Only a few athletes will ever leave an impact on the sport they play, and only a few plays are ever remembered for the impact they brought to that sport. One of those athletes that’s first to come to mind has to be Jackie Robinson and the impact he had on baseball. Robinson changed the way baseball is played and who is playing in the league today.
Before his professional baseball career, Robinson was known as a multi-sport athlete at the University of California Los Angeles, where he became the school’s first athlete to earn varsity letters in four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball. Though he would go on to have the amazing baseball career we know, baseball was probably his worst sport while attending the school; he averaged a .097 batting average in 1940. This was a major shift from when he played in community college at Pasadena Junior College — now Pasadena City College — where he averaged a .417 batting average with 43 runs scored in 24 games in 1938. He would also play those same four sports while attending community college.
Also in 1940, his football numbers led the team, as he had 444 passing yards, 383 rushing yards, and scored 36 points. He was one of four Black players and helped the team go undefeated and he would earn All-Pac 10 honors.
After college, Robinson played football in a semi-professional league. He joined the Honolulu Bears in 1941 for a year, then joined the Los Angeles Bulldogs as their main running back. Robinson was drafted into the army in 1942, where he served until he was honorably discharged in 1944.
From there, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs — a team in the famous Negro Leagues — where he had a completely different experience than the one he was used to in college. The Negro League was not structured like every other league, as most teams struggled to make funds and were not able to have a set travel schedule due to poor travel arrangements and expenses. Although faced with these inequitable standards, Robinson played 47 games at shortstop, with a .387 batting average, five home runs, and 13 total stolen bases.
Then came Aug. 28, 1945, the moment in history which would change baseball and sports. Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager, Branch Rickey, met with Robinson in hopes of signing him and making him the first Black player to play baseball since Moses Fleetwood Walker. During this infamous meeting, Rickey was said to have told Robinson, via ESPN, that he was looking for a player “with the guts not to fight back,” as he expected Robinson to face racial hate from fans and players alike. Robinson agreed to the terms and signed his ‘first professional’ contract with the Dodgers. He was sent to AAA, however, where he played for the Montreal Royals.
During his time at Montreal, Robinson faced racial persecution early on, as Montreal Manager Clay Hooper had asked Rickey to assign Robinson to any other Dodger affiliated team. Rickey refused Hooper’s request. Robinson was also not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the rest of his teammates during spring training, forcing him to find other accommodations. Florida police also perpetuated these racist actions, threatening to cancel scheduled exhibition games if Robinson did not stop training with the team. However, Robinson still stayed with the team and would move on to regular season play, where he would average .349 batting average and 40 stolen bases and would be named MVP of the International League.
Robinson was then called up to the Major Leagues the next season, officially making him the first Black player to play in the MLB. Robinson faced plenty of challenges throughout his career from teammates, reporters, coaches, and fans alike. His will to push past all of these obstacles proved those people wrong and showed why Black athletes are just as good or even better than White players. Robinson’s fight was not just his own; he carried other peoples of colors’ futures with him. If he were to fail or even react in the way racists wished for him to react, we may have never seen another Black baseball player — at least for a while after Robinson’s legacy. That would probably mean no Satchel Paige — one of the most dominant pitchers to ever play the game — no Hank Aaron — who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record — no Willie Mays, no Roy Campanella — and the list goes on.
Robinson’s career turned out for the best. His first season would see him earn the title of Rookie of the Year after averaging a .297 batting average, 12 home runs, 48 RBIs, and 29 stolen bases. Later in the 1949 season, Robinson won the MVP award, helping the Dodgers win their first World Series in 1955 before he finally retired in 1956, after spending 11 years with the Dodgers organization.
Robinson’s contribution to baseball affected every sport, as more Black athletes were able to earn an opportunity to gain recognition as professional athletes. His legacy and life will forever be remembered, not only by the Dodgers but every team in the MLB, as his famous number, 42, is retired by each team. Only once a year, on April 15 — Jackie Robinson Day — do all players wear the iconic 42 on their backs.
No single article could do enough to recognize Robinson and his accomplishments, which go beyond baseball. I do encourage you to look at incredible movies about him like 42, which focuses on baseball or read Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy. For me, and for many others, Jackie Robinson will forever be the most important person to ever play the game of baseball and maybe even all of sports because of his legacy on and off the field.
Feature image: Sage Amdahl / Quaker Campus