OPINION: Reflections on Jackie Robinson Day

What day is April 15? Most people, would say that April 15 is Income Tax Day, when state and federal income taxes are due. April 15, however, is also Jackie Robinson Day, the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Jackie Robinson Day has been observed every day by Major League Baseball since 2004. This year, Jackie Robinson Day will be observed at the Historic Dodgertown spring training facility in Vero Beach, Florida.  (The name “Historic Dodgertown” would more accurately describe Crown Heights, Flatbush or even Gowanus, where the Dodgers’ first stadium stood.)

Most people know the basics about Jackie Robinson, recently shown in the movie “42.” He was a graduate of UCLA and a Negro Leagues baseball player whom Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey picked to become the first Black major-league baseball player of modern times. While spectators in many cities and players with rival teams insulted him with constant racial epithets, his hitting and fielding skills, combined with his quiet dignity in the face of insults, gradually won him acceptance.

While this is all true, this isn’t the whole story. There’s not enough emphasis on what Robinson did for the team.

After all, here was a player who had been a four-letter man at UCLA. In 1947, his overall performance (he led the league in sacrifice hits and stolen bases) won him the position of Rookie of the Year. In 1949, with the help of coaching, he raised his batting average from .296 to .342 and was named Most Valuable Player for the National League. In 1950 and ’51, he led the league in double plays made by a second baseman. Clearly, Rickey didn’t choose Robinson just to make a political statement.   

I also feel that it’s not fair, when talking about the desegregation of Major League Baseball, to focus exclusively on Robinson and not on the two Black players that follow him on the Dodgers – Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. Both were stars in their own right. Campanella played on every National League All-Star team from 1949 to 1956 and was the National League’s Most Valuable Player three times. In 1955, Newcombe became the first pitcher in modern baseball history to win 20 games in one year, and the following year he won the first Cy Young Award. Both players were instrumental in the Dodgers winning the 1955 World Series, when Robinson was already past his prime.  The tragic story of how Campanella became paralyzed from the shoulders down after an auto accident was probably better known in the late ‘50s and ‘60s than it is today.

Above all, Robinson did not act alone. The movie “42” shows how Pee Wee Reese put his arm around him to quell an angry crowd. But the support from the team was mirrored by the support from many of the fans, and from the Brooklyn community in general. When Robinson debuted, the Brooklyn council of the YMCA and a group of ministers from prestigious Protestant churches pledged their support. Vendors near Ebbets Field sold buttons proclaiming “I’m for Jackie!” By contrast, the New York Yankees originally opposed integration and didn’t bring up a Black player from the minors until 1955.

Let’s give credit where credit is due for the desegregation of major-league baseball to all concerned: the great Jackie Robinson, Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, Robinson’s teammates, the Brooklyn fans and other pioneer African-American players, like the great and tragic Roy Campanella.