No. 15: Jackie Robinson
A hero for generations
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"Jackie Robinson's impact was greater than just that of baseball. He was a transforming agent and in the face of such hostility and such meanness and violence, he did it with such amazing dignity. He had to set the course for the country," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, Oct. 15, 10:30 p.m. ET).
Robinson, the National League MVP in 1949 who broke major league baseball's color barrier two years earlier, was voted No. 15 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
Sept. 30, 1951 -- Going into the last scheduled day of the regular season, the Dodgers, who led by 13 games on August 11, and Giants were tied for first place. In the sixth inning, with Brooklyn trailing Philadelphia by three runs, the scoreboard posted New York's final from Boston. At the roar of the crowd, Robinson looked over his shoulder and he - and every other Dodger - saw the Giants had won, 3-2. That left Brooklyn needing a win to avoid elimination.
The Bums rallied to tie, and forced extra innings. In the bottom of the 12th, with the bases loaded and two outs against Don Newcombe, the Phillies' Eddie Waitkus crushed a low line drive to the right of second base. It looked like a sure hit, and the pennant for the Giants.
"The ball is a blur passing second base, difficult to follow in the half light, impossible to catch," Red Smith wrote. "Jackie Robinson catches it. He flings himself headlong at right angles to the flight of the ball, for an instant his body is suspended in midair, then somehow the outstretched glove intercepts the ball inches off the ground."
The second baseman didn't immediately get up; in the fall he had jammed his left elbow into his solar plexus so hard that he had the wind knocked from him. Several minutes later, Robinson rose groggily and walked uncertainly to the dugout.
After saving the game with his glove, the Dodgers' clean-up hitter won it with his bat. In the 14th, facing 21-game winner Robin Roberts, who had retired the last 10 Dodgers, he blasted a homer into the upper deck in left-field and trotted slowly around the bases. After the Phillies were retired in the bottom of the inning, the Dodgers had an improbable 9-8 victory that set up baseball's most remarkable playoff.
"Of all the pictures left upon memory," Smith wrote, "the one that will always flash back first shows [Robinson] stretched at full length in the insubstantial twilight, the unconquerable doing the impossible."
Odds and ends While growing up in the nearly all-white public schools in Pasadena, a guidance counselor listed Robinson's probable future employment as "gardener."
Robinson wasn't a likable person as a youth, a childhood friend said, "because his whole thing was just win, win, win, and beat everybody."
In March 1938, the Chicago White Sox played a benefit exhibition with the Pasadena Sox, a group of young players from the city. After the 19-year-old Robinson made a couple of brilliant plays, White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes said, "Geez, if that kid was white, I'd sign him right now."
Jackie's older brother Mack won a silver medal at the 1936 Olympics, finishing second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter dash.
On May 7, 1938, while at Pasadena Junior College, Jackie set a national J.C. record in the long jump with a leap of 25 feet, 6½ inches, breaking Mack's record. Then he traveled about 40 miles to play in Pasadena's baseball game.
Baseball was Robinson's worst sport at UCLA - he batted just .097 in his one season (1940) and tied for making the most errors on the team.
In football, Robinson led the country in punt returns both his seasons at UCLA, averaging 20.1 yards in 1939 and 21 in 1940. He averaged an eye-popping 12.2 yards on 42 rushes in his first season, but only 3.64 in his second.
After leading the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division in scoring in basketball with an 11.1 average in 12 league games, he dropped out of UCLA in March 1941.
In Aug. 28, 1941, Robinson caught a 36-yard touchdown pass for the College All-Stars in a 37-13 loss to the NFL champion Chicago Bears. "The only time we worried," said Bears end Dick Plasman, "was when that guy Robinson was on the field."
In the Army in 1942 at Fort Riley, Kan., Robinson became friendly with another soldier, heavyweight champ Joe Louis. The two worked out together, played golf and rode horses regularly.
In 1945, Robinson spent an unhappy season barnstorming with the Kansas City Monarchs. The educated Robinson, a nonsmoker and nondrinker, never quite fit into the boisterous life of the Negro Leagues.
On April 18, 1946 in Jersey City, Robinson became the first African-American to play in organized ball this century. In his debut with the Montreal Royals of the International League, he went 4-for-5, with a three-run homer. He scored four runs (two after his feints on third caused balks), knocked in four and stole two bases in the 14-1 victory over the Giants.
Montreal manager Clay Hopper was raised in Alabama and reportedly begged Branch Rickey not to put Robinson on his team.
Robinson's nicknames in Montreal were "the Dark Destroyer" and "the Colored Comet."
After the Royals defeated Louisville to win the Little World Series, admiring fans besieged Robinson. "It was probably the only day in history," Sam Maltin wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier, "that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind."
Robinson was a middle infielder before the Dodgers switched him to first base in spring training in 1947.
In his rookie season he led the National League with 29 steals, more than twice as many as the runner-up, teammate Pete Reiser (14).
During Robinson's first season with Brooklyn, Jimmy Cannon wrote, "In the clubhouse Robinson is a stranger. . . . He is the loneliest man I have ever seen in sports."
Phillies manager Ben Chapman was the most vocal of Robinson's tormentors that year. He came under criticism for the vulgar, biting slurs with which he and his team attacked Robinson.
National League president Ford Frick headed off a players' strike, instigated by the St. Louis Cardinals, that sought to force Robinson from baseball in 1947.
Robinson's anger contrasted with the calm of catcher Roy Campanella, who joined the Dodgers in 1948. Campanella thought the mercurial Robinson was a bit of a troublemaker; Robinson thought the catcher was subservient.
Robinson led National League second basemen in double plays from 1949-52.
He stole home 20 times in his career, 19 in the regular season and once in the 1955 World Series.
Robinson believed that when Branch Rickey broke down the color barrier in baseball, he "did more for the Negroes than any white man since Abraham Lincoln."
In 1960, Robinson was criticized for supporting Richard Nixon for president over the Democrats' liberal candidate, John Kennedy. After Nixon's defeat, the candidate sent Robinson an engraved plaque in appreciation. Robinson, a VP at Chock Full o' Nuts, sent Nixon 24 pounds of his firm's coffee. Robinson's relationship with Nixon later soured and Jackie campaigned for Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in 1968.
In 1964, he endorsed Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican presidential candidacy; Barry Goldwater got the nod.
In the sixties, Robinson had a running controversy with Malcolm X, who thought Robinson wasn't militant enough.
Late in his life, Robinson said, "When I quit [baseball], I went into the NAACP, and the conservatives found me hard to take. They were men of 80. Their attitude was don't rock the boat. Today militants find me hard to take. Their attitude is burn everything. But I haven't changed much. The times have changed around me."
Robinson married his wife Rachel on Feb. 10, 1946. They had three children. Their oldest, Jackie Jr., a recovering drug addict, died at 24 in an auto accident in 1971.
Before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, Robinson was honored by baseball. In a brief speech, Robinson, nine days before he died, chided the sport for not having a black manager.
In 1997, Major League Baseball announced it would retire No. 42 on all teams.