Beyond 42: Jackie, by Jackie Robinson
Long before social media, Jackie Robinson forged his own brand.
“The brief announcement…broke like a thunderclap over the sports world that October day,” wrote Carl Rowan, while collaborating with Robinson on his 1960 memoir. “Even the least perceptive editor realized that here was a sports story of great magnitude, for it meant the crushing of one of the nation’s most formidable racial barriers. Even beyond the sports world, this was a story with deep implications, for some Americans would see the signing of Robinson as another challenge to the supremacy of the White man. All this made the signing of Jackie Robinson big news of the day and the top sports story of the year.”
On October 23, 1945, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers had announced that their top Triple-A farm club, the Montreal Royals, had signed former UCLA football star and Kansas City Monarchs shortstop Jackie Robinson to a contract for the 1946 season, with every opportunity to earn a future promotion to the big club. In other words, with a shake of the hand and the stroke of the pen, the baseball’s color barrier had been toppled. Jim Crow was coming to an end in Major League Baseball.
America’s favorite pastime ran headfirst into one of its biggest lighting rods, race. Robinson’s intense countenance was splashed across back pages and front covers. Instantly Jackie Robinson went from a former college football prodigy making $400 per week in the Negro Leagues to one of the most prominent and divisive figures in American sports.
Every pundit, player, and politico had an opinion. Whether they had something of substance to say or not, it seemed every scribe had the 1945 version of a think piece. Every conceivable figure, especially in the baseball world, had a microphone shoved in their face with an inquiry about Jackie Robinson and integration. Jackie, of course, was chosen not just for his ability – but for his shrewdness and gumption.
“Jackie Robinson,” said Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier in late 1945, “the bronze-colored shortstop, who has the hopes, aspirations, and ambitions, of thirteen million Black Americans heaped upon his broad, sturdy shoulders. Because baseball is the national pastime, Robinson finds himself in the favorable, or unfavorable, position of representing America’s most underprivileged minority. Whatever happens to him in 1946 will be historically significant when the sands of time have poured through the hour-glass of immortality.”
Beloved Brooklyn Dodger star, southerner Dixie Walker, was among the players who let it be known they were none too happy. “As long as he isn’t with the Dodgers, I’m not worried,” said Walker, implying he would not welcome Robinson into the fold. Walker later voiced his protest to Rickey in the spring of 1947; and though he won a pennant with Robinson, he was shipped to Pittsburgh after the season.
Retired Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby was skeptical as to whether Black and White players could co-exist: “Ballplayers on the road live together. It won’t work…The Negro Leagues are doing all right and Negro players should be developed and then remain as stars in their own leagues.”
“More power to Robinson if he can make the grade,” said Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, who saw Robinson work out for the Red Sox at Fenway Park in 1945. The Red Sox were the last team to integrate. Giants owner Horace Stonham said that he too would entertain integration, but his priority was the baseball welfare of returning servicemen. Monte Irvin, who debuted with the Giants in 1949, like Robinson, was a veteran of World War II. The Giants were the second National League team to integrate after Brooklyn. Cleveland and the American League St. Louis Browns integrated in 1947.
Jackie Robinson, in military uniform, becomes the first African American to sign with a white professional baseball team. He signs a contract with the minor league club in Montreal, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.(Getty Images)
The Buffalo Bisons were one team who competed against Montreal. Their secretary, Joseph A. Brown, was aghast: “Very surprising, it’s hard to believe. I can’t understand it.” African-American Frank Grant played for the Bisons in 1887, until the International League drew a color line like the NL. When the all-White Bisons joined the upstart players’ league in 1890, their backup catcher was Connie Mack. Mack had just finished his 45th season as manager and owner of the (then) lowly Philadelphia Athletics with 98 losses: “I am not familiar with the move, and I don’t know Robinson, so I don’t care to comment.” The Athletics didn’t integrate until Mack retired, one year before moving to Kansas City.
“I was in the midst of a beautiful dream,” Brooklyn civil rights activist George Wibecam told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “and this great news makes me wonder if I’m still asleep. It’s the beginning of something we hoped and dreamed. I told you this would develop; that we could participate with other racial groups on an equal footing – it’s in line with the trend of the times.”
