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A Major League trailblazer — Jackie Robinson’s story (part one)

This week, Major League Baseball’s first pitch was tossed for the 2013 season.  There’s an upcoming movie, “42”, about the man — Jackie Robinson.  And in the book, Stepping Up, we shared the story of Jackie Robinson.  The next few blog posts will be selections from that chapter, sharing the impact that he had on Major League Baseball, his personal courage and integrity to team with Branch Rickey to become the player that would break the racial barriers that existed in Major League Baseball and across the nation.

Jackie Robinson didn’t see much of a future for himself in professional baseball.

Stepping Up FamilyLife Jackie-Robinson

photo from Think Positive magazine, http://74.53.231.70/~thinktpm/

The year was 1945, and he was twenty-six. A UCLA graduate and World War II veteran, he was trying to make a living by playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. He hadn’t played much baseball; he was better known as a football star at UCLA. But when the Monarchs offered him a job, he decided to give it a try.

Jackie was infuriated by the indignities that black ballplayers faced. In some stadiums, they weren’t allowed to use the locker rooms because white owners didn’t like the idea of black men using the showers. He hated the segregated hotels and drinking fountains. In one instance, when the team bus stopped for gas and the station owner said the players couldn’t use his restroom, Robinson threatened to fill up the team’s bus at another station. The owner changed his mind.

And, of course, the worst indignity of all was the fact that Major League Baseball was segregated. For decades, some of the best baseball players in the nation —  legends like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson—were kept out of the big leagues. Robinson saw no hope for the situation changing, or for the opportunity to move up and play baseball in the whites-only major leagues. “I began to wonder why I should dedicate my life to a career where the boundaries for progress were set by racial discrimination,” he later wrote.

A legendary meeting

Robinson was contacted by Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Word was that Rickey was forming a new Negro league and wanted to talk with Robinson about joining it.

Robinson’s meeting with Rickey on August 28, 1945, became a turning point in America’s history. Robinson learned that Rickey had no intention of starting another Negro league. Instead, he wanted to break the color barrier in professional baseball . . . and he wanted Jackie Robinson to lead the way by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Rickey could have chosen better players, but he was looking for someone with the right character. He had no illusions about the pressure that the first black ballplayer would face — the hatred he would encounter from white players, and the impossible expectations he would feel from the black community. He wanted someone who was angry about segregation but could keep that anger in check. Choose the wrong player, he felt, and he would push the cause back by years

“If you’re a good enough man, we can make this a start in the right direction,” Rickey told Robinson. “But let me tell you, it’s going to take an awful lot of courage.”

In the meeting, Rickey confronted Robinson with examples of the situations he would face. He acted the part of ballplayers using racial slurs and trying to start fights. “They’ll taunt and goad you,” he said. “They’ll try to provoke a race riot in the ballpark. This is the way to prove to the public that a Negro should not be allowed in the major league.”

“Mr. Rickey,” Robinson said, “are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” “No,” Rickey replied, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson wondered if he was the right person for this. Did he have that kind of strength and courage? “Yet I knew that I must,” Robinson later wrote. “I had to do it for so many reasons. For black youth, for my mother, for Rae [his wife], for myself.”

Continued next post…

Excerpted with permission from Stepping Up, by Dennis Rainey, FamilyLife Publishing.

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