• Remembering Jackie Robinson: Civil Rights Trailblazer in More Ways Than You Might Know …

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    Surge Summary: Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson may have contributed more to the Civil Rights Movement after he retired from professional sports than he did while playing.

    by Dr. Gary Scott Smith

    Fifty years ago today, one of the greatest icons in American sports history died. Jackie Robinson, a phenomenal athlete who lettered in four sports at UCLA, was only 53. After numerous health problems including heart disease, diabetes, failing eyesight and substantial heartache (most notably the death of his son Jackie Jr. in a car crash the previous year), Robinson suffered a heart attack at his home in North Stamford, Connecticut. The stress and strain of integrating Major League Baseball and helping to lead the civil rights movement had taken its toll.

    Robinson is rightly revered as the trailblazer who smashed the color barrier in Major League Baseball, helping pave the way for people of color to play not only baseball but also professional football, basketball, tennis, and golf. Less remembered is his pioneering role in the civil rights movement and his creation of several businesses to employ African Americans. As the sun set on the British empire, the Cold War began, and the world grappled with the horrors of the Holocaust, the threat posed by the atomic bomb, and the evils of Stalinism, Robinson burst onto the MLB scene in 1947. The pressure he confronted in integrating MLB was immense.

    In the United States, racism remained a national cancer. In 1947, the National Committee on Civil Rights issued 35 recommendations to reduce discrimination, including calling for greater federal efforts to promote racial equality, including removing the poll tax and other impediments to black voting, establishing a Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice, and desegregating the armed forces, interstate transportation, and government jobs.

    Many stressed that the stakes were stupendous for both Robinson and African Americans. Sportswriter Wendell Smith wrote, “If Robinson fails to make the grade, it will be many years before a Negro makes the grade. This is IT!” The Boston Chronicle proclaimed, “Triumph of Whole Race Seen in Jackie’s Debut in Major League Ball.” What 10-year-old Colin Powell, a New York Giants fan living in the Bronx, thought as the season began was in the minds of millions of other African Americans: “We said, ‘Oh Lord, don’t let him strike out.’ The greatest fear was that he wouldn’t do well and that would be a mark against all of us.” Robinson recognized the huge responsibility he shouldered.

    Time magazine argued in September 1947 that Robinson had experienced “the toughest first season any ballplayer has ever faced.” The editors of Sport magazine insisted that the Brooklyn Dodger rookie had been “the most savagely booed, intensively criticized, ruthlessly libeled player” in MLB history. From the Polo Grounds in New York City to County Stadium in Milwaukee, every time he appeared on the field, a storm of jeers, catcalls, and name calling erupted. Nevertheless, Robinson performed at a superlative level with remarkable poise while facing beanballs, cleats directed at his shins and chin, race-baiting taunts from spectators and opponents, and trash, tomatoes, watermelon slices, and Sambo dolls thrown onto the field. His rookie season, Robinson received numerous letters threatening to kill him, harm his wife, or kidnap his infant son, prompting the police to assign two detectives to accompany him home every day. Performing under a burden borne by no other ballplayer, Robinson responded to demeaning treatment with composure and grace and kept his promise to Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey not to retaliate.

    In a weekly column he wrote for the Pittsburgh Courier, Robinson claimed to be unfazed by discriminatory treatment; the insults and social isolation he experienced appeared to bounce off him like bullets striking Superman. Behind the scenes, however, Robinson struggled mightily to deal with the abusive treatment he received from fans, opposing players, and initially even some teammates.

    Robinson went on to have a Hall of Fame career. He was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949 and was selected as an All-Star six times. His career batting average of .311 ranks in the top 100 career averages in MLB history. His career on-base percentage of .409 currently ranks 37th in MLB history. From 1949 to 1954, Robinson batted .327 and, he and Stan Musial were the National League’s most dominant players. In his best season, 1949, Robinson led the league with a .342 batting average and 37 stolen bases, was second in RBIs (124) and hits (203), and was third in runs scored, doubles, and triples. Robinson was also an electrifying baserunner and a wizard with the glove. From 1947 to 1956, he was one of only two MLB players who stole at least 125 bases and had a slugging percentage over .425. His 1951 fielding percentage of .992 set an all-time record for second basemen.

    After retiring from baseball, Robinson may have broken more barriers than he did as a player. He arguably contributed more to American society during his post-baseball life than any other player. Through his civil rights, religious, and political activism and his business positions and enterprises, Robinson provided many opportunities for people of color. Robinson called himself a one-man “pressure group for civil rights.” The ex-Dodger chaired the NAACP’s Freedom Fund Campaign and helped lead several civil rights marches. Robinson wrote hundreds of columns on racial issues for the New York Post and the New York Amsterdam News, gave dozens of speeches and sermons, and worked to provide better schools, housing, and jobs for African Americans.

    The list of people Robinson influenced is impressive. Home run king Henry Aaron attributed his success in baseball “in large measure” to Robinson marking “the trail well.” Boston Celtics great Bill Russell reported that Robinson helped motivate him to play professional basketball. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time scoring leader, insisted that he patterned his life after Robinson. Martin Luther King Jr. called Robinson the true founder of the civil rights movement. Barack Obama insisted that “there is a straight line from what Jackie did to me being elected the first African-American president.” Author James Baldwin; musicians Nina Simone, Chuck Berry, and Harry Belafonte; activists Rosa Parks and Harry Edwards; politicians John Lewis and Shirley Chisholm; sportswriter Claire Smith; and athletes Jim Brown, Bob Gibson, Muhammad Ali, and Reggie Jackson all professed to be inspired by Robinson.

    Summarizing his life, Robinson wrote, “If I had a room jammed with trophies, awards and citations, and a child of mine . . . asked what I had done in defense of black people . . . and I had to tell that child that I had kept quiet . . . I would have to mark myself a total failure.” Refusing to remain quiet, Robinson spoke forcefully with his bat, glove, voice, and pen. We owe him a great debt of gratitude.

    Editor’s note: Gary Scott Smith’s latest book is “Strength for the Fight: The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson.

    The views here are those of the author and not necessarily Daily Surge.

    Originally posted here.

    Image: Adapted from Leaf International – Heritage Auctions, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54875101

    Gary Scott Smith is Professor of History Emeritus at Grove City College and is a fellow for faith and politics with the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of “Strength for the Fight: The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson” (2022), “Duty and Destiny: The Life and Faith of Winston Churchill” (January 2021), “A History of Christianity in Pittsburgh” (2019), “Suffer the Children” (2017), “Religion in the Oval Office” (Oxford University Press, 2015), “Faith and the Presidency From George Washington to George W. Bush” (Oxford University Press, 2009), “Religion in the Oval Office” and “Heaven in the American Imagination” (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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