Tuesday, April 15, 1947.
Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers baseball franchise.
Which was located in the Flatbush section of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, New York.
The 35th opening day in that stadium for the team that was so beloved by the three million people who called Brooklyn home was an especially special one, as it was the most important day in the history of American sports for this reason:
An athletic and muscular 28-year old African American man who was honorably discharged from the army three years before after it was found that he was within his rights for refusing to get in the back of a bus in Fort Hood, TX,
And who was an all-American running back and kick returner for UCLA’s football team as well as an all-conference basketball player and a record setter in track for the Bruins,
Stepped onto the Ebbets Field diamond wearing the cream-colored uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the number 42 affixed on his back.
Took his position at first base.
And made history as the first black player to appear in a Major League Baseball game since Moses Fleetwood Walker played for Toledo 60 years before, breaking a “Gentleman’s Agreement” among the big league owners to never hire an African American for any of the 16 MLB teams, no matter how talented they were.
Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ president and general manager, never liked that “agreement” and was determined to do something about it, signing the Pasadena, CA-raised Robinson to a contract in October of 1945.
After starring for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers’ top farm club, in 1946, and leading them to a Minor League World Series title, then batting .625 in a series against the parent Dodgers the following spring, Jackie Robinson was determined by Rickey to be more than ready for “The Show”, and officially called him up on April 9.
His first day as a major leaguer was not exactly the stuff that legendary fairy tales were made of as 26,623 fans, filling two-thirds of Ebbets Field’s capacity of 35,000 seats with more than half of that crowd being black, saw Robinson fail to get a hit in his three official times at bat against the Boston Braves’ Johnny Sain.
He did manage to get on base once due to a Braves’ error, and scored the winning run the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory that afternoon.
But the real victory was both just beginning and something that had to be earned as with the other 15 MLB owners being fervently against having any black man be among the 400 major leaguers, in addition to 60% of those wearing big league uniforms hailing from the South…
Jackie went through trials and hardships that no one would wish on their worst enemy today, such as enduring vile and bigoted taunting from the other National League teams, notably the Philadelphia Phillies and their manager, Ben Chapman, during the first month of that season.
Which almost drove him to break his pledge to Rickey that for his first three years, he had to turn the other cheek and not retaliate against any taunts, bean balls, or any other racist actions that anyone put upon him.
Being that his personality wasn’t that of a passive stoic as he was known for having an extremely hot temper and fighting anyone at the drop of a hat, that was by far the most difficult thing for Jackie to endure as he was intentionally spiked on numerous occasions, led the league in hit by pitches, and had thousands of death threats and other threatening letters sent to him.
Not to mention having many of his own teammates not wanting him as a teammate due to the color of his skin; several players tried to draft a petition during spring training saying that they would rather be traded, but Rickey and then-manager Leo Durocher quickly put a stop to that.
And having the St. Louis Cardinals planning to go on strike on May 6 of that year, the day of their first game with the Dodgers, before being threatened with suspension by the league.
Despite all of that, Jackie not only survived, he thrived as he batted .297, led the team in home runs, and led the league in stolen bases, winning the first Rookie of the Year award – which is now named after him – for his efforts.
It all started 67 years ago today (as of this writing).
To commemorate that great occasion, Major League Baseball decreed that every April 15 would be “Jackie Robinson Day”, with all 750 big leaguers wearing the number 42 on the backs of their jerseys.
Which in turn was officially retired by all MLB teams on the 50th anniversary of the breaking of the color line in 1997, the recently retired New York Yankees star relief pitcher Mariano Rivera being the last player to wear that number.
Personally, I think that the number 42 should be retired by every person that plays baseball and softball, from five-year olds playing Tee Ball through Little League through the high school, college, and minor league ranks – all over the world in places where baseball and softball are highly regarded like Japan, Korea, Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic as well as the United States.
I truly feel that Jackie Robinson is such a special human being, he is owed that much.
Bob Costas put it best in an interview he did a few years ago:
“Were there better players? Sure. But were there better men? No.”