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How Jackie Robinson Changed Baseball — and America — Forever

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson trotted onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and took his place at first base, becoming the first Black man to play Major League Baseball (or at least to do so openly at the time). But Robinson’s historic debut did more than break the game’s color barrier: It changed America.

For decades, the baseball diamond mirrored most other American institutions — it was segregated by race. Major League Baseball was the province of white players, with Black athletes then relegated to the Negro Leagues.

It hadn’t always been this way. In the 1870s, a small number of Black men shared the field with white players. But that was short-lived. At the time, the Reconstruction era was ending, and the nation’s first Jim Crow laws legalizing segregation were being established. It wasn’t long before prominent white players began refusing to play with their Black counterparts.

One of those white players was the influential Cap Anson. Among the first men elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (and likely the first professional player to eclipse the 3,000-hit mark), Anson was widely respected across the league for his talent. Consequently, so were his off-field opinions.

For Black players, this was a problem. In 1883, Anson refused to play a game against the Toledo Blue Stockings because their catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker, was Black. He eventually relented, but swore he’d never play any game that involved a Black player again.

Other white players, and officials, followed Anson’s lead. In 1887, a group of teams agreed to stop hiring African Americans, prompting The Philadelphia Times to report that baseball’s “color line has been drawn.”

In 1889, Moses Fleetwood Walker took the field for the last time. An openly integrated professional baseball team wouldn’t return for almost six decades.

Baseball’s Early Attempts to Integrate

A single baseball on the grass
Credit: rocinante_11/ Unsplash

The agreement to bar Black ballplayers was never official. It was an unspoken agreement, a custom that was powerful but did not have the weight of law.

As the 20th century began, a handful of owners and managers tried to break this agreement. In 1916, the color barrier bent — but did not break — when a dark-skinned pitcher named Jimmy Claxton took the field for the Oakland Oaks. Claxton brought a notarized document declaring him Native American, although he was of mixed ancestry. He played only two games before he was outed as part Black and promptly kicked off the team.

By the 1930s, most owners had given up trying to integrate the sport, as had most Black players. African Americans found new opportunities in the flourishing Negro Leagues, which were popular with fans and offered modest salaries. Some Black ballplayers, such as Satchel Paige, avoided the United States altogether and found jobs playing baseball in the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

But the tides would change. In 1936, track and field star Jesse Owens stomped on Adolf Hitler’s “Superior Race” theory when he won four gold medals at the Olympic Games in Berlin. And starting in 1937, boxer Joe Louis began an impressive streak, winning 25 consecutive title fights.

The successes of Owens and Louis made millions of Americans conscious (whether they wanted to admit it or not) that African Americans were clearly not inferior. Progressive baseball owners began to realize that if the nation was ever going to integrate, the first institution to truly change would likely be the world of sports.

One of those owners was Bill Veeck. An eccentric businessman famous for his publicity stunts, Veeck knew that players in the Negro Leagues were just as talented as — if not more talented than — many of the white players in the majors. He was frustrated to watch pools of talent go to waste because of skin color. Legend has it that, in 1943, Veeck made plans to integrate baseball once and for all: He would buy the Philadelphia Phillies and stock the club full of stars from the Negro Leagues.

There was just one roadblock: The deal would have to gain approval from professional baseball’s first commissioner, a man named Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Landis stood against integration. He believed that integrating Major League Baseball would raise the hackles of his generation's Cap Ansons. The disruptions could alienate fans who, Landis believed, were already frowning at rumors of race-mixing. Landis also worried that integration would cause the Negro Leagues to disintegrate. At the time, most Black clubs paid healthy sums to rent major league playing fields. If the Negro Leagues indeed collapsed, it would cause owners a huge loss of income.

In other words, Landis believed it was in MLB’s economic interests to keep Black and white players separated. He torpedoed Veeck’s idea.

Finally Breaking the Baseball Color Barrier

Jackie Robinson warming up to swing at bat
Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images

In 1944, Landis died just a few days after being elected to a new term. Soon, a handful of forward-thinking owners — spurred by protests from civil rights activists and Black journalists — began scheming up ways to bring Black and white players together.

One of them was Branch Rickey. The owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey believed that segregation in baseball was due to end at any moment — as long as the right player came along.

Rickey was an innovator. He helped establish baseball’s farm system — minor league teams in which players train and move up through the ranks before joining the major leagues — and was a pioneer in the use of batting cages and pitching machines. He was also devoted to social justice. When he was a coach for Ohio Wesleyan University in the early 1900s, his team’s only Black player had been refused a hotel room because of his skin color. The experience stuck with Rickey for the rest of his life.

Starting around 1945, Rickey began scouting the Negro Leagues for players who might make the leap to the majors. But Rickey wasn’t just looking for an excellent ballplayer; he was scouting a man of character. He knew the first Black player would face a significant backlash from teammates, opposing players, and fans. He also knew that if this player retaliated, it could set back the cause of integration.

In 1945, his scouts found Jackie Robinson playing in the Negro Leagues for the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson was an impressive player. He had a sprinter’s legs, a talent for stealing bases, and the ability to bunt for base hits. He also had nerves of steel.

Rickey set out to test Robinson’s mettle both on and off the field. When the two met for the first time, Rickey challenged Robinson with a slew of racist epithets to see how the young ballplayer would react. Robinson stayed cool. In 1946, Rickey hired Robinson to a minor league contract with the AAA Montreal Royals (one of the Dodgers’ farm teams). That year, Robinson led the league in hitting and fielding percentage and was elected league MVP.

The following year, Jackie Robinson appeared on the Brooklyn Dodgers' opening day roster. It was the first time in more than nearly six decades that an openly Black man played Major League Baseball.

Jackie Robinson’s Success and Influence

Jackie Robinson signing a contract with his baseball team
Credit: Bettmann/ Getty Images

Any fears that a Black ballplayer would dampen interest in the game proved unfounded. Despite encountering racist abuse everywhere he went, Robinson quickly became one of the most popular players in the league. A handful of other intrepid Black players soon followed his lead. In 1947, Bill Veeck hired future Hall-of-Famer Larry Doby to play for the Cleveland Indians. Other African Americans, such as Hank Thompson, Willard Brown, and Dan Bankhead, also joined the majors that year.

But Jackie Robinson stood out — not just because he broke the color barrier, but because he was extraordinarily good. Robinson recorded 175 hits and ended the season with a batting average of .297. He won the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award and helped his team reach the World Series. Two years later, he won the National League’s MVP Award.

Decades afterward, Jackie Robinson became the first Black player inaugurated into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal, two of the country’s highest honors awarded to civilians. And in 1997, his jersey number of 42 was retired by every baseball team in the league.

By the end of his life, it was clear that Jackie Robinson had done more than open the door for Black athletes — he had opened doors for African Americans throughout the nation.

For millions of Americans, baseball had deeply symbolic value. It was the country’s pastime, an emblem of patriotism. And it was one of the first visible institutions to be integrated in the U.S. Robinson’s success changed countless hearts and minds, as his unique combination of talent and poise raised the consciousness of white Americans.

Indeed, after Jackie Robinson appeared in a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, the dominoes began to fall. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order calling for the U.S. military to be desegregated. By 1950, pianist and jazz singer Hazel Scott became the first Black American with her own network TV show. And in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that public schools must be integrated.

Jackie Robinson didn’t single-handedly integrate these institutions, of course. But his courage as baseball’s first Black player had a profound influence on American attitudes. For the rest of his life, he would continue to use his celebrity status to advocate for social justice, lobbying for civil rights and even joining the board of the NAACP.

As Robinson put it, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”  



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