In Honor of Jackie Robinson’s Debut with Dodgers 65 Years Ago
On Sunday, Major League Baseball gave us a chance to remember that this beloved sport can be much more than a game.
It was Jackie Robinson Day — April 15 — the 65th anniversary of Robinson taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus breaking the color barrier and changing baseball — and the country — forever.
Jackie’s widow, Rachel Robinson, now 90 years old, and their daughter, Sharon, were in attendance Sunday at Yankee Stadium (we’ll forgive them just this once) to mark the occasion.
League-wide, every player on Sunday wore Number 42 as a nod to the trailblazer who made history here in Brooklyn.
Not only was Robinson’s legacy commemorated this week in stadiums around the country, but also at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of all places.
The Met has culled through its enormous collection of 30,000 baseball cards and now has on display an exhibit of 60 cards that showcase the players who broke the color barrier, from Robinson to Elijah “Pumpsie” Green, who in 1961 joined the Boston Red Sox, the last major league team to integrate.
“Very few people know that we have this amazing collection of baseball cards…This is real graphic art for us. It’s one of the great popular collections that we have today,” said Carrie Barratt, an associate director at the Met who spoke at a panel discussion about the exhibit last Friday evening, which included Jackie’s daughter Sharon Robinson, retired Atlanta Braves player Dale Murphy, and sports writers Bill Rhoden of The New York Times and Sean Kirst of the Syracuse Post-Standard.
The collection was donated to the Met in the mid-20th century by an electrician in Syracuse named Jefferson Burdick, a “cardophile” who assembled the largest and most comprehensive private collection of American trade cards ever in the United States. The Met’s collection is exceeded only by the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“I wanted to highlight some of the more well-known players like Roy Campanella, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, but I also wanted to celebrate Harry Simpson, Jim Pendleton and Luke Easter, who were important in their time but may not be as well remembered,” said the exhibit’s curator Freyda Spira.
The installation has six Jackie Robinson cards, including his earliest, the Swell Gum baseball issue of 1948, announcing as a “Sports Thrill” his introduction to the Major League, and the Leaf Gum baseball issue of 1948.
It was in 1945 that Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Robinson away from the Negro American League’s Kansas City Monarchs. After first playing for the Dodgers’ farm team in Montreal, Robinson was called up to the big leagues for the 1947 season.
His historic debut was wrought with cruelty and peril. “When they traveled south they ran into all kinds of racism, including death threats,” said Sharon Robinson on Friday. But it wasn’t just in the South. In Syracuse, N.Y., Robinson met some of the strongest opposition to integration. Opposing players had to be restrained from taking the field in blackface and members of the crowd threw a black cat on the field, gibing “Hey, Jackie, here’s your cousin.”
Robinson liked to answer by simply jogging by the opposing team’s dugout as close as possible with his head held high.
And it seemed taunting Robinson only made him play better, his detractors soon realized. At the end of the season he was named Rookie of the Year with a record of 12 homers, 29 steals and a .297 batting average.
But it’s not for his batting average that Robinson is remembered.
“He stood for things beyond balls and strikes. He stood for the greater good, for character, for courage. That’s why people remember Jackie Robinson,” said Bill Rhoden, author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.
“My father breaking the color barrier in baseball was the first concrete step in the long battle for social justice in America,” Sharon Robinson told the Eagle. “It was before the integration of the Armed Forces, schools, and many other civil rights achievements.” Though, she noted, “It did not eliminate racism.”
Robinson retired from baseball after playing for the Dodgers for 10 years. “My parents’ experience in Brooklyn was positive and supportive. They made lifetime friends from neighbors and residents who embraced them,” Sharon Robinson said.
In retirement, Jackie Robinson became a major fundraiser for the NAACP and a civil rights activist, as well as a vice president for Chock Full O’ Nuts. Six months after his death in 1972, his wife Rachel started the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has given out $50 million in scholarships to underprivileged students.
The “Breaking the Color Barrier in Major League Baseball” exhibit will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art through June 17.