Forty years ago this spring, Jackie Robinson broke through the barrier that kept blacks out of major league baseball. Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed the infielder, and when Robinson, up from the minor leagues, took the field with his white teammates, a major symbol of segregated America began to crumble.
Football and basketball broke their color lines in 1948 and 1949, respectively, with their own "Jackie Robinsons" as major league sports faced up to a reality the rest of the country would not confront until ordered by the Supreme Court in 1954.
This year, major league baseball is putting Robinson's uniform number--42--on every second base in stadiums across the country on opening day as a reminder of the debt all baseball owes him. Robinson stood tall and alone in the face of the racist abuse--the balls thrown at his head, the pressure that came with every swing of the bat--as he came to represent Every Black Man in the struggle to prove that blacks were capable of competing in a white world.
Before the modern civil rights movement, before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., before the 1954 Brown decision desegregating public schools and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, there was Jackie Robinson. He and the rest of the Dodgers were a living, heroic, daily example to the nation--evidence of integration's promise, proof that it could succeed.
Baseball's "Noble Experiment" was on the sports pages every day. The Dodgers traveled through Latin America, through the big cities, through small towns in spring training--particularly the South--challenging segregation on bus and train lines, in hotels and restaurants. They forced parents to explain to their children and themselves why black Americans were excluded from the Great American Game.
From 1947 to 1956, black America followed Robinson's every hit and stolen base, every fluctuation in his batting average, as if the race's fate rested on his baseball career. Robinson didn't whine that it was unfair to make him the flag bearer for black people. He shouldered the burden as a man who realized that he had been given a special opportunity to lead, that sports was just the first step.
It can be argued that he broke more barriers after he took his baseball uniform off.
As vice president of Chock Full O'Nuts, a highly visible chain of restaurants in New York, he became the most prominent black corporate officer in America. He helped start a black-owned bank in Harlem and was crucial in keeping it going. He started a company--still in operation--that builds and operates housing for working-class people in New York. He served as a key aide to New York's Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, and hammered at the Republican Party to appeal to black people. He argued civil rights with President Eisenhower and went toe-to-toe with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The life of Jackie Robinson doesn't fit the way we're used to seeing people with fame and money behave today, especially professional athletes. Athletes are content to be rich, famous and make money off their celebrity. Athletes today retire to the suburbs and come out only for Old Timers' games. Few active sports stars live in big cities, as Robinson did, living in New York neighborhoods for most of his baseball career. Jackie Robinson was different. Lord, how he was different.
Until he died in 1972 at the age of 53, he never turned his mind away from the racism, the economic inequities or the political powerlessness of blacks throughout America. He didn't use his fame and money to create an insulated paradise for himself.
On the base paths he was known for his fearlessness, and he took the same risks in the rest of his life, putting his popularity and career on the line with the powerful baseball hierarchy, the fans, and with other blacks, to do whatever he thought he had to do to help his people. He spoke his mind, and when he was wrong he was not afraid to admit it. In everything he did, he was passionate, daring, trying his hardest, fearing inaction and complacency more than the possibility of his own failure.
In trying to explain Jackie Robinson, his widow Rachel has a hard time. In 1987, Jackie Robinson doesn't make sense.
"He didn't see baseball as the peak of his life," said Rachel Robinson in describing her husband's decision to use his baseball fame as a weapon in agitating for changes in the larger arenas of American life, economics and politics. "He used baseball as a forum, used it for publicity, as a place where he could get his ideas across. He was in the forefront of thinking about black economic development, black political growth that was needed after the civil rights movement won the right to stay in hotels, ride the buses--Jack was going to the next stage, that's what Jack was about."
Today in the world of professional sports there is no rush to acknowledge his accomplishments, baseball's efforts to the contrary. "I don't know nothin' about him," St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Vince Coleman, who is black, told a reporter after Rachel Robinson threw out the first ball for a World Series game in 1985. "Why are you asking me about Jackie Robinson?"
Coleman's attitude is not uncommon. An apt symbol in baseball today would be Reggie Jackson, a pioneer in another respect. He has shown that a black player can get away with fighting with his manager, talking back to George Steinbrenner, expressing his huge ego, ostentatiously displaying his wealth, and still be popular. Off the field, however, Jackson is no groundbreaker in the name of civil rights, poverty or any other social issue.
Robinson never took his success as an athlete as evidence that he had paid his dues, done his bit for race relations, for poor people, for other black people, for America. In his 1972 autobiography, Robinson wrote, "People have asked me, 'Jack, what's your beef? You've got it made.' I'm grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I've had, but I always believe I won't have it made until the humblest black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made. . . .
"(Some) whites are expert game-players in their contest to maintain absolute power. One of their time-honored gimmicks is to point to individual blacks who have achieved recognition: 'But look at Ralph Bunche. Think about Lena Horne or Marian Anderson. Look at Jackie Robinson. They made it.' As one of those who has 'made it.' I would like to be thought of as an inspiration to our young. But I don't want them lied to . . . I don't think anyone in or out of sports could ever seriously accuse Willie Mays of offending white sensitivities. But when he was in California, whites refused to sell him a house in their community. They loved his talent, but they didn't want him for a neighbor. Name them for me. The examples of blacks who 'made it.' For virtually every one you name, I can . . . (tell you) how they have been mistreated, humiliated."
In his life as a ballplayer and afterwards, hard-edged words of truth like that didn't win Robinson many friends. The cheering came only for Jackie Robinson, the athlete, the first black major leaguer, Hall of Fame player, and star of the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers. There was no cheering for Jackie Robinson, the social activist.
In fact, people--black and white--kept telling Robinson he would be better off if he would shut up about racial problems in the country, stop talking about the problems of the poor and homeless, and just smile and accept his trophies. "Robinson should be a player, not a crusader," read one newspaper headline.
