If you tune in to any Major League Baseball game on April 15, you might notice something oddly similar about the players. They’ll all be wearing the number 42 on their uniforms. Players do that every April 15 to honor baseball legend Jackie Robinson. He wore number 42 when he made his major-league debut (first appearance) 70 years ago. When Robinson, an African-American, stepped onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he broke baseball’s color barrier (something that blocks progress).
In the 1940s, professional baseball—like many other parts of American society—was segregated. An unwritten rule had kept black players out of the major leagues since the 1880s. Instead, they had to play in separate leagues, called the Negro Leagues.
Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn (now Los Angeles) Dodgers, wanted to change that. He knew he needed a player with more than just talent. He needed someone with the courage to face racism on and off the field. After meeting Jackie Robinson, Rickey knew he had found that player.
PROVING HE BELONGED
During his first season with the Dodgers, Robinson faced challenges that no other player had to deal with. He received death threats from racist fans. Players on other teams shouted racial insults at him. When the Dodgers played in other cities, he often wasn’t allowed to stay in the same hotels as his white teammates. But Robinson didn’t lose his cool.
“He responded to the racism by playing hard on the field,” says his daughter, Sharon Robinson. Robinson led Brooklyn in hits, runs, and stolen bases in 1947. He also won baseball’s first Rookie of the Year award. Later, in 1955, he helped the Dodgers win their first World Series championship.
By the time he retired in 1957, Robinson had opened the door for many more black players to enter the major leagues. Today, Robinson (who died in 1972) is remembered not just as a baseball legend but also as a hero of the civil rights movement.
“He knew the importance of standing up for what you believe in,” says Sharon Robinson.