I happen to know Jackie Robinson and I hope he’ll make good,” said Walter White of NAACP. “I think the overwhelming majority of baseball fans will be delighted.”
In one fell swoop, the 26-year-old Robinson was saddled with the challenge of succeeding as the first Black player to play Major League Baseball in the modern era and taking on the hefty mantle of standard-bearer for the merits of social integration. Robinson understood this. So did Branch Rickey, who chose Robinson for a reason. Jackie was an iconoclast.
In 1945, Jackie understood the triumph of integration was dependent upon his success on the field and off. Aware of the stakes, he willingly bore the onus of a pioneer. For three years Robinson’s classic hallmark was his steadfast sangfroid. His ability to perform amidst singularly trying circumstances helped him build an iconic platform from which he forged an even larger legacy with his unwavering frankness. Even while navigating life as the first Black player in baseball, Robinson never let others speak for him.
(Original Caption) Jackie Robinson (left), star Brooklyn Dodger second baseman, signs his 1952 contract in the club's offices, January 9th, as manager Chuck Dressen and vice president E.J. ``Buzzie`` Bavasi (right) make it a hush-hush matter. Jackie reportedly signed for $42,000, compared with his 1951 salary of $35,000. Any increase will have top be approved by the Salary Stabilization Board.
Decades before the concept of social media was even conceived, Jackie was conscious of building his personal brand. In this respect, fittingly, Jackie Robinson was years ahead of his time. While cynical of the press, Robinson seemed to always be keenly aware of media sway. He accommodated the media but made sure his was the final word.
Soon after he introduced himself to the largely White press corps, Jackie Robinson picked up his pen and introduced himself to America. One of Black America’s leading voices, the Pittsburgh Courier campaigned relentlessly against baseball’s color line. They also authored the “Double V” campaign, a calling card for many veterans of the most recent world war. Next to their announcement of his signing on the front of the Pittsburgh Courier was an article with the byline “By Jackie Robinson.”
His first media piece as a Dodger, “Robinson’s Own Story,” was his introduction to America – and in many ways it was a touchstone from which the rest of his life would unfold; not so much for its content but for its sagacity.
Robinson could easily have just expressed his thoughts to Smith, who later collaborated with Robinson on his first autobiography. Instead, Robinson appealed to kids of every race, young and old, who pretended they were at bat with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, donning the jersey of their favorite team. Wrote Jackie:
“Just like all kids on the sandlots and every city in this country, I dreamed of being on a big-league team. I used to picture myself in a big-league uniform, socking that ole’ ball all over the lot and being thrilled to the roar of the crowd. Those were the dreams that all kids had that I used to play with. It was only natural that I should have them also. Well, I’m still having those dreams,” wrote Robinson. He also tamped expectation, opining that he might not be good enough but noted. “At least part of my dream has come true.”
After thanking Mr. Rickey he addressed the elephant in the room: “Some people are very much concerned about the social implications of this situation,” wrote Jackie. “Personally, I am not worried about that in the least.”
Jackie Robinson listens to Brooklyn Dodgers' owner Branch Rickey as Robinson signs a contract for $35,000, which made him the highest paid player in Dodgers' history. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Before Rickey met Robinson, he knew Jackie played college football with White players. Though the fiery Robinson had more than his share of squabbles, he knew how to navigate an integrated atmosphere in a hostile environment:
“When I played football at UCLA. I played against Southern Methodists, TCU, and the famous Texas Aggies. Practically all the members of those teams were Southerners. After the game, they came to me and told me I had played a good game and we shook hands. They seemed to be very sincere. Some of them admitted that they were reluctant at first about playing against me, but afterward they said they were glad that they had. They were fine fellows and very good sports. I played in the All-Star game in Chicago and about half a dozen of my teammates were from the South, maybe more. The first few days in camp there was some noticeable tension…In that game, it was those boys, the ones from the South, who gave me the best blocking I ever had.”
Robinson was alluding to his lone game against NFL competition with college All-Stars in September 1941 when he was universally regarded as the best player on the field by the 1940 NFL Champion Chicago Bears. “The only time I was worried about the game was when Robinson was in there,” said the Bears’ Dick Plasman.
