On 15 April every year, all professional baseball teams in America celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, in honour of the player who "broke the color bar", becoming the first African-American player in Major League Baseball.
In post-WWII U.S.A., professional baseball, like so many other things, was segregated. African-Americans could only play in the Negro Leagues, not the more prestigious, better paid Major League.
But in 1946, Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers team, thought the time had come for a change.
Jackie Robinson was an excellent all-round sportsman. Born in Georgia in 1919, he had played semi-professional American football before serving in WWII. After the war he had switched to baseball and was playing in the Negro League team the Kansas City Monarchs.
Rickey interviewed several players from the Negro Leagues. He wanted a good player, of course. But he also wanted someone who was calm, and who would not react badly to racist comments. When Robinson asked, “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “No, I am looking for a man who has the guts NOT to fight.”
On 15 April, 1947, Robinson became the first black man in a major-league team in more than 60 years. More than 26,000 spectators came to see that historic game, and more than half of them were black.
Robinson’s teammates weren't all welcoming, but the manager told them, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays.”
Robinson let his game speak for him. In his first season he won Best Rookie, and in 1949 he won Most Valuable Player. In his ten years with the Dodgers, his team was a finalist or the champion six times. But he and the other black players who followed him had to put up with being segregated from their teams whenever they played in the Southern states: they had to sleep in different hotels and when the team stopped at restaurants, the black players stay on the team bus and eat there.
In baseball, each player in a team gets their own personal number. Jackie’s number was 42. To honour exceptional players, teams sometimes decide to “retire” a player’s number, so no other player in that team will ever get that number.
In 1997, 50 years after Robinson’s debut, Major League Baseball decided to retire Jackie’s number for all teams. He is the only player in baseball history who has received that honour.
And in 2004, Jackie Robinson Day was created. Every year on 15 April, every player in the major leagues wears the number 42. They do it to honour a hero and his courage… and to help all fans to remember his struggle for equality.
This year, MBL produced a video to thank Robinson:
Find more on the theme of standing up for your rights through sport in Speakeasy Files 3e: Jackie Robinson, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Mia Hamm and more. And in Shine Bright AMC File 5 Black Lives Matter.
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