Jackie Robinson left a lifetime of history behind when he passed away 40 years ago this week. And he was making that history right up to his death at the young age of 53.
On Oct. 24, 1972, Robinson succumbed to the effects of heart disease and diabetes at his home in Stamford, Conn. Just nine days earlier, Robinson made his final public appearance at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, where he voiced his hope that a Major League Baseball team would soon hire the game’s first African-American manager.
It was a fitting end to a public career that saw Robinson break down many of society’s barriers.
Born Jan. 31, 1919, in Cairo, Ga., Robinson first came to prominence athletically when he played for the 1939 UCLA Bruins football team. The following spring, Robinson won the NCAA long jump title with a leap of 24-10.5 feet. Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1944, and following his honorable discharge in late 1944 he signed a contract with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League.
In October of 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey announced he had signed Robinson to a contract. Robinson played with the Triple-A Montreal Royals of the International League in 1946. He broke big league baseball’s longstanding color barrier with Brooklyn in 1947.
He quickly became a national hero, winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 and the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949. In 10 years with the Dodgers, Robinson was named to six All-Star teams and led Brooklyn to six NL pennants and the 1955 World Series championship.
“Thinking about the things that happened, I don’t know any other ball players who could have done what he did,” said Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese. “To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour… to do what he did has got to be the most tremendous thing I’ve ever seen in sports.”
Robinson retired prior to the 1957 season, and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 in his first year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. That year, Robinson and Bob Feller became the first players elected in their first year of eligibility since the initial class of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner in 1936.
In 1965, Robinson became the first African-American to broadcast baseball games nationally when he was hired on ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts.
His Hall of Fame plaque, which by his request made no mention of his breaking the color barrier when it was made in 1962, was recast with the support of his family in 2008 in part with the following language: “…Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern major leagues in the face of intense adversity.”
Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum