Future Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson with Branch Rickey as Jackie signs his 1950 contract. (NBHOF Library)
Few players in the history of baseball did more for the sport than Jackie Robinson. And though he played just 10 big league seasons, what he did is far more important than any home run or strikeout will ever be.
Sixty-six years ago this week – on April 10, 1947 – future Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson signed his first major league contract. Five days later, Robinson would make history becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884, breaking the color barrier in baseball.
Born in Cairo, Ga., Robinson was a standout athlete at UCLA where he lettered in four varsity sports – football, basketball, baseball, and track. After a brief military career post college, Robinson played in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. Following good numbers in Kansas City, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson to a pro contract and sent him to Montreal, where he integrated the International League.
Then in 1947, Rickey brought Robinson to Brooklyn – with a warning:
“I need a player who has the guts not to fight back,” said Rickey.
On Apr. 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his MLB debut in front of 26,623 fans at Ebbets Field. Estimates said over half the crowd in attendance was African American, as they were all there to see history being made when the 28-year-old rookie appeared in his first game.
Robinson started at first base and went hitless, but reached on an error in the seventh and scored the eventual go-ahead run in a victory against the Boston Braves. Days later, over 50,000 would come out to see Robinson play at the Polo Grounds, with other parks such as Wrigley Field having over-capacity crowds.
Robinson had a tough transition to the big leagues. Being harassed by fans and thrown at by opposing teams were just a few of his every day dilemmas he had to overcome. Some opposing teams threatened to strike if Robinson was allowed to keep playing, but National League President Ford Frick and Commissioner Happy Chandler had Robinson’s back, telling players they would be suspended if they took action.
Even with all the pandemonium surrounding Robinson, he managed to win the first ever Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 – and finished fifth in the MVP voting. In 151 games, Robinson had 12 home runs, 48 RBI, 175 hits, .297 average, and led the league with 29 stolen bases.
After 10 years as a Dodger, six of which resulted in a pennant for Brooklyn, Robinson decided to call it quits making his final appearance on Oct. 10, 1956. The 1949 National League MVP finished his career with 947 runs, 734 RBI, 1,518 hits, and a .311 average. The six-time All-Star won the batting title during his MVP season of 1949 and was the National League stolen base leader twice, compiling 197 for his career, 19 of which were steals of home.
Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 - his first time on the ballot - Robinson became the first professional athlete to have his jersey retired across their sport. In celebration of his Major League Baseball debut, each year on April 15 baseball celebrates “Jackie Robinson Day”. On this day, each MLB team wears the number 42 in honor of the late Robinson.
The Legendary Pictures movie "42" - a biography of Robinson - debuts in theaters this week.
“Give me five players like Robinson and a pitcher and I’ll beat any nine-man team in baseball,” said Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen.
Nick Anapolis is the spring 2013 public relations intern at the Baseball Hall of Fame