Friday, February 4, 2011

This Day in Black Sports History: February 4, 1952

When Jack Roosevelt Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947 in front of 26,623 spectators at Ebbets Field, including more than 14,000 black patrons, he became the first African-American player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier, which segregated the sport for more than 55 years.

But before his life and legacy were sewn into the fabric of American history, Robinson was born in 1919 to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, where his mother single-handedly raised Robinson and his four older siblings.

After moving to Pasadena, California, Robinson’s family lived in relative poverty while Jackie came to learn about discrimination, racism and segregation at an early age, often denied recreational opportunities because of his skin color.

Inspired by his older brothers, Frank and Mack, Robinson would excel nonetheless, winning varsity letters in four sports—baseball, basketball, football and track—at John Muir High School. He went on to play those same sports at UCLA, becoming that school's first athlete to earn four varsity letters.

Due to financial difficulties, Robinson was forced to leave college in 1941. He decided to enlist in the United States Army, rising to the rank of second lieutenant before he was court-martialed for objecting to incidents of racial discrimination.

Robinson was honorably discharged from the United States Army in 1943.

Two years later, Robinson signed a contract to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Baseball League and traveled all over the Midwest with the team for a full season.

One season in the Negro Leagues was all Robinson would need to garner tremendous interest from Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who approached Robinson about joining the organization in 1947.

Then, when he stepped onto Ebbets Field in a Dodgers uniform, Robinson pioneered the integration of professional athletics in America and courageously challenged the deeply-rooted custom of racial segregation in both the North and the South.

In addition, Robinson would go on to have a 10-year Hall of Fame career, batting .311 with 137 home runs, 734 RBI, 197 stolen bases and 1,518 hits.

Along the way, Robinson was a six-time All-Star, winning the 1947 Rookie of the Year Award, the 1949 National League Most Valuable Player Award and a World Series championship (1955) in the process.

During his playing days, Robinson’s impact was also felt off the field. On February 4, 1952, he was hired as the Director of Community Activities for a radio station, WNBC, and the television station WNBT.

Thus, Robinson became the first African-American executive of a major radio and television station.

“It also gives us a chance to combat communist propaganda by showing there are plenty of opportunities for Negroes in this country,” Robinson once said about his new position.

Robinson retired from baseball on January 5, 1957, and in 1962, his first year of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Robinson was elected, becoming the first African-American player to be inducted into Cooperstown.

Since his death on October 24, 1972, Major League Baseball has honored Robinson many times.

In 1987, the American and National League Rookie of the Year Awards were both renamed the "Jackie Robinson Award" in honor of the first recipient (Robinson's Major League Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 encompassed both leagues).

On April 15, 1997, Robinson's jersey number (42) was retired throughout the league, the first time any jersey number had been retired throughout one of the four major American sporting leagues.

Robinson’s profound impact on the game of baseball is absolutely unquestioned, and his courage and strength can also be viewed as the genesis of the Civil Rights Movement in America.

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