Robinson didn't shrink from his strong opinions when he joined Chock Full O'Nuts after retiring from baseball. "Jack knew he had been hired not because he was the best personnel officer but because he was famous and had potential," Rachel Robinson said. "But when he took over he didn't allow himself to be a figurehead."
Robinson was a full-fledged personnel officer for the company, whose employees were mainly black. He organized restaurant visits, talked with employees about what they needed to do a better job, increased benefits for workers. When he found out many of the employees had to deal with loan sharks to get loans, he began using his office to help them get legitimate loans from banks. He interviewed job applicants himself, looking for the black people whites said they couldn't find, blacks who could be promoted and put in charge as store managers.
Robinson used his company, much as he used baseball, as a platform to do what he thought was right.
On Chock Full O'Nuts stationery he wrote to President Eisenhower pressing him to do more to protect civil rights activists in the South. His outbursts under the corporate logo prompted critics to ask William Black, the president of the company, to stop Robinson from writing politically charged letters on Chock Full O'Nuts stationery. Black responded that if they didn't like it, they could drink Maxwell House coffee.
Robinson realized that without money the political fight over civil rights for black Americans would be pointless. Black people needed economic progress too, so he opened another front. He helped establish the Freedom National Bank of New York, and served as chairman of the board.
"He wasn't just the chairman of the Freedom bank in name," said Joe Black, who was Robinson's roommate on the Dodgers in 1952 and is now a senior vice president with Greyhound Corp. "When that bank opened, he used his fame to lure black people into the bank. He'd walk the streets in Harlem, he'd be at the Apollo, he'd go to the Y(MCA). He understood he had to use his charisma to help make the bank a success for black people. Some people know how to wear the mantle of success, inspire others to success and let other people share in their success. Jackie gave back to his people."
Robinson took on the political world, too, again using his fame as a lightning rod to draw attention to the issues and candidates he cared about.
In the 1960 presidential campaign, Robinson was considered so influential that both the Kennedy and Nixon camps believed he was key to their success with black voters. Robinson agreed to meet with both men before making a decision. In his meeting with Kennedy the senator wouldn't look him straight in the eye. And he felt insulted when Kennedy asked him how much money it would take to get him into his campaign. Robinson campaigned for Nixon.
"I have always felt that blacks should be represented in both parties," Robinson wrote later. "I was fighting a last-ditch battle to keep the Republicans from becoming completely white. Nixon lost his campaign, and four years later I lost my battle when (Barry) Goldwater was nominated."
Turning to state politics, he became an aide to Rockefeller, a liberal Republican who had supported the student sit-in movement and was a major contributor to civil rights groups. Robinson told Rockefeller in 1962 that no black person could support a politician who had no black appointees working for him. Rockefeller responded by putting blacks in top posts in state government.
In 1966, Rockefeller asked him to join his cabinet as executive assistant to the governor for community affairs. The job paid only $25,000, a 50% pay cut from his Chock Full O'Nuts salary and well below the $40,000 a year he earned during his prime with the Dodgers. "We talked about it a long time," remembers Rachel, "and I told him the family could manage somehow. I feel good about that now. It's a special man who lives out his dreams."
Robinson and Rockefeller were a happy team until another conservative Republican--Ronald Reagan--appeared on the scene. Before the 1968 convention, Rockefeller was considering joining with Reagan to form a moderate-conservative Republican ticket. Robinson loathed the Californian, who had opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
"You know I hope this talk about you and Reagan is just talk," he told Rockefeller bluntly. "I personally couldn't go along with such a hook-up and . . . I'd never be able to justify or explain it."
Rockefeller replied: "You should have heard the hard time I had explaining you to Reagan."
Robinson's political views sometimes got him in trouble within the very community he tried so hard to help. After the black actor-singer Paul Robeson was quoted as saying racism would prevent American blacks from fighting for the United States in a war with the Soviet Union, Robinson went before the House Un-American Activities Committee and said he and other black Americans had too much invested in the nation not to fight for it. Black militants, who idolized Robeson, were outraged.
Robinson was no more intimidated or silenced by the militants than he was by the segregationists. He answered his critics by staying involved, by taking action.
He continued as a force in baseball by boycotting Old Timers' games to protest the absence of blacks as baseball managers and general managers. But it was not until 1975, when the Cleveland Indians hired Frank Robinson, that the major leagues got their first black manager.
"I was the first black manager, but it doesn't compare to what Jackie went through," said Frank Robinson, now a coach with the Baltimore Orioles. "Times had changed, attitudes had changed. I wasn't under the microscope like Jackie, but I was there to some degree because of Jackie. Ballplayers today aren't as aware as they should be of what Jackie did.
"If Jackie hadn't conducted himself as he did, I don't know if baseball would have made as much progress as it has today. His play on the field, the classy way he was off the field, he answered all the critics, took away all the excuses for not having blacks in every part of the game."
For all its heroism, Robinson's story does not end happily. He was nearly blind from diabetes when he died in 1972. The year before, 24-year-old Jackie Robinson Jr. had died in a car crash. His son's death was particularly painful because Jackie Jr. had fought back from addiction to heroin and been "clean" for three years. The younger Robinson had become addicted to drugs while serving in the Vietnam war, a war supported by his father.
By the early '70s, Robinson's view had shifted: He thought the U.S.-backed forces in Vietnam were corrupt, and his son's experiences brought home the hardships American troops were suffering.
Even more frustrating to Robinson was the slow pace of progress for blacks, many of whom, like his son, had fought in Vietnam. He saw more hunger, more homelessness, more slums in a nation he judged to be speeding "along a course toward more and more racism."