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Background Report: Jackie Robinson, Barrier Breaker

April 15, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: Jackie Robinson was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave. His athletic ability won him a scholarship at UCLA, where he became the first four-sport athlete in school history. After finishing college and a short stint in the army, Robinson faced a segregated sports world. So he joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Baseball League. In 1945, Branch Rickey, then owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, approached Robinson with a historic proposition. Rickey asked Robinson to be a pioneer in an effort to desegregate America’s favorite pastime.

BRANCH RICKEY: I had to give him an actual picture by voice, by gesture, but by every means I had, to have him realize what he was in front of and what he was about to agree to. He had to know that he would be called these names and his mother would be attacked.

KWAME HOLMAN: Robinson then signed with the Farm Club for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Montreal Royals. During spring training of 1947, the Dodgers sent out a press release announcing the signing of Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues. It received little attention from news organizations. But it was an announcement that would change baseball and America forever. On April 15, 1947, the 28-year-old Robinson became the first black player to play in the Major Leagues since the turn of the century. Robinson’s wife, Rachel, brought their newborn son to that first game at Ebitts Field in Brooklyn.

RACHEL ROBINSON: He was so excited about the opportunity and was so sure about his own skills that he kind of thought he could manage the other things. They weren’t as real for him at that moment as they became once he got in the ball parks, obviously.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some of Robinson’s Dodger teammates rejected the idea of playing with a black man. There was talk of circulating a petition opposing Robinson’s playing on the team, but Manager Leo Derouche put a stop to it. In other parks, there were racial epithets and taunting. In Cincinnati, even death threats, and in Philadelphia a much-publicized incident, the manager of the Phillies screamed racial slurs at Robinson.

RACHEL ROBINSON: Jack reacted to it very very strongly, and had to restrain himself in really big ways. That was one of the more provocative incidents that he had to endure.

KWAME HOLMAN: But through it all, Robinson excelled on the field. In 1947, he was named Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he won National League Most Valuable Player, and led the League in batting. Before Robinson came to the Dodgers, the team had been to just three World Series in forty-five years.

ANNOUNCER: The Dodgers have done it–unpredictable darlings of the baseball world!

KWAME HOLMAN: In the ten seasons he played, they went to six. In 1955 came a moment many observers call one of the highlights of Robinson’s career. In a World Series game against the New York Yankees, Jackie Robinson stole home, sliding safely under Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra. Robinson retired in 1957. It would be two more years before very Major League team had at least one black player.

ANNOUNCER: The doors of baseball’s Hall of Fame have swung open to admit Jackie Robinson.

KWAME HOLMAN: In 1962, Robinson became the first black player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

JACKIE ROBINSON: I fell quite inadequate here this afternoon or this morning, but I think a lot of this has been eliminated because today it seems that everything is complete. I want to thank all of the people throughout this country who were just so wonderful during those trying days. I appreciate it no end. It’s the greatest honor any person could have, and I only hope that I’ll be able to live up to this tremendously fine honor. It’s something that I think those of us who are fortunate to get must use in order to help others.

KWAME HOLMAN: In 1972, at the age of 53, Robinson died of a massive heart attack. This year Major League Baseball is honoring the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s entry into the League by dedicating the season to him. Every team is wearing commemorative patches. His wife has published a book about Robinson’s life. And this week, the Smithsonian Museum opened an exhibit called “Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Major League Baseball”. The corporate world is getting into the 50th anniversary as well. Wheaties boxes sport pictures of Robinson.

SPOKESMAN: For the joys of stealing home, for all of us that never got to play.

SPOKESMAN: For enduring every taunt.

SPOKESMAN: And not lashing out in hate.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Robinson is remembered in a TV ad by NIKE.

AD SPOKESMAN: Thank you.

AD SPOKESMAN: Thank you.

AD SPOKESMAN: Thank you, Jackie Robinson.

AD SPOKESMAN: Thank you.