Thursday, April 19, 2007


Jackie Robinson-Sixty Years On

On Sunday, April 15, 2007, Major League Baseball celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the Major Leagues.

Robinson began his day, sixty years ago, as a Brooklyn Dodger. He played first base, and went 0 for three. He did score a run, however, late in the game, which proved to be the winning run.

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, on that cold, grey day in April, became the first black man to play Major League Baseball.

After the game, a sparse crowd of reporters asked him about his performance. They were suggesting that he hadn’t played up to his potential because he was nervous. Robinson corrected them. He went hitless, he said, because “Johnny Sain was pitching”. Sain was the Red Sox ace.

Robinson finished the season batting almost .300, and scored 125 runs himself. He led the league with 29 stolen bases.

Every fan attending a major league game on Jackie Robinson Day received a special commemorative booklet about Robinson. There are letters from the White House, and from the Commissioner, (but none from 24 Sussex Drive! An oversight?), and several wonderful little stories about the man, his game, and his legacy. The foreword is written by his widow Rachel, who continues to work hard on several projects to help keep the flame of equality glowing.

In one article, Eric Enders writes that “Jackie also became a target for opposing pitchers---in his first 37 games he was hit by a pitch six times, a figure that had led the league a year earlier.”

Robinson grew up in California, and possessed tremendous natural ability. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles. Jim Becker, a retired sportswriter for the Associated Press described Jackie as “the greatest all-around athlete I ever saw.” Becker had watched Robinson at UCLA. In his final year in university, Robinson played on the school football team, led the nation in yards per carry, and played tenacious defence. He led the conference in basketball scoring, ran sprints, and broke the NCAA long jump record. It had been held by his brother Mack, who also won a silver medal in the 200 metres race at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, finishing second to Jesse Owens.

Robinson was a scratch golfer, and won at least two tennis tournaments. And yes, he was a pretty fair baseball player as well.

After finishing at UCLA, he departed for Honolulu to play for the Bears. At that time, no blacks were permitted to play in the Major Leagues. In late November of 1941, he left the team to join the Army. He departed from Hawaii on December 5th, 1941, two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

He served as a lieutenant in the American Army, and then played one season in the Negro League with the Kansas City Monarchs. He was an All Star in his only season in the league, in 1945.

Several scouts had their eyes on Robinson for several years. Those that worked for major league teams assumed that they were wasting their time because of his colour. One baseball person entered the fray with a question that began with the words “What if?”

His name was Branch Rickey. A couple of summers prior to Robinson’s major league debut, Dodgers President Rickey had sent scout Clyde Sukeforth to look at Jackie when he played for the Monarchs. Robinson always recognized Sukeforth’s contribution. In his biography, Jackie wrote: “Clyde Sukeforth with his quiet confidence helped as much as anyone else.”

Robinson began his minor league career on April 18, 1946, with the Dodgers’ Triple-A club, the Montreal Royals, in Jersey City, N.J. In his only season with the Royals, he was the most valuable player in the league.

He signed his major league contract on April 11, 1947 for the $ 5 000 minimum salary, and made history when he stepped to the plate four days later. The rest, as they are wont to say, is history. A good history, to be sure.

The final page of the tribute booklet we received at the Jays-Tigers game listed several trivia items related to baseball. Larry Doby was the first African American to play in the American League. Cito Gaston is the only black manager to win the World Series. He did it twice with the Blue Jays. Buck O’Neil became the first black coach in the Major Leagues in 1962. He also became the unofficial spokesman for Negro baseball in Ken Burns’ history of Baseball, spinning wonderful anecdotes of the early days of baseball.

There is no question that Robinson’s debut in the game sixty years ago was part of the catalyst that led the United States to become a better nation. More just, more fair, more equal.

Number 42. Forever a legend in the great game of baseball.

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