On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson (1919-1972) became the first African American to play in the Major League Baseball league. On that day, he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The so-called “colour-line” had existed in baseball and many other sports for decades in American sports: the complete segregation of whites and blacks into separate leagues and teams.
There had been blacks in the sport of baseball for many years. In fact, in the nineteenth century blacks had played alongside whites in several leagues in the U.S. However, an 1896 court case reinforced the segregation baseball players according to the colour of their skin. As a result, black players were excluded from major league baseball, relegated either to the position of mascot for the Major League team, or forced to organize their own loosely structured “Negro” teams.
Robinson, the son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, excelled in several sports before serving in the U.S. army. Initially a player in the Negro Leagues, Robinson played in a period when there was increasing support for breaking down the colour barrier. The Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager took on Robinson mainly because Robinson was a solid player, not because he was interested in challenging the colour barrier. Also, he felt it would increase attendance at the Brooklyn games, especially of African American fans.
In 1946, Robinson went to Florida to play for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ farm team. This move was risky on Robinson’s part, as racism was still rampant in the U.S., especially in the South. In Florida, there were segregation laws that prohibited blacks and whites from sharing the same restaurants, hotels and other public places, including the baseball field. Robinson was forced to stay in a “coloureds-only” hotel. It was believed that there would be a greater chance of Robinson being integrated into the minor league in the more liberal and open environment of Canada.
Eventually, Robinson played his way into the Major League. However, the transition was not a smooth one. In his first year, he had many pitches thrown his way and was regularly taunted by fans and players. However, his season was a successful one, and he was voted Rookie of the Year. Robinson’s Major League career lasted 10 years. Despite his initial success in breaking the colour line in baseball, it would take many decades before there would be complete acceptance of black players. To this day, there is under-representation of blacks in management and coaching positions in baseball.
Robinson died in 1972. His headstone bears an epitaph that he wrote: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”