As Wendell Smith noted at the time, this was different. Jackie was bound to face inordinate pressure: “Not only will Jackie have to play good ball, but he’ll have to be able to throw off the rough jockeying he’ll be getting from the bench by the opposition. He might even experience some from his own teammates at first. So, he has to prepare himself for all that, plus making sure he grabs the ball when it comes his way.” Smith was eerily prescient. As history has recorded, Jackie handled the unprecedented adversity with aplomb.
“They will try to upset me and get me to “blow up,” Jackie wrote. “But I am prepared for it. When I was a kid, my mother assured me that names and taunting would never hurt me. I always remembered that. I know that I’ll be able to take it. I will try to do as good a job as Joe Louis has done. He has done a great job for us, and I will try to carry on. I am going to do my level best.” He added: “I know the baseball situation can be different… it is all matter of human relations. I learned that while in college.”
View of the cover of American baseball player Jackie Robinson's book 'My Own Story' (published by Greenberg), 1948. Co-written with Wendell Smith, it also features a forward by Branch Rickey. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)
Robinson knew Joe Louis, with whom he had served while in the Army. Louis was quieter than Robinson, but it was the Heavyweight Champion who helped get Robinson and other Blacks into Officer Candidate School when they were previously denied based on race. Said Louis of Robinson in 1964: “Jackie is my favorite. I think he is the greatest guy that ever lived. Sometimes I wish I had that fire. He speaks his mind.”
Rube Samuelson covered Jackie since he was in high school: “The job he faces isn’t easy… The pressure is on Jackie… If he keeps his head, he can win, for when you come right down to it, Robinson is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, all-around athletes of all time.”
Robinson lived up to that billing. The greatest football player of his time became a Hall-of-Fame baseball player with his performance on the field and an American icon with his fortitude and steadfastness. He made the Dodgers in 1947, and by May was well on the way to winning the now eponymously named Rookie of the Year Award. He followed that up by winning the 1949 MVP. Without the distinction of breaking the color line, Robinson’s slash line would still make him a certain Hall-of-Famer. He made the All-Star team at first, second, third, and left.
For the rest of his life, Robinson was in the media spotlight, not only as a cause celebre but as an active participant. In 1953, he published and edited a magazine like Jet or Ebony, but dedicated to sports, that spoke to Black audiences. He worked for NBC. Robinson appeared as a panelist on a show called “Youth Wants to Know.” He had a syndicated column for over a decade and gave thousands of speeches. He marched with Dr. King and called out everybody from the President to Adam Clayton Powell in his column. He chronicled his own life in 1948, 1960, 1965, and 1972, while also anthologizing baseball’s integration in 1963’s Baseball Has Done It. Each of his books had a larger message. When America fell short of living up to the full measure of freedom for all Robinson bristled and articulated the inequities.
Famously some of his last words, after hundreds of columns, interviews, and speeches, in the epilogue of his posthumously published 1972 autobiography, were: “…I have devoted and dedicated my life to service. I don’t like to be in debt. And I owe. Some of my friends tell me I’ve paid the note a thousandfold. But I still feel I owe—till every man can rent and lease and buy according to his money and his desires; until every child can have an equal opportunity in youth and manhood; until hunger is not only immoral but illegal; until hatred is recognized as a disease, a scourge, an epidemic, and treated as such; until racism and sexism and narcotics are conquered and until every man can vote and any man can be elected if he qualifies—until that day Jackie Robinson and no one else can say he has it made.”
While his original 1945 article wasn’t evocative of Jackie’s fiery candor, it served a distinct purpose. An artful communicator, Robinson was always conscious of time and place. Under his first byline as the torchbearer of integration, Robinson framed the opportunity as a question of patriotism and beginning to pay a debt America owed him, for our own collective good. Robinson saw the integration of baseball as another step toward America living up to its full promise of equality and first-class citizenship for all:
“When I think about this opportunity, I’m very glad that I’m an American because with all its so-called faults it’s the only place in the world where a young man can get such a chance — a chance to make a success out of life on his ability.”