How Jackie Robinson Became the First African-American Player in Pro Baseball

Jackie Robinson

It’s hard to believe that 70 years ago, African Americans were rarely seen if not absent altogether in professional sports. Yet, sooner or later, that race barrier had to be broken, and Jackie Robinson did just that in 1947 when he become the first African American player in pro baseball. He was one of the most talented and exciting players, recording an impressive .311 career batting average.
A tremendous athlete

But he was also good at other sports. He played four sports in college -- football, basketball, track and baseball – and was named the region's Most Valuable Player in baseball in 1938.

Courage and determination

At the time Jackie began playing professional baseball, there were segregated leagues, and Jackie played in the Negro Leagues. It would take not just talent but courage and determination to play in a professional white league, and Jackie had just that.

He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, but had to drop out of his final year due to financial hardship. So he went to Hawaii where he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears. Then the war came.

For two years, Robinson was a second lieutenant in the United States Army. It was here that he took a bold stand against segregation by refusing to move to the back of the bus. He ended up in court but was acquitted. By this time, Robinson had a good reputation and people followed him and respected him.

Breaking into the big league

Jackie met his wife Rachel in the 1940s as he and Rachel were both attending the University of California, Los Angeles. They married in 1946. During this time, Jackie began to build his career in professional baseball. African Americans were not seen in pro baseball, and the couple saw firsthand racism and even death threats.

But that didn’t stop Jackie. In 1946 he joined the all-white Montreal Royals. In fact, he was chosen by the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers (the Montreal Royals were a farm team of the Dodgers.) But it wasn’t easy. He had to endure racial slurs, insults, even death threats by fans who objected to an African American in the white leagues.

But Jackie continued with his baseball career, ignoring racism. He proved to be such a successful player that the next year he was invited to join the Dodgers. He played his first game with them on April 15, 1947, making history as the first black athlete to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century.

At first, crowds continued to jeer at him. Even other coaches yelled racial slurs at him. Jackie ignored it. He proved them all wrong when, in his first year playing with the Dodgers, he helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant and was named Rookie of the Year.

Jackie continued playing for the Dodgers and, in 1955, he helped them win the World Series. Jackie retired from professional baseball in 1957. He was traded to the New York Giants, but he only wanted to play for the Dodgers. So he retired on January 5, 1957.

Jackie’s impact on de-segregating pro baseball

It was because of Jackie’s strength and resolve to rise above racism that he opened the door for other African American athletes to play pro baseball, including Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Satchel Paige. He was also an activist for civil rights, serving on the board of the NAACP until 1967. He continued to support other efforts to stop segregation in sports.

Robinson’ career was a shining example in history of how a young black, talented athlete, the youngest of five children raised in poverty by a single mother, could become not only one of the greatest baseball players in history but also a strong proponent that race has no place in professional sports.

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