Spring is here, which means baseball is back. Many people, regardless of their level of baseball fandom, know the story of Jackie Robinson and how he changed the game forever.
His exploits were recently displayed in the new film, 42, which premiered April 12.
April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day, and in recent years baseball players all wear his number, 42, during games on that day.
Robinson is known in history for being the first black man to play in Major League Baseball, thereby breaking the “color barrier” that prevented blacks from playing.
What seems to be forgotten is that black players were not barred from the sport until the 1890s. It was then that the Supreme Court declared that segregation was legal.
Baseball was by far America’s favorite sport in 1947. That year, Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager, sought to increase his fan base.
“He decided that Robinson was a good choice not because he was the absolute best player, but because he believed he could get Robinson to fit a particular mold,” said Dr. Marcy Sacks, associate professor of history.
Robinson had served in the army and was known to be patriotic. It was thought that whites would be accepting of him.
“Blacks at the time were thrilled and ecstatic, and I think Robinson felt the weight of that,” Sacks said. “That’s why he behaved the way he did, because he knew it was a really important moment and opportunity.”
Robinson played well during his time in MLB, and soon thereafter other black players began to trickle in.
A black player in a white sport was not unanimously received. Insults to him and his wife, both in and out of games, and death threats were common.
However, Robinson did not react. A little-known contract signed with Rickey was the cause.
“Robinson was not the passive type at all, Sacks said. “He saw and confronted racism. He hated it, but he agreed to do what Rickey told him, which was to sign a contract which prevented him from responding to any taunts for three years. He was required to not react by contract.”
After the quiet and successful three years, Robinson’s demeanor changed.
“That’s what allowed white people to come around,” Sacks said. “He didn’t react. And when his contract expired he started talking back, and he became a lot less popular. We [as a society] don’t remember that part of the story.”
Another part of the story that is forgotten is the fate of the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues were baseball leagues that were operated and played by African-Americans. Once the color barrier was broken, things changed.
“White teams poached the best players, and black fans went to see those players in the Major League teams,” Sacks said.
The African-American-owned organization, which enabled African-Americans to manage themselves and have their own power, soon collapsed.
Even the issue of the holiday, Jackie Robinson Day, is contentious.
“Robinson serves the way for many white Americans Martin Luther King, Jr. serves,” Sacks said. “He’s a symbol of white people want to think as ‘how far we’ve come.’ And I’m not convinced that we’ve really come that far.”
In fact, African-American players in baseball have declined to an all-time low. According to ESPN, only 8.5% of players in MLB were African-American.
“But the fact of the matter is that black athletes don’t have a lot of power in their sports,” Sacks said. “They may make a lot of money, but they don’t hold a lot of power. They’re not the ones who make the decisions or own the team.”
Regardless, Robinson’s legacy is still important, alive and well. His number, 42, was retired league-wide in 1997. According to MLB.com, only the Yankee’s closer, Mariano Rivera, still wears the number. He plans to retire at the end of this season, permanently ending the use of “42” in MLB.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons