42 – The Legacy of Jackie Robinson

Jackie RobinsonLast month, America celebrated the legacy of one of the most influential civil rights figures of the twentieth century, Jackie Robinson. With a biographical film named after his jersey number, 42, and the MLB’s own commemorative celebration of the late Hall of Famer on April 15 (Jackie Robinson Day), it is interesting to ponder whether those who witnessed his major league debut on April 15, 1947 had any idea of how that day would affect our nation’s future.

After winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, Robinson racked up a .342 batting average and 142 RBI two years later to claim the NL MVP award. The new MVP made his first of six consecutive All-Star appearances in 1949, and arguably the two most pivotal years in his career, 1947 and 1949, were the two seasons when he also led the majors in stolen bases with 29 and 37, respectively. The icing on the cake for his baseball career was his 1955 World Series victory with the Brooklyn Dodgers, with whom he spent his whole baseball career. Statistically speaking, a .311 batting average, 162 game average of 111 runs and a 2.54 walk-to-strikeout ratio all throughout his career are testaments to Robinson’s skill.

However, Robinson’s legacy is much more a product of the inspiration his career manifested throughout society than just simple numbers and on-the-field contributions.

Robinson’s play on the diamond sent a message to all other major league ball clubs that there was great untapped potential in minorities and professional teams were holding themselves back athletically, and potentially financially, by refusing to integrate. On July 5, 1947, the American League initiated its integration when the Cleveland Indians signed Larry Doby.

Over the next few years, several African-American baseball players starting getting time in the majors, including Satchel Paige, whose career earned run average was a low 3.29 and who was still in the majors at 59 years young! African-American players won the Rookie of the Year awards nine times from 1947 to 1960. The 1951 All-Star appearances of Chico Carrasquel and Minnie Miñoso showed that Hispanics also benefitted early-on from integration. Twelve years after Jackie Robinson’s debut, the Boston Red Sox became the last team to end segregation on July 21, 1959. By 1974, African-Americans made up 27 percent of major leaguers and in the following year, Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in baseball. Today, as of the start of the 2012 season, minorities accounted for 38.2 percent of all major leaguers.

Baseball’s Integration Era did more for the sport than just add racial diversity. It changed the overall strategy behind the way baseball was played. The two decades before Robinson’s integration were known as the Lively Ball Era (1920s – 1930s) for good reason. Offensive statistics, especially homeruns, skyrocketed on average during this era, in comparison to the Dead Ball Era (1900s – 1910s). In the Dead Ball Era, runs (especially home runs) were rare, so teams trained players to be aggressive baserunners in order to steal bases and play hard for each run. The Lively Ball Era saw the decline of aggressive baserunning and an influx of power hitting, which naturally increased the average number of runs per game to ten during this period. However, when teams took notice of how the Dodgers effectively used Jackie Robinson’s speedy baserunning, ball clubs wanted to keep some power hitting, but also balance out their lineups with fast baserunners to create more runs. In the 1980s, this offensive strategy evolved into the emphasis on scoring through stolen bases, doubles and triples that teams with larger outfields still use today.

Jackie Robinson’s success dismissed the idea that African-Americans were athletically inferior to whites. Had the Jackie Robinson experiment failed, the argument against integration would have been strengthened, so failure was not an option for him. Fortunately, his success led other team sports to integrate as well.

The NBA closely watched how white fans and teammates would receive the initial integration of African-American and Hispanic players the MLB experimented with. After witnessing the athletic prowess of baseball’s minority athletes, NBA teams were generally willing to test out integration. In 1950, the Boston Celtics were the first basketball team to draft an African-American player (Charles Cooper), the New York Knicks were the first basketball team to sign an African-American player (Nat Clifton) and the Washington Capitols were the first basketball team to play an African-American player (Earl Lloyd). As of June 26, 2012, 82 percent of NBA players are athletes of color, with African-Americans making up 78 percent of all NBA players.

The NFL integrated a year before Jackie Robinson’s debut, when the Los Angeles Rams acquired receiver Woody Strode and runningback Kenny Washington (Jackie Robinson’s teammate on the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team) in 1946. Even though it happened before Robinson’s debut, Robinson helped to spur along the NFL’s integration process. In 1949, The Chicago Bears were the first NFL team to draft an African-American player (George Taliaferro). Out of the NFL’s ten teams, only three had an African-American player before 1950. But by 1953, the Washington Redskins were the lone all-white team until being forced to integrate by the Kennedy Administration in 1962.

Jackie Robinson continued his Civil Rights pioneering even after his storied baseball career. He was the first African-American MLB television analyst, and became the vice-president and personnel director of Chock Full o’Nuts, making him the first African-American vice-president of a major American corporation. Out of a desire for African-Americans to have a financial institution of their own, Robinson helped found and direct the Harlem-based Freedom National Bank, New York’s largest African-American-owned bank at the time.

While Robinson worked hard for the corporation, he actively used his influence to discuss civil rights with anyone from black leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. According to ESPN, Jackie Robinson wrote the following to Richard Nixon in a 1957 letter: “I know that you realize that in the tasks that lie ahead all-freedom-loving Americans will want to share in achieving a society in which no man is penalized or favored solely because of his race, color, religion, or national origin.” The fact that the presidents always replied back to Robinson’s letters was true evidence of Robinson’s significance to society.
Robinson’s success, and the fans’ acceptance of him, proved that all people of color should be respected, as they could excel in all areas of life, too. Now, minorities of both genders are in high positions of authority, from coaches and managers in sports, CEOs in business and admirals and generals in the military, to Commander-in-Chief at the White House. The legacy Robinson has left since his death in 1972 is one of fond memories of his aggressive athleticism, but also one that created a ripple-effect instrumental in providing the degree of American equality seen today.

Email Jonathan at [email protected].

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