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Did Jackie Robinson Impact Major League Baseball More than Any Other Player?

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Jackie Robinson didn’t just say that; he lived it. Monday, April 15, 2013 marks the 66th anniversary of the pioneer who journeyed where no man had journeyed before him. If his life is measured by the impact it made on others, it is nothing short of monumental. Has anyone impacted Major League Baseball more than the man who stood alone and broke the color barrier?

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey sign the con...

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey sign the contract that broke baseball’s color barrier in the uniform of the Kansas City Monarchs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What can we liken Robinson’s breakthrough to in today’s world? A woman becoming President of America? Not even close. Many Americans are already keen on the idea, unlike 1947 America, which was not big on the idea of a “Negro” playing in the big leagues. One is hard-pressed to come up with a legitimate comparison.

The enormity of what Jack Roosevelt Robinson did is seen not only in the what but the when. In a day and age in which segregation was the norm, when “Jim Crow” laws existed that stipulated that “coloreds” had to drink from separate drinking fountains, sleep in different hotels than whites, and sit at the back of the bus. Into that muck and mire Robinson stepped, and sowed a seed that would change the landscape of Major League Baseball, and society at large, for generations to come.

  Talented as he was, Robinson did not succeed on talent alone. It required exceptional inner strength and character to endure the heckling and bigoted catcalls without retaliating. It took a man of courage to stand firm in the face of verbal abuse and death threats. And it demanded the perseverance to press on through loneliness and oppressive opposition.

If Robinson had caved in and given up partway through his rookie season, the message would have come through loud and clear: black men don’t have what it takes to play in the Major Leagues.

Brooklyn Dodgers’ president Branch Rickey was looking for a man who would not retaliate to the ugliness he would face, and he found his man in Jackie. Here is an abbreviated account of a conversation between the two in 1945:

Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”

Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”

Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

Even some of Robinson’s Dodger teammates objected to having a black man on their team, but Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher had no such qualms:

“I don’t care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a zebra. I’m the manager of this team and I say he plays.” 

They didn’t call him “Leo the Lip” for nothing.

Drawn by magic marker by Neal Portnoy of www.idrawpeople.com

Drawn by magic marker by Neal Portnoy of www.idrawpeople.com

Robinson had been primed for his pioneer role before his baseball career began. While serving in the U.S. Army from 1942-1944, he was arrested and court-martialed during boot camp. His crime? Refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus. He was later acquitted of the charge and honorably discharged. Could this incident have served as Rosa Parks’ inspiration?
While he consistently turned the other cheek, Robinson drew the line at physical abuse.
One day in St. Louis, pitcher Burley Grimes drilled him with a fastball. Jackie dropped his bat and started toward the mound. Grimes called out, “I didn’t mean that!” Word got around that Mr. Robinson would not be targeted.
“They called me names, but I expected those,” said Robinson. “But nobody hit me intentionally.”
Nor could anyone forget his exciting, aggressive brand of play. In Jackie’s organized baseball debut on April 18, 1946 with the Montreal Royals of the International League, all he did was go 4-for-5 with a three-run homer, steal two bases, and score four runs, twice by causing the pitcher to balk. As manager Durocher would later say, “This guy didn’t just come to play. He come to beat ya.”

In his rookie season of 1947, Robinson slapped 12 home runs, swiped a league-leading 29 bases, and hit .297, for which he was awarded NL Rookie of the Year. He upped those numbers in 1949: 16 round-trippers, 124 RBI’s, .342 avg., 37 steals–and one NL MVP award. A career .311 hitter, he stole home 19 times, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Jackie’s #42 was permanently retired by every team in 1997–the only player ever to receive such honors.
Has anyone impacted Major League Baseball more than Jackie Robinson? Seems to me that Babe Ruth is the only player who even comes close. Ruth’s home run hitting prowess, on-and-off-the-field antics, and exorbitant salary combined to make him a legend in his own time. But if old Yankee Stadium was the house that Ruth built, Major League Baseball is the sport that Jackie Robinson revolutionized.

Be sure to check out other great articles at Sports Media 101.

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