Though not technically the first black player in the major leagues—that distinction belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker of the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884—Jackie Robinson destroyed the unspoken yet visible barrier constructed in the late 1880s preventing blacks from joining a major league team.
Mr. Robinson’s début is no less a civil rights moment than Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus, or President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Walking on to the diamond at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947 preceded these civil rights hallmarks, marking a historic day, not only for baseball, but also for America. But there are other dates that are highly significant in Jackie Robinson’s career.
Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Dodgers organization on October 23, 1945 at the team’s headquarters—215 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.
Jackie Robinson played his first game in Organized Baseball on April 18, 1946, when the Montreal Royals, a Dodgers minor league team, played the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Field in Jersey City.
The Baseball Writers Association of America elected Robinson to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 23, 1962, a fact that he learned after coming home to 95 Cascade Road in Stamford, Connecticut, after spending the day in Manhattan’s corporate jungle as an executive with Chock full o’ Nuts; 1962 was Robinson’s first year of eligibility.
Excitement in the Robinson household was akin to the excitement that the Dodgers’ #42 generated at Ebbets Field. “When I came home from work Rachel was on the phone telling David, our nine-year-old, about it,” said Robinson in the Christian Science Monitor. “When she was me, she dropped the receiver and squealed that I had made it.”
Robinson’s Hall of Fame election was not automatic, however. For example, Joe DiMaggio did not get elected in his first year of eligibility. Neither did Bill Terry. Needing a minimum of 75% of the ballots, Robinson got 124 of 160. It was four more than necessary.
Jackie Robinson was the first black player elected to the Hall of Fame. Arthur Daley of the New York Times addressed the issue of Robinson’s Hall of Fame election being based on his career or his color. “It really doesn’t matter much,” declared Daley. “Both factors undoubtedly entered into consideration because they are so intertwined that separation is impossible. The feeling here is that he rated on both counts and no conscious effort was made to split them. Now he has blazed another trail and it will be easier henceforth for other Negroes to follow him into Cooperstown.”
His 10-year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers yielded Robinson a .311 batting average, 1,518 hits, and 734 RBI. Robinson’s contribution to the game cannot be measured in numbers alone, however. Pioneering the path of integration littered with jeers, boos, and death threats required an unimaginable strength of the soul. After Jackie Robinson came Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, Henry Aaron, Don Newcombe, Elston Howard, and scores of other black players.
Baseball would never be the same.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 15, 2014.