Robinson's everlasting impact on baseball
APR 15, 2013 8:17a ET
LOS ANGELES — The world will celebrate the nearly indescribable impact Jack Roosevelt Robinson had on civil rights in America — and elsewhere today.
The biographical film "42," about Robinson breaking the racial barrier in baseball, was released Friday, and there has long been talk of a true, legal national holiday to honor Robinson and his amazing accomplishments as a trailblazer and Hall of Fame player. Not to mention the devastating personal sacrifices he made along the way.
“Jackie had as much or more impact on the civil rights movement as anybody, so why shouldn’t he have a day named after him?” said his friend and Dodgers teammate Don Newcombe. “All of us were worried about what would happen if somebody hit Jackie (in the head). Jackie was too much of a man to get hit and not retaliate — especially if it was in front of his family.
“Thank God, it never happened and things went well, but I guarantee you Jackie would not have turned one cheek if someone hit him in the other.”
Among today's sports superstars, Robinson's impact is felt on a daily basis.
“I saw him as a man who was extremely patient and extremely kind. He understood his significance beyond sports, what he was representing," Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "Now, as I sit back and look at everything he had to endure and you think about some of the things athletes of today have to deal with — heckling, the Twitter-hate — and it’s laughable when you think about what he had to deal with and endure. He might have used it as fuel to become a better baseball player, knowing he had to do more than the other players. That’s a heck of a thing to have to go through, but it was fact.
“And how phenomenal is it that he had to block out all that stuff, and he still went out and had a Hall of Fame career?”
Current Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp respects what Robinson did.
"When your manhood gets tested like Jackie’s was, it a hard thing to walk away. But he’s a man who did it, a man who I respect because he did it," Kemp said. "I’m glad he was the one who did it, because I know I never could. No chance.”
African-American players had not been allowed to play Major League Baseball from 1889 until, thanks to the great Branch Rickey, Robinson stepped on the field as a Brooklyn Dodger on April 15, 1947.
The Dodgers owner — despite staunch opposition from virtually everyone involved in the game — set out to find the man with the perfect character makeup to be the one to pull off the historic assignment.
Rickey and the Dodgers would have just one chance to obliterate the color line in their game, so Rickey's choice had to be perfect.
And it was.
Robinson was able to survive the threats, awful verbal abuse and especially rough physical play directed toward him to not only win the National League Rookie of the Year award, but to help lead the Dodgers to the NL pennant in his first season.
“It wasn’t easy for Jackie to ignore the taunts and turn the other cheek like Mr. Rickey asked him to do,” said Newcombe, who along Robinson and Dodgers great Roy Campanella, helped the Dodgers win six pennants and the 1955 World Series during Robinson’s career. "But he did it because he knew he had to do it.
"But I’ve always been very thankful that no one decided to test him physically and really hit him in the face. If that had happened, the plan would have failed and who knows how long it would have taken to find a man like Mr. Rickey willing to take a chance against the wishes of every other owner and leader in the game.”
“The Plan” as it was referred to by the players involved, was a success and most of the racism that dominated baseball at the time is gone in 2013. However, the outcome could easily have been different if someone actually carried out one of the threats against Robinson or his family.
So why did Rickey choose Robinson instead of other Negro League stars who were actually better ballplayers than Jackie — especially slugger Josh Gibson?
No one really knows except Rickey, but it seems that temperament trumped playing ability in this incredibly important moment in history. Gibson hit nearly 800 home runs and was a superb catcher, but was also known as a player who would become angry very quickly if things didn’t go his way. Rickey must have felt that despite the physical greatness, Gibson wouldn’t be able to handle the attending pressure of trying to break the race barrier.
Larry Doby — the player who integrated the American League with the Cleveland Indians a few weeks after Robinson’s feat in 1947 — said in his biography: “One of the things that was disappointing and disheartening to a lot of the black players at the time was that Jack was not the best player. The best was Josh Gibson. I think that’s one of the reasons Josh died so early — he was heartbroken.” Gibson died from a stroke at age 35 — just a few months before Robinson made his major league debut.
Kemp says he can see why it was Robinson over Gibson.
“Hey, Mr. Rickey had a plan and he picked the right guy to do it,” Kemp said. “He did a great job of turning the other cheek when it came right down to it."
“Mr. Rickey knew I wasn’t the one with the right makeup to do it,” Newcombe said. “I was a 19-year-old kid who threw extremely hard, and if I got mad and hit a white batter, there would have been riots.
“Roy, Josh and a lot of the other Negro League stars were great players, but they just didn’t have it all to be able to carry out the plan. Jackie did.”
And because of it, minorities excel in a game that they weren’t even allowed to make a living in less than 70 years ago.
“One of the major factors in the success of Mr. Rickey’s plan was the fact that a new commissioner — Happy Chandler — was taking over from a racist named Kenesaw Mountain Landis,” Newcombe said.
“When Mr. Rickey went to (Landis) privately in the 1944 season and told him he was thinking of signing Negro players, Landis publicly said that ‘None of those n*****s will ever play baseball as long as I’m alive.’ Well, thank God he died. Chandler came in and even though he was from the south (Kentucky), he was behind Mr. Rickey right away.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
"Jackie was the type of person who, if he didn't like you, he wouldn't be around you. But to me, he was one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen. When he put that uniform on he wanted to beat you bad," former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda said.
"He did it not just for himself. He did it for his race. He wanted to see things change. It was for the world, the United States. He represented his race with the highest degree of dedication and loyalty. He did a great justice for his race."Robinson’s tolerance, performances and sacrifice were noticed not just by baseball fans, but the country and world in general.
Within years the civil rights movement gained steam, and under the leadership of many — most notably Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — the battle to defeat racism was in full force.
The sacrifices were many, though, as King was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968. Robinson developed myriad healthy problems — many of them stemming from diabetes — and he died in 1972 at the age 53 of a diabetes-related heart attack.
His impact today is as strong as it was on that April day in 1947, when Robinson put on a crisp white baseball uniform and began to change America’s thoughts on the race.
“I was aware of Jackie from a very young age, probably eight or nine years old,” Bryant said. “I remember writing a school project on him, and my parents were very good at explaining to me who he was and what he meant not only for sports, but for culture as a whole.
Bryant said that the theater of sport was the perfect place for this monumental moment to happen.
“Sports is the perfect vacuum for that because we all watch sports,” he explained. “It’s the universal language. He had the center stage to show what African-Americans can be, not only on the field but off the field as well. He used that platform gracefully.
"And all African Americans should be thankful to Jackie Robinson for everything he did. It would have taken a lot longer for the attitudes to change if he hadn’t have been willing to make the sacrifices.”