioneer, however, Robinson would have to turn away in the face of hate. Rickey knew what it would take, and he grilled Robinson on the prospect prior to signing him. In 1947, Robinson made his Big League debut and, with the support of his wife, Rachel, and Rickey, thrived despite numerous tests. All told, Robinson hit .297 with 12 homers and a league-best 29 steals to win Rookie of the Year. What follows are Robinson’s reflections, as written in his autobiography.
An exclusive piece from The Official Major League Baseball Opus
Jackie Robinson’s story captured and told in the acclaimed motion picture ’42’ made and produced by Legendary Films.
Less than a week after I became Number 42 on the Brooklyn club, I played my first game with the team. I did a miserable job. There was an overflow crowd at Ebbets Field. If they expected any miracles out of Robinson, they were sadly disappointed. I was in another slump. I grounded out to the third baseman, flied out to left field, bounced into a double play, was safe on an error, and, later, was removed as a defensive safeguard. The next four games reflected my deep slump. I went to plate twenty times without one base hit. Burt Shotton, a man I respected and liked, had replaced Durocher as manager. As my slump deepened, I appreciated Shotton’s patience and understanding. I knew the pressure was on him to take me out of the lineup. People began recalling Bob Feller’s analysis of me. I was “good field, no hit.” There were others who doubted that I could field and some who hoped I would flunk out and thus establish that blacks weren’t ready for the Majors. Shotton, however, continued to encourage me.
Early in the season, the Philadelphia Phillies came to Ebbets Field for a three-game series. I was still in my slump and events of the opening game certainly didn’t help. Starting to the plate in the first inning, I could scarcely hear my ears. Almost as if it had been synchronized by some master conductor, hate poured forth from the Phillies dugout.
“Hey, n—–, why don’t you go back to the cotton field where you belong?”
“They’re waiting for you in the jungles, black boy!”
“Hey, snowflake, which one of those white boys’ wives are you dating tonight?”
“We don’t want you here, n—–.”
“Go back to the bushes!”
Those insults and taunts were only samples of the torrent of abuse which poured out from the Phillies dugout that April day. I have to admit that this day, of all the unpleasant days in my life, brought me nearer to cracking up than I ever had been. Perhaps I should have become inured to this kind of garbage, but I was in New York City and unprepared to face the kind of barbarism from a northern team that I had come to associate with the Deep South. The abuse coming out of the Phillies dugout was being directed by the team’s manager, Ben Chapman, a Southerner. I felt tortured and I tried just to play ball and ignore the insults. But it was really getting to me. What did the Phillies want from me? What, indeed, did Mr. Rickey expect of me? I was, after all, a human being. What was I doing here turning the other cheek as though I weren’t a man? In college days I had had a reputation as a black man who never tolerated affronts to his dignity. I had defied prejudice in the Army. How could I have thought that barriers would fall, that, indeed, my talent could triumph over bigotry?
For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought, “To hell with Mr. Rickey’s ‘noble experiment.’ It’s clear it won’t succeed. I have made every effort to work hard, to get myself into shape. My best is not enough for them.” I thought what a glorious, cleansing thing it would be to let go. To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I could walk away from it all. I’d never become a sports star. But my son could tell his son someday what his daddy could have been if he hadn’t been too much of a man.
Then, I thought of Mr. Rickey — how his family and friends had begged him not to fight for me and my people. I thought of all his predictions, which had come true. Mr. Rickey had come to a crossroads and made a lonely decision. I was at a crossroads. I would make mine. I would stay.
Jackie Robinson, with few on his side when he took the field, No. 42 braved the odds and blazed a trail for diversity in Major League Baseball.
Jackie Robinson made his landmark debut in the Major Leagues in 1947, opening doors for fellow African-Americans in every walk of life. “He struck a mighty blow for equality, freedom and the American way of life,” U.S. President Ronald Reagan said after the Hall of Famer’s death. “Jackie Robinson was a good citizen, a great man and a true American champion.” For generations, no African- American ballplayer had been allowed to participate in a Major League Baseball contest. Similarly, the state and local legislation collectively known as the Jim Crow Laws mandated segregation in most aspects of American society between 1876 and 1965. When Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey inked Robinson to a Minor League deal in 1945, the pair took bold steps toward undermining the prejudice that had buoyed an unjust way of life. A four-sport star at UCLA and an established presence in the Negro Leagues, Robinson arrived at Ebbets Field after a brief stint with the Montreal Royals of the International League as the finished article — physically, emotionally and intellectually. “He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right, and he reminded them of what was wrong,” American League President Gene Budig lauded.
“I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation.”