Jackie Robinson’s legacy endures 75 years after breaking baseball’s color barrier

Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers 75 years ago this week, becoming the first Black man to play in the modern major leagues. It’s been nearly 50 years since Jackie Robinson's death, but he remains one of the most celebrated athletes in history. Geoff Bennet looks at why Robinson’s significance continues to resonate beyond baseball.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    It's been nearly 50 years since Jackie Robinson has death but he remains one of the most celebrated athletes in American history. We take a look at why Robinson significance continues to resonate well beyond baseball.

    75 years ago this week, Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers becoming the first black man to play in the modern major leagues. Robinson later told reporters that his goal was a simple one during that historic 1947 season.

  • Jackie Robinson, American Baseball Player:

    My main ambition was to get along well enough with whoever I was playing with so that they would realize that there wasn't any friction because I was calling every white. I mean, we could play together I think that was my main ambition was to break down that gray and not so much to, for me to go to the major leagues. I just wanted to somebody people, I didn't care who it was.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Prior to joining the Dodgers, Robinson had built a name for himself in college at UCLA. He was the first student athlete to earn varsity letters in four different sports. But after serving in the army during World War II, he faced a segregated sports world. So in 1945, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.

  • Branch Rickey, General Manager, Brooklyn Dodgers:

    I was convinced them that there was a timelessness about it.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Later that year, he caught the eye of Dodgers General Manager, Branch Rickey, who convinced Robinson that he should be the one to desegregate America's pastime.

  • Branch Rickey:

    the right man and ability on the field, and we have control of himself off the field. If I can find that kind of a man, the American public would accept it.

  • Kevin Blackistone:

    The Jackie Robinson that we think of I think today isn't necessarily the Jackie Robinson who entered Major League Baseball.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Kevin Blackistone is a University of Maryland professor and a columnist for the Washington Post.

    What all was he facing as he stepped on to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn?

  • Kevin Blackistone:

    Well, he's facing one of the greatest experiments in the history of race relations in this country.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Blackistone says Robinson was forced to make a promise that he'd never fight back when fans or fellow players insulted him.

    So for Jackie Robinson to be willing to sort of turn the other cheek, what was he having to swallow really to be able to do that?

  • Kevin Blackistone:

    Well, I think he was having to swallow who he was. He was an educated black man. He knew the pressure that was on him. He knew he had to perform. He had to be twice as good. And he knew he could not respond to all the racism that would be hurled at him as he simply tried to play the game of baseball.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Robinson's mental toughness would be tested repeatedly during his first season, says Robinson biographer Jonathan Eig, who says even some of Robinson's own teammates didn't want him to succeed.

    Jonathan Eig, Author, "Opening Day": You've got 399 players in the league that you've got to worry about whether they want you there, whether they're going to, you know, throw it your head, whether they're going to spike you on the base pass, you know, death threats from haters. That's Robinson was up against that every day.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Despite a torrent of hostility and hatred, Robinson excel. In 1947, he won Rookie of the Year. Two years later, he was named National League MVP. And over the course of his 10-year playing career, Robinson was a six-time all-star and he played in the World Series six times.

    Damion Thomas, National Museum of African American History and Culture: His play on the field just wasn't about the game. But it was really an opportunity for African Americans to show that when given an opportunity to compete on an equal playing field they could succeed.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Damion Thomas is the sports curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. He says even after his playing days, Robinson continued to fight for equality.

  • Damion Thomas:

    Martin Luther King Jr. put it best when he said Jackie Robinson was a sit in or before sit ins and a Freedom Rider before freedom rides, because what Jackie Robinson was able to do in a non-violent way, was take a lot of abuse, take a lot of criticism, and bounce back from it and find ways to succeed. And that's the story of the civil rights movement.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    While Major League Baseball now celebrates Jackie Robinson Day each year, Kevin Blackistone, says the league has never dealt with the entirety of Robinson story.

  • Kevin Blackistone:

    They celebrate Jackie Robinson. They have commercialized him, they have commodified him. They have diminished and define who he really was. You never hear Major League Baseball officials talk about the 60 years, three generations that they refuse to let men of African provenance play their game.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Now 75 years after his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jonathan Eig says Robinson is still the most important baseball player in American history.

  • Jonathan Eig:

    He reminds us that black athlete, that athletes in general have the right the responsibility and the power to speak up for what they believe in, that they do not have to play ball and keep their mouths shut. Robinson proved that a long time ago.

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